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Like textiles and textile production tools, traditional, locally made furniture is well represented in Valley museum and private collections. In their form and construction, these pieces of furniture show a remarkable resiliency through time and stand as important products of the Valleyís household-based economy. Churchill and McDonald studied the furniture of the Valley for an exhibit at the Maine State Museum, and much of the following is from their work (1988).

This tall cupboard (ca. 1840-60) is a masterpiece of joined construction produced within the Valley's traditional artifactual vocabulary. To add interest and effect, the maker used applied moldings to create several recesses and designed the upper doors to be slightly smaller than the lower doors, giving the sense of the piece's narrowing and lightness.Throughout the 19th century, Maine Acadians created traditional furniture using hand tools. Construction relied on basic frame-and-panel joinery techniques brought to French Canada and Acadia from 17th-century France. These methods were subsequently employed by migrants to the Valley, where joined furniture construction persisted far later than in neighboring New England and much of Canada where traditional methods had been replaced by later cabinet-making techniques.

The traditions brought to the Valley in the late 18th century were maintained within the province of the household until the early decades of the 20th century. As with textile production, techniques and tools for making furniture were transferred from generation to generation.

With its chamfered legs, mortise-and-tenon frame, and plank seat, this painted side chair (ca. 1860-1890) typifies traditional Valley chairs.Side chairs with plank seats, squared legs and posts, and through-mortised back slats are the most frequently encountered type of traditional furniture in Valley collections. Always painted and sometimes featuring chamfered legs and posts, these chairs exhibit a remarkable stylistic similarity. Long benches represent another traditional form of seating and, along with chairs and large tables, they accommodated the Valleyís large families very well. Blanche Collin of St. Agathe recalls that when her family gathered for meals during her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, her father was seated at the head of the table, the younger children were seated on benches placed along one side and one end, and her mother and the older children were on chairs along the other side. When Mrs. Collin later had her own family, she had benches made and used the same seating pattern in her home.

Some traditional Valley furniture, such as tables, chairs, benches, and chests, filled very practical purposes. They show largely straightforward construction techniques and stylistic uniformity, as well as evidence of wear and replacement of worn parts. Other types of furniture reflect more complex influences not seen in the more utilitarian furniture. Armoires, for example, with their boldly shaped cornices and raised panels, are similar to pieces in French Canada. Moreover, some of these same pieces bear hallmarks of Acadian furniture in Louisiana, as observed by Brassieur (1992):

Ray Morin of St. David shows how a barrel is assembled.  American Folklife Center photograph by David Whitman, 1991.

  • raised-panel doors with the beveled (raised) side of the panel facing inside, and a smooth-planed or sawn surface facing outside of the door;
  • raised-panel doors joined by through-cut mortise and tenons, with tenons often held in place by two wooden pegs per joint;
  • predominance of short pieces such as armoires, armoirettes, chests of drawers, garde-manger, and buffets;
  • simple curved trim between the feet of the piece;
  • painted surfaces, often red, called gros rouge in Louisiana and sang de boeuf in the Upper St. John Valley;
  • use of local softwoodsócypress and pine in Louisiana, pine and cedar in the Upper St. John Valleyórarely in combination with hardwoods;
  • older drawers or chests joined with small, widely spaced, hand-cut dovetails, many of which have been tightened by the addition of thin wooden shims or wedges.

This collection of furnishings at the St. Agatha Historical
Society museum contains both handmade and commercially-manufactured
pieces of furniture.As the railroad and mail-order catalogs brought more influences to the St. John Valley in the early 1900s, traditional furniture continued its evolution. However, instead of exhibiting a shift in style, traditional furniture gradually disappeared as it was replaced by manufactured furnishings.

By 1940, for example, most of the furniture in the Fred Albert house in St. David parish had been manufactured outside the Valley. But the kitchen and dining room still had handmade tables and two traditional rocking chairs. In other households, newlyweds received handmade pieces with which to set up housekeeping, but only kept those pieces until they could afford manufactured substitutes. Fire victims were also recipients of traditional furniture, as evidenced in the Donat Cyr home in Lille, Grand Isle, in 1938. All that was saved from the house after the fire was a back shed that contained several pieces of traditional furniture. When a new house was built, an old armoire was set in the kitchen, and several traditional beds were put back into use. In a few years, these pieces were replaced, the beds by manufactured items, the armoire by a refrigerator.

This handmade rocking chair originally belonged to Vital Hébert and his wife Léa Pelletier, who married at Ste-Luce Parish in Frenchville in 1876.Still, some local production of furniture, drawing both on traditional techniques and new influences from outside the Valley, occurred in the 20th century. Paradoxically, this type of locally produced furniture was not a traditional Valley form, but one introduced to the region in the late 1800s: the rocking chair. The rocking chair achieved rapid and widespread acceptance throughout the St. John Valley in the 20th century. People purchased them from commercial suppliers, traditional chairs were modified by adding rockers, or new rocking chairs were made locally.

In producing these new pieces, local makers often combined traditional and manufactured elements, or sometimes departed from both forms to produce their individual expressions. Rocking chair backs were particularly individualized. Despite these variations, virtually all Valley rockers examined in local collections share a common elementóon chair after chair, the frame, stretcher, and seat are wholly traditional in their form and construction.

The contrast between the backs and the bases of locally made rocking chairs shows the dynamics between stability and change in a local tradition. Manufactured furniture highlighted other possibilities for the design of rocking chairs, and the makers of the chairs responded by adopting or creating innovative backs for the rocking chairs that they made. When it came time to make the frame and seat, however, the basic construction was done with traditional techniques. Rocking chairs, then, may reflect not only changes in Acadian material culture, but also an overall shift in life patterns as Maine Acadian culture moved through the 20th century.

Ray Morin of St. David shows how a barrel is assembled.  American Folklife Center photograph by David Whitman, 1991.
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