John and Thomas Seymour
A brief history
John in Axminster
John Seymour was born in Dorset, England in 1738. Early in
his career, he worked in nearby Axminster, Devon as an independent
artisan after completing a craft apprenticeship with a joiner.
Records suggest that for much of John’s early career
he did joinery, carpentry, and repair work for the Axminster
parish church and its overseers of the poor. He also made
furniture for a wealthy and important landowner near Axminster
– an association that contributed to his knowledge of
neoclassical style and fashion later expressed in Boston.
To the United
Although John’s training was
modest, he proved capable of high-quality work and grew frustrated
with the limited opportunities available to him in Axminster,
where the economic was grim and he was in direct competition
with high-style London cabinetmakers. In search of broader
horizons, John, his wife, and children immigrated to the United
States in 1784 when son Thomas, the fourth of six children,
was 13 years old.
After first settling in Portland,
Maine along with at least five families from Devon and Dorset,
the Seymour family relocated to Boston in 1793, arriving in
the thriving city at an opportune moment in history. By the
time of the Seymours’ move to Boston, Thomas was 22
years old and had acquired cabinet-making experience as his
father’s apprentice. In Boston, the changing social
landscape, new leisure activities, and growing wealth led
to the construction of larger houses and created demand for
higher quality furniture and new forms, such as sewing tables,
ladies’ desks, sideboards, and lap desks. Increased
prosperity and foreign trade also secured a consistent supply
of the exotic and rare woods and veneers, such as mahogany
and rosewood, prevalent in the Seymours’ designs.
For all its opportunities, Federal
Boston did not receive new English immigrants very warmly
in the 1790s, and the Seymours’ early years in Boston
were marked by economic hardship. Their 1800 tax valuation
referred to them as “poor – one room.” While
Boston cabinetmakers were still turning out simplified, provincial
versions of neoclassical designs, the Seymours’ ambitious
interpretations and fastidious craftsmanship stood out, but
with a price that few were willing to pay. Much of John and
Thomas’s work was simply too expensive for the market,
and as relative newcomers to Boston, the Seymours lacked access
to a wide circle of patrons who could afford the luxury of
their furniture. Further, except for using their label at
auction to build brand recognition, the Seymours did not advertise.
A reluctant marketer with a retiring personality, John let
the excellence of his furniture speak for itself, and building
a well-deserved reputation took time. Despite their lack of
early financial success, the John and Thomas’s first
decade in Boston laid the foundation for greater prosperity.
Between 1800 and 1804, Thomas’s
own style began to emerge, derived from his father’s,
but with added elegance and complexity. He employed other
skilled immigrant craftsmen, who contributed embellishments
that elite Bostonians could afford. In 1804, the tax valuation
of John and Thomas’s personal property rose to 800 dollars.
That year, at the age of 33, Thomas founded the Boston Furniture
Warehouse, a separate venture from his collaboration with
John. In fact, by this time, his 66-year-old father probably
worked for him. During this period, Thomas’s interpretations
used distinctive applied moldings to substitute for inlays,
and spectacular crotch mahogany veneers. He also introduced
new forms such as lyre-based tables and scrolled arm supports.
Thomas’s ability to create designs in varying styles
demonstrates his talent for incorporating his own formidable
skill with the diverse talents of other specialist artisans.
For Thomas, economic pressures stemming
in part from Jefferson’s 1807 embargo on American shipping
to and from England meant a sudden and dramatic downturn in
his business. By 1808, John Seymour was 70 years old and had
retired from his physically demanding craft. Six months after
his wife’s death in 1815, John entered the Boston almshouse,
where he died in August of 1818.
The outbreak of war with Great Britain
in 1812 led to anti-British sentiment in the U.S., and further
impeded Thomas’s ability to maintain a successful enterprise.
With a growing family to support – he and his wife eventually
had seven children – Thomas faced tremendous financial
pressures. In mid-1817 he gave up his own business in favor
of working as the foreman for an ambitious younger cabinet
maker. In 1824, Thomas reached the end of his career as a
cabinetmaker, and spent the next 23 years in relative obscurity,
dying at the age of 77 in Lunenburg, Massachusetts.
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