Rufus Porter School of Folk Art

The artistic legacy of Moses Eaton, Jr. and his father reaches far and wide across New England. You may be acquainted with their wonderful folk art style of wall stenciling. The weeping willow (colonial symbol of long life) and the pineapple (colonial symbol of hospitality) are a couple of their well known motifs. However, these familiar motifs are but two of the many designs that we know to have been painted by the Eatons. The beauty of nature was surely their inspiration. Walls attributed to Moses Eaton Jr. are stenciled with colorful sprays of flowers, pine boughs, flowing vines, oak leaf clusters, flower baskets and more. He added hearts to certain designs to honor the love of a new bride and groom. His designs and motifs were big, bold and bright. They were lively and daring. His red and green motifs made a unique statement on walls of buff or those washed with raspberry, yellow or soft gray. This simple farmer with a flair for design and color left a lasting impression not only on the lives of the families whose homes he stenciled, but also on the history of decorative arts in New England.

Frequently in articles and publications about early American stenciling, any example of historic stenciling is referred to as “Moses Eaton” stenciling. Actually, the folk art designs and motifs created and used by Moses Eaton, Jr. and his father can be easily distinguished from the designs used by many other 19th century “folk” style stencilers. In addition, the Eaton’s preference for folk art design stands in stark contrast to the walls attributed to “border style” stencilers.



   

Moses Eaton, Sr., and Jr. were both well versed in the art and craft of wall stenciling. Moses Eaton, Sr. was born in Needham Massachusetts in 1753, and served in the Revolutionary War. It is believed that he practiced his craft of wall stenciling in Massachusetts before moving to the small New Hampshire town of Hancock. There he settled down on his farm and in 1796 celebrated the birth of his son, Moses Eaton, Jr. As a youngster growing up on his father’s farm in Hancock, Eaton, Jr. not only learned the ways of a successful farmer but also the art and craft of wall stenciling.

When Eaton was a teenager, he began to travel the country side with the stencil kit that is believed to have also belonged to his father. Eaton Jr.’s travels Down East took him to many small, rural towns in Maine including the towns of North Saco, Sebec, Sidney, Kennebunk, Falmouth, Waldoboro, East Vasselboro, Blue Hill, and Buckfield. In Moses Eaton Jr.’s home state of New Hampshire, we find walls attributed to him in Deerfield, Epping, Hillsboro, Temple, Hancock, and Bradford. He also beautified the walls of homes located in the central and eastern Massachusetts towns of Acton, Bolton, and West Newbury.

In his twenties, Eaton met up with Rufus Porter, the muralist and inventor extraordinaire, as he was passing through Eaton’s hometown of Hancock. The two became friends and they collaborated on a couple of projects. They decorated the walls at two locations in New Hampshire; the Hancock Inn in Hancock, and the Joshua Eaton House in Bradford. Eaton stenciled his bold and colorful designs and motifs, while Porter created folk art murals complete with mountains, oceans, boats, colonial houses, trees, animals, and sometimes soldiers.

When Moses Eaton, Jr. was 39, he bought a farm in Harrisville, NH just down the road from his childhood home in Hancock. He married Rebecca Plant of Dublin, NH, and they had two daughters and a son. He stenciled the soft raspberry walls in the front parlor of his home with beautiful red and green patterns and motifs. In his later years he farmed his land and on occasion continued his stenciling journeys around New England. In 1886, at the age of 90, Eaton died at his home in Harrisville. His descendents continued to live in this home until the year 2002. In 2005, Polly Forcier of MB Historic Décor restored the walls in the front parlor to their former glory for the new owners of the “Moses Eaton House.” The original stenciling still remained in one section of the room, which allowed Polly to recreate the exact patterns and motifs as Moses Eaton Jr. had stenciled 150 years ago. Bright red and green motifs once again grace the soft raspberry walls…and the legacy of Moses Eaton Jr. lives on in his ancestral home.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the 19th century home of Moses Eaton, Jr. in Harrisville, NH. Entering the famed front parlor, the soft raspberry walls fairly glowed. Freshly restored, the bright red and green patterns and motifs remind all who enter of the artful legacy of Moses Eaton, Jr. Behind the door that leads out of the parlor, I saw the one remaining “panel” of original stenciling. It proudly wears the passing of time like a badge of honor. Visiting the 19th century home of Moses Eaton, Jr. was the high point of my many journeys in search of his legacy. It was such a pleasure crossing the threshold into the house where Eaton lived, worked, raised a family, and stenciled his wonderful folk art. Being in the presence of so much history was an honor I will not soon forget!

You might be wondering how we are able to identify the walls stenciled by Moses Eaton, Jr. No written records have ever been uncovered linking various stenciled walls to him. However, the “discovery” of his stencil kit in the 1930’s has helped us to identify the walls that he most likely stenciled. During the years when Janet Waring was researching her book Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture, she became friends with the descendents of Mary Richardson, Eaton Jr.’s daughter. On one of her annual trips to visit the Richardson family, she was presented with the stencil kit as found in the attic of the Harrisville home. The old wooden box that was Eaton’s stencil kit, contained 78 stencils (40 complete designs), 8 large worn brushes, and a few blocks of wood with carved designs that were used as fabric stamps.

On Waring’s passing, her sister gave the stencil kit to SPNEA, now known as Historic New England. The discovery of this kit was instrumental in shedding a bright light on the artist who stenciled so many walls in New England. Various researchers over the years, including Waring, have been able to exactly match designs found on walls to the designs in the kit. Only through their efforts and dedication, are we able to truly appreciate the creativity and talent of Moses Eaton, Jr. today.

On one of my trips to Maine, I saw the historic stencil kit once owned by Moses Eaton Jr. and his father. The kit was part of the SPNEA traveling exhibit “Cherished Possessions”, which made a stop at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. When I gazed at the old wooden box, containing such simple and crude tools, it was amazing to think of the sheer beauty and joy that sprang from it so long ago. Imagine how talented this farmer was. Imagine the beautiful results Moses Eaton, Jr. achieved using his humble tools of stencil, brush, and pigment. Imagine creating the beautiful all-over wall designs without the benefit of one registration mark! Seeing his stencil kit gave me a special admiration for the talent and skill of the man who owned it almost two hundred years ago.

Putting the finishing touches on my research into the life and times of Moses Eaton, Jr., I recently sat down with Megan MacNeil, registrar at Historic New England, and held in my hands the aged stencils used by Moses Eaton, Jr. and his father. We went through each stencil one by one. I marveled at the brushstrokes of red and green still apparent on the stencils, along with stray bristles from the large round brushes still clinging tenaciously to the paint. Some of the stencils appeared to be barely used and Megan and I laughed about some of the stencils being “new!” We came across at least two stencils, cut with smooth edges and seasoned with their coats of shellac, but with no visible signs that they were ever put to use! Other stencils were thick with paint, resulting in small flecks of paint dislodging and falling to the table, even with the most gentle of handling. The stencil of quaint little flower heads, part of the primitive flower basket motif that Eaton, Jr. stenciled in his own home, had so many layers of red paint, that the once smooth and beveled edges of the openings were no where to be seen! Some of the stencils had interesting little idiosyncrasies. For example, beautiful, old-fashioned handwriting was visible on a couple of the stencils. Was this perhaps the penmanship of Eaton himself!? It was also fascinating to see that the paper used to cut two of the stencils in the kit had a previous purpose. The “bell and swag” stencil was cut right over a previously painted motif…the pineapple. Perhaps Eaton stenciled the pineapple on the paper as a “test” of some sort, or to show a potential client this charming pineapple design. Whatever the purpose, the paper was later recycled into a working stencil! An interesting little circular motif with a multitude of tiny little petals was cut from paper that had been previously stenciled with the little urn motif… the same motif that is found stenciled on the lid of the kit. This practice of “re-purposing” paper was surely an example of the frugality and thriftiness of the Eatons.

Moses Eaton Jr., a simple farmer with a penchant for decorating, left a lasting impression on the history of decorative arts in New England. The lives of rural New Englanders were enhanced by his simple and quaint decoration, and the dark interiors and plain plastered walls of their homes were made bright with the colorful bounty of spring. The folk art legacy of Moses Eaton, Jr. will always occupy a special place in my heart, and his enchanting designs and motifs will forever remind me of the fascinating history and traditions of 19th century New England.

       
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