In Conversation

Charting Boston’s rise with art historian Ned Cooke

Ned Cooke
Ned Cooke

Art historian Edward “Ned” Cooke Jr. was a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston when a newly acquired high chest of drawers grabbed his attention.

It was unclear whether the piece of furniture, which dates to the early 18th century, was produced in England or locally.

Neither side wanted to own it,” he said. A pollen analysis showed that grasses embedded in the chest came from the Boston area, settling the question. The uncertainty inspired Cooke to study Boston’s development in the late 1600s and early 1700s — a period when the city was the third-largest port in the British Empire behind London and Bristol. Its sea captains were engaged in trade throughout the Atlantic world. Its artisans drew on varied influences and imported raw materials, combining them with local materials and preferences.  

Cooke expanded his research from high chests and wood furnishings to objects made from other media, such as brick, slate, textiles, ceramics, and silver. He poured years of research into a book, “Inventing Boston: Design, Production, and Consumption, 1680–1720,” published earlier this year by Yale University Press. It draws on objects to explain and contextualize how Boston’s residents created a distinctive local culture while forging a unique place within the empire.

Cooke, the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of the History of Art at Yale, recently spoke with YaleNews about the book. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.   

How did the idea for this book take shape?

I was inspired by the idea of knitting together different ways of conceiving colonial America, both from the colonial perspective and the imperial perspective. Each perspective drew on a particular body of evidence, but somehow the conversation had never been merged. I want people to consider the notion of connected worlds and negotiated cultures. Even Boston, the most homogeneous settlement in the American colonies — the most white and English — had something distinctive about it.

Boston took advantage of its situation in the British-Atlantic world but it also made its own case. It traded directly with the wine islands off of Portugal — places like Madeira — exporting fish there. They were working independently in the Caribbean away from the scrutiny of the British agents. They were very much involved in privateering, particularly the capturing of Spanish vessels.

They were in the empire but not totally of it. It’s that creation of this hybrid culture 3,000 miles away from the mother country that interests me. I wanted to explore how it drew from other areas, such as the Caribbean, Iberian Peninsula, Netherlands, New York, etc.   

You use the term “hybridity” to characterize the development of Boston’s material culture. How does this term capture what was happening in Boston at the turn of the 18th century?

I wanted to get away from this pure sense of a stylistic transition from England to a colonial periphery. It is so easy to think of it in a very hierarchical sense, as if the colonists were just these passive consumers at the mercy of England’s trade networks. Hybridity gets at the notion that you can consciously create something that is not just a synthesis, but represents the selection and influences of a variety of styles while existing within the empire. It allows you to have the appearance of belonging to the empire while you’re actually becoming something different.

Hybridity allows you to discuss the contributions of British officials and the local elite alongside those of the merchants and ship captains. By studying objects, you also can get a sense of the artisans who don’t otherwise appear in the record. Some were recent immigrants and all of them were looking around and developing things — furniture, buildings, ceramics, silver — that became distinctly Bostonian. Studying the hybridity draws connections among a lot of different social classes and perspectives.

Is there an object you studied that embodies the hybridity infusing Boston’s material culture?

The introduction of the book features a large, two-handle silver bowl made by Boston silversmith Jeremiah Dummer. It is based on a Portuguese bowl with two handles and a lobed rim. It is slightly larger than some Portuguese examples. It demonstrates the contact that existed between Boston merchants and the Iberian Peninsula. It is decorated with a floral pattern that belongs to a Dutch decorative tradition. The silver is sourced from around the Caribbean. It becomes raw material for a silversmith who fabricates a Portuguese-inspired bowl for a local merchant of English descent. In that way, this single object connects Boston, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Caribbean, and England.

two-handle silver bowl made by Boston silversmith Jeremiah Dummer
A bowl by Boston silversmith Jeremiah Dummer

How did Boston silversmiths obtain silver from the Caribbean?

The source of silver is interesting. There were no local silver deposits around Boston. Its use as specie, or money, was challenging in the city at this time. There was a lot of silver coming through the Caribbean from mines in Peru and Mexico. Spanish galleons transported pieces of eight and ingots across the Atlantic. A lot of these treasure ships were shipwrecked in storms or intercepted by privateers. Boston sea captain William Phips discovered a Spanish wreck off the coast of Hispaniola in 1687 and salvaged 32 tons of silver ingots and many bags of pieces of eight. Phips actually sailed this treasure to England where he exchanged it for £300,000 sterling, of which he drew a share of £16,000. But Spanish ships sank with enough frequency that there was a steady supply of silver coming into Boston, and it was considered more valuable as raw material for producing goods than as specie.

What was London’s influence on Boston?

Massachusetts was originally a charter company established as an economic venture. The charter allowed a certain amount of autonomy. London officials basically nulled it because they were worried about the independence of the colonies. They implemented various acts that established more royal authority, such as the Navigation Acts restricting trade, attempting to establish parameters on the colony. The Bostonians compromised through the establishment of a new charter that provided additional royal authority, but not as much as in Virginia, with some local authority.

People constantly looked to London. You see people increasingly in the 1710s referencing new fashion from London, so they are looking there for certain styles and goods, but they are not blindly obedient and copying it all.

A lot of innovation during the period had to do with Boston repositioning itself within its new charter within the British Empire. The Boston merchants and ship captains had to constantly innovate. It was not a stable economy and there was no staple crop to rely on. They had to hustle. At the same time, London was focusing on Boston as the empire’s center in the New World. The book includes a 1695 map of Britain’s American colonies published by Robert Morden. It features a highly detailed inset map of Boston harbor, demonstrating its prominence as a commercial port.

What distinguished Boston from other colonial settlements?

There were a couple of key differences. One is that it wasn’t a staple crop economy. Virginia was driven by tobacco. Barbados was driven by sugar. In both those places, people weren’t clustered around a port. The interest was much more in the intensive cultivation of a specific crop. While lacking a natural plantation-style economy, Boston had vast supplies of wood and fish. Those were the two commodities that were in demand in England and in places with plantation economies.

Inventing Boston book jacket

In addition to being a port, Boston had a hinterland — an area settled by British yeoman who engaged in mixed agriculture. They could provide produce but were also consumers of products coming through the port. Through this coherent system, Boston became the third largest port in the British Empire. It only lost its prominence as other areas began to develop. New York City grew as a port. Philadelphia became a breadbasket. The people in Boston’s hinterlands began to turn to different places for goods.

History often focuses on elites. How did you illuminate the stories of artisans and the lower class?

You get at it in different ways. One is archaeological: The Big Dig in Boston, which was a massive project to bury the expressway underneath the city, necessitated a lot of archaeological work over 20 years. A couple of those sites proved very fruitful for uncovering materials that, while perhaps not lower class, do not survive from elite families. The other way I tried to recover the voice of the non-elite was through understanding who the makers were and trying to track them. How did they divide the work? Which were immigrants and which were locals? One of the great ironies of the project is that while the tastemakers were people in the upper class, the folks perhaps most exposed to the popular fashions of other places were the seamen and ship captains who were regularly traveling to the Caribbean, the Portuguese wine islands, and England. They saw much more than most of the elite. You begin to wonder what they added to the story.

What drove the development of Boston’s built environment?

Boston built itself around the port. It was about creating shipyards and structures that supported the port.  People making pewter and furniture, and other artisans, set up along the harbor. The development of Long Wharf in 1711 — a pier that stretched a half-mile into the harbor — allowed larger ships to use the port, loading and unloading cargo. At that point, you begin to see an increase in brick structures, not just to provide nice houses for the wealthy but also rows of houses and buildings that combined shops and living spaces. The city’s center was being developed at this point.

Boston had suffered a series of fires in the 17th century, devastating the population and the economy. That motivated people to build with brick, which is more fire resistant than wood. Bricks were produced with clay that was transported down the Mystic River to the city. Craftspeople began to collaborate on the construction of buildings — joiners, bricklayers, and masons started teaming up and using their sweat equity to build up properties for rental or sale.

The chapter on wood describes the development of the oval table in Boston homes. What was the significance of that style of furniture?

There is the formalization of socialization during the period. It can be exclusionary, involving a set of people who aren’t going to the tavern to be amongst mixed company. Homes developed spaces to retire for the evening with friends or family. Having an oval table facilitated conversation. You are sitting face to face. Some tables were just boards set up on trestles. They were called trestle tables. They were multi-purpose, utilitarian items that were used as work surfaces and could be folded up and put to the side. A gate-leg oval table implies that a certain level of polite behavior is happening around it.

To me, one of the connections was in thinking about what accompanies an oval table and a set of chairs. I drew a connection to ceramics and thinking about imported tin-glaze earthenware that began coming in from Portugal at this point. It is not simply coarse earthenware but it evokes Chinese porcelain, which was also widely sought after. The tin-glaze earthenware being produced in Portugal and the Netherlands and ultimately England become available to Bostonians, who started to use it as their tableware. I also drew a connection between the tables and the use of textiles for napkins and tablecloths.

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