Friday, April 26, 2013

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

In 1729, tragedy struck the old Hempsted House of New London, Connecticut.

Nathaniel Hempsted I – eldest son of Joshua II, builder of a brand-new addition to the family homestead, and father to two young children by a loving wife – died at the premature age of 29 years old. His vitality extinguished by an unknown disease, Nathaniel’s spirit surely continued to resonate from every inch of the newly whitewashed walls comprising his family’s recently updated home.

Not one year earlier, in 1728, Nathaniel had begun building onto the east wing of his father’s house, constructing a three-story addition for his young family. The “eighteenth-century addition,” as it is now known, provided Joshua’s eldest son with a first-floor parlor and kitchen, upstairs bedchamber and garret (Figure 1). The family, comprised of Nathaniel, wife Mary Hallam, and sons Joshua IV and Nathaniel II (a daughter, Mary, was born in 1729) must have reveled in their newfound sense of freedom, the addition allowing them to escape the cramped confines of the old Hempsted family wing.

Figure 1: An approximation of Hempsted House in 1729, from Delphina L. H. Clark,

“Joshua Hempsted and His House” (The Connecticut Antiquarian, June 1954)

The ground floor room of the new wing was built as a parlor and kitchen with a small adjoining bedchamber to the rear. These spaces provided the family with a greater sense of privacy, as they could cook, socialize and sleep separately from Joshua’s side of the house. When he died in 1729, Nathaniel’s rooms held the basic household possessions of a family of five: three tables, assorted chairs, two bedsteads, several trunks, clothing, linens, a few silver items (including a pepper box and eight spoons), and a range of objects for preparing and consuming food. [1] A fireplace and flue were already present in the room, and to this Nathaniel added a brick beehive bake oven for cooking. His fireplace was adorned with a simple wood Greek Revival breastwork and mantel, adding a degree of finery to the otherwise mundane chamber [2].  

Above his ground floor parlor and kitchen, Nathaniel added a bedchamber, accessed via the same stairway that led to his father Joshua’s room across the hall. This space was used for sleeping quarters and as a place to store provisions. Eighteenth-century bedchambers, as in the century before, were necessarily multipurpose spaces, used variously for sleeping, resting, washing, nursing, writing and eating. In this room, Nathaniel and his wife might have kept either a curtained or low-post bedstead, as the kitchen chamber below would have been nearly constantly full of smoke and the smells of cooking. Trundle beds and cribs for the children, in addition to an assortment of tables, chairs, chests and more would have filled the space.

Thus, the house that we see today tells the complex story of not just one, or two, or even three individuals; instead, it represents a multifaceted and multi-generational story of love, loss, and – ultimately – continuance.

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

Yale University, 2008), 290. 

[2] Frederic Palmer, “Hempsted House in New London” (The Connecticut Antiquarian, July 1958), 13.

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.

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