A couple weeks ago, Mike Updegraff and I had a Mortise & Tenon booth at the Fine Woodworking Live event. During that weekend, attendees asked how long my Jonathan Fisher book project had been under way. Someone said they hadn’t heard much about it and so, when I recently started talking about it, it seemed out of the blue. I used to write about it on my old blog, The Workbench Diary, but because I’ve been buried in work the past couple years, I didn’t have time to blog much about the research.
So here’s a quick history of this project: I began the research in 2013 with a trip to a local house museum (Fisher’s house). The president of the board gave me a tour that highlighted the furniture as it was my main interest. He told me Fisher’s most recent biographer commented that it astonished him no furniture scholar had taken notice of the collection. That confirmed my sense that this was an important and rare story.
Over that winter, I photocopied the transcription of Fisher’s 40 years of journal entries and read every book that gave Fisher a passing mention. I studied the furniture thoroughly but hadn’t been able to see the rest of the tools at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine. I had no idea what was there or even if there was anything significant. After months of research in the house, the board president made some passing comment about how one of Fisher’s descendants was a tool maker in Maine. My ears perked up. “A tool maker? Where in Maine?” “Oh I don’t know. Warren, I think. He’s got a lot of people working for him now, and I understand he’s doing pretty well. Nielsen or something… Lie-Nielsen, I think.”
Go figure. Thomas Lie-Nielsen is a descendant of Jonathan Fisher.
That first email to Tom was surreal. Tom replied he hadn’t been to the house in years and didn’t know much about Fisher’s furniture or tool making. He was intrigued by the findings, though. At the same time, the Lie-Nielsen Open House was coming up and Chris Schwarz and I had discussed visiting the Hulls Cove Tool Barn together. With these plans converging at the same time, we booked a visit to the Farnsworth to see the tools for the first time. I met Tom and his daughter, Kirsten, Chris, Deneb Puchalski, and Julia Kalthoff (from Wetterlings Axes) that morning.
We met for the first time in the waiting area, and as we walked down the hallway to the room where the tools were set out, I had a knot in my stomach. Was I wasting everyone’s time? What if there was only a broken saw or farming tools? I had no idea what to expect.
We walked into the room to see two large conference tables covered in woodworking tools – most of them stamped with Fisher’s name. I was stunned. We walked around the table trying to soak it all in. Most of the museum tags said “Wooden Object” with an accession number. Until the woodworking nerds showed up, no one there knew exactly what they were looking at. We spent about an hour making observations and speculating about anomalies but the whole thing was a surreal blur to me.
The next day, the same crew drove to Blue Hill to meet me at the Fisher house. I gave them the tour and showed them the furniture. After the tour, most of them had to get back to Warren to get ready for the Open House, but Chris and I spent that afternoon together. On our way to the Tool Barn we talked about many things but especially this research. I told him I was hoping to put this into a book someday and asked some advice about the publishing industry. He began to explain the industry but then just came out with, “John and I would like to publish it.” What do you say to something like that? I probably fumbled and said something stupid but I knew at that moment that the project was real. Over the next few days, Chris blogged a few times about his visit and we signed a contract. “How long do you need?” he asked. I told him I needed three full winters.
Thus began the serious research. Because I had wanted to do some research trips, I received two grants to make them happen. The Early American Industries Association and the Society of American Period Furniture Makers each generously awarded me funds for those trips. I went to the Winterthur Museum and spent a week with Charles Hummel (author of “With Hammer in Hand”), a couple days at Old Sturbridge Village, and had several trips back to the Farnsworth to examine the tools. I also had some research done at the Dedham Historical Society.
Then, as I worked on the manuscript during the next couple years, the blogging fell quiet about the topic. There was enough to blog about with M&T, but I was still working on the Fisher book in the background. It wasn’t until this past winter that I was able to block out several months to finish the manuscript. As you may have noticed, during this winter, the research began to resurface.
I am now in the last few hours of working out the changes in my manuscript. I feel relief coming on. This will end up being a four-year project for me. Don Williams told me in the beginning that it would take me somewhere around five years to complete. At the time, I couldn’t fathom it could take that long. But time flies.
— Joshua Klein, Mortise & Tenon Magazine
9 thoughts on “Four Years with Fisher”
I think he was also a Congregational clergy person and one of the founders of the now defunct Bangor Theological Seminary.
Yep. He was.
Over the years I have heard countless comments from laymen (non-experts in a field of study) remark “this object ought to be in a museum so everyone could see it and enjoy it”. I have also heard “ground breaking discovery found in museum!”. It seems as though the curators of museums are only interested in accumulating things but have no real interest in the things they are hired to accumulate and preserve. How is it possible for a museum of a furniture maker, whose sole interest is in preserving the legacy of a furniture maker 1. not have the tools in the collection on display and 2. not have the tools classified with their proper names? How hard would it have been for the curator/president of the board get someone in and classify them? Why weren’t they on display?
What is it about museums that they seem to want to accumulate masses of objects and then squirrel them away in warehouses and store rooms where no one but specially qualified researchers have an opportunity to view them? Seems like they ignore the wishes of the people giving them the objects when they said “this ought to be in a museum so EVERYONE could see them”.
This whole project could have crashed and burned if Mr. Klein had first asked the president of the board “Do you have any tools of Mr. Fisher?” and the curator had looked in his catalog and replied “No, nothing here but a bunch of ‘wooden objects'”. End of discussion, end of research, amazing discovery postponed for another 50 years. Am I missing something?
I would imagine that for a museum, money is hard to come by and the first order of business would be preservation ahead of identification. They basically luck out here in that experts came and identified everything for free. If they had to pay an expert, then it could easily be something that is hard to budget. I am just theorizing. I’m a scientist and it is easy to get more data than you have time (or scope) to analyze, so I can imagine how and why a museum could have the same problem.
Al, yes. You are missing a complicated back story. The Farnsworth is not Fisher’s house but only the institution who owns the collection (among many other things). Gilgaron is right about resources. They care much a lot about the Fisher objects and I am grateful that they were willing to take them in rather than let them continue to languish in a barn. There are only so many dollars, so much exhibition space, and so much expertise available. It is amazing that this collection has been preserved. It’s also great that they came to the attention of furniture geeks like us. I understand your concern for community access but limitations are real. They are doing a great job with what resources they have.
The story of Jonathan Fisher gets more and more intriguing with each mention. I’ve no doubt the book will be fantastic, and I look forward to placing my order.
I’m really looking forward to this book Joshua and yes, tempus fugit.
I can honestly say I am looking forward to this book. I’ve been slack in supporting LAP, but I am going to get this…
Having worked in a couple of museums, as much as I can talk to “all museums” I would say all professional museums do care a great deal about their collections. For the curators, the ones responsible for the collections, preservation/conservation is the first priority, making sure these objects don’t disappear. Second is understanding the core objects in the collection, the main focus of the museum. Third is managing that part of the collection (acquisitions, de-acquisitions, donors, education). Fund raising is part of all three (no museum ever has said “We have enough money, let’s focus on the scholarship”). Fourth is a deeper understanding of what you might call the peripheral objects in the collection. These are the objects that may relate to, but are not an integral part of the core collection. If you’re a furniture museum, then the furniture is paramount. The tools in your collection are valuable and worthy of investigation, but will not be part of your core mission. Those get attention as time/money/need dictate.
Some museums do seem more towards the “hoarding” end of the spectrum, without really focusing on the scholarship, or just focused on what the curator already knows. But professional museums area always trying to expand the scholarship of their collections, but there’s never enough time to explore everything in any level of details. Small museums sometimes have the toughest job as often their collections, if not manically focused on just one thing, cover a huge range of stuff and only one or two people to do and know everything.
Generally, people get into museum work because they love the objects and love constantly learning more and more about them. But, the variety is often overwhelming for someone to know everything about everything. As an example, I did my museum practicum in an anthropology and folklore museum at a university. Our collection ranged from Inuit clothing, to Tibetan religious masks, to Victorian parlor rugs to African instruments, and on and on. The Curators had a specialty, but they also had a plan and each year they would mount exhibitions that would also be an opportunity to learn and record more about different parts of the collection. There’s no way someone, or even an institution, could have extensive knowledge of that wide of a collection. The only plan you can have is to fill in information over time. That’s where people like Josh come in, by pointing out the significance of something in your collection, it shines a light and now more information and understanding can be applied to these objects.
Good job, Josh. I too greatly look forward to this book.
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