This past spring, Houghton Library collaborated with the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst and the North Bennet Street School in Boston to create exact reproductions of the writing desk and bureau originally in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in the Homestead. Since 1950, the two iconic pieces have been part of the Emily Dickinson Collection at the Library, the gift of Gilbert Montague, Class of 1901.
As part of the project, the Library asked Sean Fisher of Robert Mussey Associates furniture conservation to do detailed condition reports on the two pieces. We suspected that the finishes were later than Dickinson’s lifetime; and there were some minor condition problems with the bureau. This would be an opportunity to learn more about the furniture.
Removing the drawer pull on the writing desk revealed it had a stamped back-plate. While these were being produced as early as 1800, the very regular machine-cut threads on the ring pull were not consistent with early hardware. Joan Parcher in Providence, RI, an expert on historic hardware, believes the pull was manufactured in the first quarter of the 20th century. A few faint marks just above the hole for the pull may have been left from the original pull. Fisher also confirmed that the finish of the piece was not right for the period; this, and the lack of evidence of rubbing or scratches pointed to refinishing. All this suggests that the writing desk was refurbished at some point following the poet’s death and before it arrived at Houghton.
Likewise with the ca. 1810 Federal-style four-drawer bureau. The Chippendale-style hardware was wrong for the period. Removing a keyhole escutcheon revealed a clear imprint of an earlier oval-shaped escutcheon, and the original pin-holes from the earlier hardware. Further, the Chippendale-style pull, when removed, showed it to have been stamped from thin brass, so definitely not an 18th-century manufacture. Analysis of the finish, once it was in the conservation studio, revealed that the bureau had been refinished twice.
To make the reproductions for the Emily Dickinson Museum, North Bennet Street School of fine craftsmanship instructors and students spent a day at Houghton making measurements, a somewhat nerve-wracking occasion for the curator, as it involved moving and upending both pieces.
Once the reproductions had been made at North Bennet Street School—NBSS student Boyd Allen created the writing stand, and NBSS student Caleb Schultz crafted the bureau—the Library sent the original desk and bureau to Robert Mussey’s studio for conservation. This allowed the craftsmen to put their reproductions next to the original pieces, a great help in ensuring the finishes matched as closely as possible. Here you can see the originals, and the “ghost” reproductions before finishing.
The desk and bureau were missing from the Dickinson Room for three weeks in April and May. This caused disappointment to some Houghton visitors, including British director Terence Davies, who is working on “A Quiet Passion,” a biographical film about Dickinson, who visited the Dickinson Room when the pieces were out.
More information on the bedroom restoration project at the Emily Dickinson Museum can be found here.