It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut. I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about. I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors. In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.
It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield. Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails. Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.
The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates. Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces. The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.
The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held. Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies. The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.
When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home. The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire. I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.
In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world. While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.