Friday, March 22, 2013

Nine Souls: The Joshua Hempsted House in the Eighteenth Century, Part 1

From 2007 to 2011, the typical American home averaged 2.6 persons per household and contained six rooms.[1] That works out to over two rooms per person.

In contrast, consider the Joshua Hempsted House in 1727, the year the enslaved Adam Jackson arrived as a young man: nine souls already shared the old home’s two chambers, garret, kitchen, and alcove room. These inhabitants included Joshua’s dying mother, four of his children, a daughter-in-law, and two small grandsons.[2] Even by eighteenth-century standards, the building was decidedly overcrowded. There was nowhere for Adam to sleep except high up in the third-floor garret, among the rafters and far from the fire.

A decision had been made a year earlier, in 1726, to build onto the old family home. Nathaniel Hempsted I (son of Joshua II) started construction in 1728, adding an updated wing with modern sash windows, and higher ceilings. For his young family, Nathaniel’s addition provided a ground-floor parlor and kitchen, upstairs chamber, and third-floor garret. Despite the expansion, Joshua II’s ground-floor hall, as in the time of his father before him, remained the primary locus of the home.

Here, most of the household activity occurred, the room serving as a social center, workshop, meetinghouse, place of business, courtroom, hospital, and hospice, reflective of Joshua’s important role in the community. It was simply furnished with a mix of older family pieces and newer additions, containing chairs, tables, and probably a tall-post curtained bedstead. Indicators of ongoing hand and craftwork abounded, including spinning wheels for women, and artisanal craftwork for men. As Joshua noted in his account of neighbor Samuel Fox’s home in 1727, a typical hall of the period might be furnished with twelve side chairs and one great chair, seven beds, wooden trenchers and dishes, communal salvers, and spinning wheels.[3] Joshua’s wife would have brought with her an assortment of movable goods considered necessary for establishing a household, such as bedding, kitchenware, and a chest laden with clothing and linens.

Before Nathaniel’s addition in 1728 (and indeed afterwards, as well) the hall was considered the family’s “best” room. As the eighteenth century progressed, New England families of both modest and middling incomes enjoyed greater access to imported items, filling their best rooms with goods from England and Holland. Ceramics, metals, glassware, and pictures appear with increasing frequency in period inventories. The Hempsteds of New London were not immune to such consumption, with Joshua recording in December 1743, for instance, that he had “brot home a New Pewter plate” (in addition to paying for three pewter plates to be refashioned out of six pounds of old pewter).[4]

Upstairs, the second-floor chamber was where Joshua slept, ate, worked, and wrote. Here he kept most of his personal possessions, including several treasures such as a pair of turtle-shell spectacles in a fish-skin case that once belonged to John Winthrop IV, and two silver spoons, one engraved “IAH”.[5] Near the window Joshua had a desk, where he stored important documents and penned his diary entries. It was at this desk that he wrote about his daily life, noting on a Saturday in October of 1727, for instance, that he spent the day at home, cutting stones and gathering corn as “2 boys workt in Nathanaels Room." [6]

In the next segment of this post, we'll move across the house to the addition built by Nathaniel in 1728:  dedicated one year before his tragic - and untimely - death.  

[1] U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts (, accessed March 21, 2013. 
[2] Allegra di Bonaventura, “This Little World: Family and Slavery in Old New England, 1678-1764” (PhD diss.,
Yale University, 2008), 5. 
[3]  Joshua Hempsted, Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut: Covering a Period of Forty-Seven Years from September, 1711 to November, 1758 (New London, CT: New London Historical Society, 1901), 187 (19-22 September 1727). 
[4]  Hempsted, 418 (3 December 1743). 
[5] di Bonaventura, 293. “IAH” probably stands for Joshua Hempsted I or II, the appearance of the letter “J” not being common until the nineteenth century. The use of the letter “I” for “J” probably derives from the standard of classical education common during the time period, which sought to use Latin whenever possible (the Latin for “J” being “I”). 
[6] Hempsted, 189 (5 October 1727).


Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

Photo: exterior of The Joshua Hempsted House, courtesy of Connecticut Landmarks

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Place to Call Home

Three-hundred and thirty-five years is a long time – especially for an historic structure.

But that is precisely how long the Joshua Hempsted House of New London, Connecticut has quietly stood on a grassy slope of land facing what was originally Bream Cove. Clad in a restored timber-frame skin with diamond-pane windows and a steep gable roof, the building now resembles itself in its adolescence, a late seventeenth-century medieval-style home representing several hundred years of history.

The family who built Hempsted House traces their lineage back even further, to the year 1645, when Robert Hempsted (ca. 1600–1654), an English √©migr√©, secured a 14-acre land grant for the present property. His son Joshua I (1649–1687) developed the land, constructing a permanent family dwelling on the plot just a few hundred yards from the center of town. Family ownership over the next 292 years saw the property evolve from farmland in the seventeenth century to a residential district in the eighteenth, with buildings added such as the 1759 stone “Huguenot” house on the front corner of the lot.

Despite the passage of time and drastic demographic and social changes, the wood frame structure of Joshua I remained at the heart of its New London neighborhood. When built in 1678, the house resembled an English medieval structure, its side gable roof, massive central chimney and counterpane casement windows constructed largely from local materials. The earliest iteration of the three-story building contained one room on each floor, including a dormered garret above and a stone cellar below.[1] The first floor featured a hall, used interchangeably for entertaining, cooking, eating and sleeping; above this was a chamber, used as a sleeping room and work space by the home’s eleven inhabitants.

By the eighteenth century the building held two family units – that of Joshua II (1678–1758), son of Joshua I, and his son, Nathaniel I (1700–1729) along with his family. Even by colonial standards the house was uncomfortably overcrowded, prompting Nathaniel to add an addition to the existing building in 1728. Nathaniel’s extension provided his young family with a first-floor parlor and kitchen, upstairs bedchamber and garret. Also added to the home sometime before 1711 was a kitchen lean-to.

The period 1711–1758 is the best documented era of the house’s history due to the now famous diary kept by Joshua II, which documents the mundane but edifying details of a colonial family’s life. The figure of Adam Jackson, who served as a slave at the house from the late 1720s until Joshua’s death in 1758, looms large in this chapter of the building’s history.

As Hempsted House grew into middle age in the nineteenth century, the narrative of the building and its inhabitants shifted. From a seat of manual labor – farming and carpentry being the primary occupations of previous antecedents – came a stronghold of enlightenment. The ninth generation of Hempsteds believed in education and civil liberties, running a school out of the wooden house from roughly 1817 to 1855. Additionally, the Hempsteds were active abolitionists, producing anti-slavery letters, petitions, and even an abolitionist newspaper in the mid-1800s.

By the twentieth century, however, Hempsted House – now nearing its 250th birthday – had lost some of its prominence in the community. The tenth generation and final family member to live in the home, Anna Hempsted Branch (1875–1937), was an author and poetess who strove to preserve her family homestead against impending winds of change. Upon her death in 1937, the building passed to the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, now known as Connecticut Landmarks. The house became the Society’s first property, and by the 1950s preservation was under way. The Joshua Hempsted House officially opened to the public in its new guise as an historic house museum on May 15, 1958.

In retrospect, 335 years is a lengthy and commendable span of time for any building to exist, especially considering the social, political and economic changes occurring in many American communities. The Joshua Hempsted House now faces a new chapter in its history: one of change, growth, and – potentially – rebirth.

What really matters now, therefore – is what happens next.

[1] Allegra di Bonaventura, “This Little World: Family and Slavery in Old New England, 1678-1764” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2008), 283.

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.