This is an excerpt from “Virtuoso: The Top Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley” by Donald C. Williams, photographs by Narayan Nayar.
Studley married Abbie Stetson of Washington Street in Quincy on Feb. 10, 1870. The details of their meeting and courtship are not known. He was 31 and she 25 at the time of their wedding, and their marriage lasted almost 50 years until her death in 1919.
The picture of prosperity for Studley’s family is unclear, but the same cannot be said of the Stetsons. Abbie’s father, David B. Stetson, was a prosperous merchant, with his fortune founded on a successful eponymous shoe factory in nearby Weymouth and at least one retail store in Quincy. He began as a very young man with a door-to-door shoe cart and eventually expanded every aspect of his enterprise to produce a stylish and sought-after line of footwear.
When David Stetson died 1894, his obituary asserts that “he had amassed a comfortable fortune.”*
The Stetson household was strongly anti-slavery; David Stetson was an original member of the Republican Party and devout in his regular attendance to the local Congregational church.
Apparently he instilled his four children with a sense of business and financial acumen that they practiced throughout their lives. At the time of his death, it was younger daughter, Ella, who managed the family business, considered to be one of the foremost shoe and boot purveyors in the Boston area. Brother Warren Stetson managed the shoe and boot manufactory, while brother Arthur Stetson was owner of a successful printing company specializing in artistic press-work. Abbie was by then married to Henry Studley, and was clearly an active partner in the couple’s growing real estate empire.
In short, both the Studley and Stetson families were diligent, hardworking, talented and successful clans. As their marriage began in 1870, Abbie was already accustomed to financial success through observing and working with her father.
We might think that the person who created this magnificent tool ensemble and the accompanying workbench was someone consumed by developing and honing this particular skill set to the exclusion of everything else and thus had no other outside interests. That Studley was committed to the practice of craftsmanship at the very highest level is beyond question, however, the intensity of his financial interests and activities outside the workshop were also fundamental parts of his life. The public record of the Studleys’ real estate transactions in particular is truly impressive. The fact that Henry was on the board of directors of a local bank for three decades certainly adds complexity to the tale and sparks a great deal of speculative reflection on the role of the tool cabinet in his life.
While we may be reduced to informed speculation about Henry Studley’s training, skills and woodworking accomplishments, we are not uninformed about what he and his wife were up to in their private finances, thanks to the tireless research of retired history professor John Cashman, who contributed greatly to the scope of this account. The Norfolk County Registry of Deeds records Abbie being a signatory to at least 342 real estate transactions during a roughly 25-year period. During the same period, Henry’s name appears as a signatory on at least another 80 transactions.
At first I wondered about this disparity in the public records, but when Cashman found the obituary noting Studley’s three decades of membership on the Quincy Cooperative Bank’s board of directors, an obvious conclusion to me was that his fiduciary responsibilities and regulatory restrictions curtailed his direct real estate investments as a matter of law. Further, as Cashman pointed out, Abbie’s aggressive real estate activities commenced soon after her father’s death, and perhaps with the infusion of liquid assets from his estate. In the model of a very modern power couple, Henry filled the “sitting on the board of the bank” role while Abbie did the buying and private lending.
Abbie’s will and probate records from 1919 paint a fascinating picture of her not as the wife of a prominent and superbly skilled craftsman, but rather almost as a partner in a real estate conglomerate. Even though her probate records state that she owned no real estate outright at the time of her death, the listing of assets being probated is noteworthy. Among them are almost 80 mortgages she held in her own name with a stated worth of $55,504.74. Not a huge fortune, but neither was it a paltry portfolio. Depending on which calculation model is used, Abbie’s estate would be worth between $750,000 to several million dollars in today’s economy (2014).
She and Henry had no children.
Sadly, the home where Studley lived his last 50 years is long gone, replaced by the new wing of the stone H.H. Richardson-designed Thomas Crane Public Library, but I have stood on the sidewalk where he walked for that half-century.
— Meghan Bates