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How "Bucket Town," the Book and Exhibition, Came to Be

David Hewett | August 17th, 2014

The green-painted covered box is 6" long and was the first piece sold at the sale of the Richardson collection at Willis Henry Auctions on November 19, 2011. David Schorsch, on the phone, paid $3861 for the box. Derin Bray spoke about that piece recently. “The box that David acquired was stamped by toymaker Samuel Hersey. It is among the earliest pieces known to have been made by him. The underside has a wonderful pencil inscription that indicates that Samuel Hersey made the box while still working in the shop of his father, Samuel French Hersey.” It’s shown in Bray’s book Bucket Town (2014) in plate 12.1 on page 112. Photo courtesy Willis Henry Auctions.

The William S. Tower Toy Co. made some very fine work early in its history. This bucket and cover were made in 1865.

The William S. Tower Toy Co. made a variety of objects, but its dollhouse-size furniture was very popular. The company had 125 toys on the market by 1881. With a large investment in machine tools, Tower was able to hire relatively unskilled workers (largely female, who were paid less than male workers). Still, the business was not able to weather the competition from businesses that offered wooden toys for less than Tower, and it failed just after the turn of the century.

“I can’t believe it’s finished,” Derin Bray told the guests at the opening reception. “There are one hundred and eighty objects on loan, showing four centuries of toymaking in Hingham. It’s taken seven years to get to this point.” He also thanked the staff of Old Sturbridge Village for the terrific job they had done in setting up the exhibit.

Senior curator Christie Jackson said, “The opening of the Bucket Town exhibit was a breakthrough exhibit for us, involving the Hersey family, the Hingham Historical Society, and Old Sturbridge Village.” With 260,000 visitors a year at the village, an exhibit such as Bucket Town can count on maximum exposure.

The pieces made by Hingham makers were shown in glass-fronted dollhouse-size settings, with a photo or drawing of the maker shown below. One maker, George Fearing (1838-1918), worked from the basement of his house and also sold his products on the road. He also worked for a time for one of the biggest toymaking firms of Hingham, the William S. Tower Toy Co.

This is the type of woodenware Hingham makers churned out by the hundreds before toymaking proved more lucrative. Tubs of all sizes, such as this one shown on a simple bench, were practical staples in early American life in New England and elsewhere.

Hersey family-made and painted pieces command high prices when offered at auction. These three items, a 2¼" high green-painted firkin (above) made by Reuben Hersey, a 2¼" diameter red-painted tub (right) made by Samuel Hersey, and a 2½" high firkin (far right) made by Cotton Hersey, brought a total of $35,895 when they sold separately in 2011 at Willis Henry and Skinner auctions. Photo courtesy Willis Henry Auctions.

Photo courtesy Willis Henry Auctions.

Photo courtesy Skinner.

Nineteen years ago this magazine carried an article by collector and dealer David Schorsch about the Herseys, 19th-century makers of wooden toys, kitchenware, and other wooden objects, from Hingham, Massachusetts. Schorsch’s article was the first story of note directed to the antiques trade about the industry in that seaside town. (See M.A.D., August 1995, pp. 38-40-B.)

That story featured 15 photos of the Herseys’ wares and revealed that examples of their work were of such quality that they were often offered (and sold) as having been made in Shaker communities. The Herseys, some 20 of them, were a multigenerational family of woodworkers carrying on their specialty for over 100 years in Hingham.

All together, over a four-century timespan, there were over 400 individuals in the Hingham area who were involved in the wooden toy and cooperage trade. Hingham’s output was so great during the 19th century that the town became known as “Bucket Town.”

The town was known as a manufacturing center for utilitarian wooden objects, which evolved to individuals making miniature copies of the very pieces that had supported the community earlier.

Americana dealers and collectors had long shown interest in the Hingham pieces even if they couldn’t always put names to the initials on the miniature firkins, buckets, tubs, and other pieces of woodenware. Those pieces weren’t nickel and dime novelties in the 20th-century marketplace.

In a sidebar, “Herseyware in the Marketplace,” Schorsch informed readers that a toy tub and matching pail had brought $4290 at a James Cyr auction in Maine in 1994, and in the mid-1980s a dark green-painted toy firkin had sold for $2310 at a Skinner auction, setting the auction record for a single identified Hersey piece at the time.

Prices for Hersey pieces skyrocketed in the early 21st century. At a Skinner sale on Sunday, August 14, 2011, a rather sleepy group in the Marlborough gallery suddenly sat up when a blue-painted miniature firkin sold to a young man in the audience for $16,590.

The purchaser was Derin Bray, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, dealer with degrees from Yale and Winterthur, and a contributing author and coauthor. Auction-goers may have met him while he was employed by Ron Bourgeault’s Northeast Auctions firm as an Americana consultant.

Bray said the maker of the tiny firkin was Cotton Hersey of Hingham. “I’ve seen more of these than anyone, and despite what anyone says, very few are as choice as this one with its original paint surface.” Bray told us at the sale. “The firkin is absolutely as choice an example of their [the Herseys’] work as exists.”

(The name “firkin” became prevalent only during the 20th century, Bray noted. The makers called it a bucket, and bucket is the noun Bray used in his new book and that Old Sturbridge Village used in the exhibition this article is about.)

Bray had been commissioned to collect examples of the Hingham woodworkers’ products and was writing a book about the group, he said in 2011.

Hingham makers were the “first professional toymakers in America,” Bray said.

Our next meeting with Bray came at an auction three months later, on November 19, 2011, in Rockland, Massachusetts. Hingham historian John P. Richardson had passed away suddenly, and his cache of treasures was to be sold by auctioneer Willis Henry.

Recently, Bray spoke about Richardson’s role in Hingham life. “John Richardson was the unofficial town historian of Hingham. He was brilliant, eccentric, and one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. He selflessly devoted his life to collecting, cataloging, and meticulously researching Hingham history.…He was a true antiquarian.”

Bray said he worked closely with Richardson for about six months, right up until the time he died.

“He had a vast object and manuscript collection, which he called the Old Fort House Archives and Historical Repository,” Bray said, “and I was slowly making my way through it. His house was so cluttered with historical Hingham items that one could hardly pass through a room without knocking something over.

“Because of my relationship with John, his role in the project, and my familiarity with his collection, I had a pretty good idea of the items he owned that related to Hingham’s early coopering and toymaking industries.

“It was for this very reason the Hersey family hired him as a research consultant during the formative stages of the project. It was John—and his assistant Frank Tipping—who first identified and cataloged the contents of the toymaking shop.”

That leads us to the person who played a key role in contemporary Hingham history—Peter W. Hersey. He came up with the idea of a book about Hingham toymakers in 2007 after discovering that a padlocked and long-ignored ramshackle building on the Hersey Farm premises was actually the 19th-century toy and box-making shop of his ancestors Isaiah and Reuben Hersey. The shop had tools, primitive machinery, and examples of their work left intact.

With Peter Hersey enthusiastic and willing to support the commissioning of a book, and examples of the wooden output of Hingham available from a variety of museums and local sources, including the Hersey Farm and the Hingham Historical Society, the book project was launched.

The sudden death of Richardson in 2011 put his Old Fort House Archives & Historical Repository collection in jeopardy. That material was going to auction.

Somewhere around 175 people crowded into the meeting room of the Holiday Inn in Rockland on November 11, 2011, when Willis Henry held the first session of the Richardson sale (the more important pieces were offered at the first session).

Bray, wearing a baseball cap pulled down over his brow and hiding his eyes behind a large pair of sunglasses, and sitting way back in the rows of seats, was there to take as many of the pieces that pertained to the project as he could. And he was willing to wear a disguise to accomplish that task if it meant succeeding.

He bought the pieces he came for, even though there was strong competition on many lots. Several people who were seated in a section with seats marked “Herseys” were also strong bidders at that sale.

Hersey family members picked up a 1½" high covered oval box by Cotton Hersey for $1404; a phone bidder got a larger covered oval box for $3861; and Bray took a red-painted miniature tub for $8775 and a 2¼" high green-painted firkin by Reuben Hersey for $10,530.

“For the most part,” Bray told us later, “I was acting on behalf of private collectors for the items that I purchased at the John Richardson sale. It is easy enough to deduce from the book that many of the best items went to the Hersey family. They were not purchased in anticipation of inclusion in the book or exhibition—which was only in the research phase at that time—but because they were fine examples with an extraordinary amount of documentation.

“Because so many of the items that I was researching were utilitarian—modest buckets and tubs—they rarely survive in great condition and almost never with original (or reliable) histories of use or ownership. Virtually everything in John’s collection came with a detailed story.

“For example, in the 1970s John salvaged a treasure-trove of toys, photographs, and ephemera from William B. Luce’s shop and studio.”

Old Sturbridge Village did not buy anything at the Richardson sale, Bray said. The Hingham Historical Society had already privately acquired the bulk of Richardson’s photograph and manuscript collection earlier.

“The director of the society, Suzanne Buchanan, was extremely encouraging throughout the project and very helpful in allowing me access to these papers. I spent several weeks looking through thousands of photographs and every page of handwritten Hingham manuscripts from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. John had a little bit of everything,” Bray told us.

Nearly three years have passed since the Willis Henry auction, and the 2½" high blue-painted miniature firkin Bray bought for the record price of $16,590 at the August 2011 Skinner sale is now the featured piece in advertisements for the exhibit that opened to the public on June 21 at Old Sturbridge Village. The full name of the exhibit is Bucket Town: Four Centuries of Toymaking and Coopering in Hingham.

The exhibit is a collaborative work of several individuals and organizations: Peter W. Hersey; co-curators Derin Bray and Christie Jackson; the Hingham Historical Commission; the many talented individuals who play supporting roles in the day-to-day life of Old Sturbridge Village; and those who lent to, funded, and supported them.

The book, Bucket Town: Woodenware and Wooden Toys of Hingham, Massachusetts, 1635-1945 (2014) by Derin T. Bray, debuted at the exhibit opening; it was published by the Hingham Historical Commission.

Bucket Town, the book, isn’t just a Hersey family history, though. It’s a history of Hingham and the evolution of making utilitarian objects needed in everyday American life in the centuries before Walmart and Home Depot supplied everything we use.

The list of Hingham coopers and related craftsmen making wooden objects is 403 names long. An appendix of toymakers and toy merchants has 73 entries. Derin Bray spent seven years digging through family records, chasing down leads, and finding people who could supply missing objects and names of makers. Then it fell to the staff at Old Sturbridge Village to design the exhibit, assemble the objects in groups by maker, provide informative backgrounds, and get all the components together in an informative and interesting fashion.

“I can’t believe it’s over,” Bray told guests on opening night, June 20. “It’s amazing to finally get it to this point. There are one hundred and eighty objects on loan, plus the Old Sturbridge Village pieces. It’s one of the most beautiful…exhibits I’ve ever seen.”

Without the extensive loans, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to mount the exhibit. David Schorsch lent several key pieces. “David is a fount of knowledge and has an extraordinary collection of painted Hingham toys,” Bray said. “I am extremely grateful to him for sharing his information and allowing us to include many of his items in the book and exhibition.”

Without Peter Hersey’s support, though, none of it would have happened. “It’s all because of Peter and Judy Hersey. Peter was often invisible, but he was integral to the project,” Bray told the donors, administration staff, and invited guests.

The exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village, Bucket Town: Four Centuries of Toymaking and Coopering in Hingham, goes on until January 18, 2015. The book is 208 pages long, well illustrated, and annotated.

If you like New England and history, you’ll probably enjoy the book. If you collect or sell miniature antique woodenware, you’ll probably love the book. If you appreciate American history, you’ll love the exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village.

If you want to study the miniature pieces made by the Herseys and others or the pieces that set auction records, the book is a must-buy. There is no way you can examine the joinery and paint details of those objects at the exhibit. You can see the pieces behind glass and judge them in relation to the work of others, but in the book you can often see them larger than life-size.

Admission to Old Sturbridge Village is $24 for adults, $22 for seniors, $8 for children three to 17, and free for children two and under. The hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through October 31 and 9:30 to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, November 1 to December 1. The book is $50 and is available at the Old Sturbridge Village gift shop or on line at ( Call Old Sturbridge Village for more information at (800) SEE-1830.

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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