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Thought the Puritans were dour? Think again!

The video explores a special cupboard made for Governor Thomas Prence of Plymouth Colony. It highlights the cupboard's ornate design, vibrant colors, and its role as a status symbol. The cupboard held valuable items like silver and textiles, reflecting Prence's wealth and religious beliefs. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Narrator] We're in the Wadsworth Atheneum looking at a cupboard, and this is really special because we know exactly who it was made for. - [Narrator] Governor Thomas Prence of Plymouth Colony. - [Narrator] Which would today be the southeast part of Massachusetts. - [Narrator] It's the separatists who were journeying to America as religious pilgrims, they established a colony in 1620 and he becomes one of the most important people in Plymouth Colony and he makes significant decisions about religious tolerance, how Quakers will or will not be accepted into the colony. - [Narrator] And he also has to create policy about how the colony will deal with Native Americans. - [Narrator] So Thomas Prence marries four times. His last wife is Mary and in his will, he gives to her this court cupboard in his new parlor and the cupboard cloth as well as a cushion. - [Narrator] And if you think about what the inside of a pilgrim's home might have been like, you might imagine something very severe and plain and it might come as some surprise to learn that they owned furniture as highly ornamented and as beautiful as this cupboard. - [Narrator] And not only was it highly ornamented, it was vibrant with paint that included reds and black and the oak at the time wouldn't have had this patina, it would have been almost bright yellow. - [Narrator] Almost garish to our eyes. - [Narrator] The people that we have come to know as the pilgrims and the Puritans enjoyed sumptuous materials and texture and color just as we do today. - [Narrator] So let's talk about that word cupboard. If you think about it, it's cup board. - [Narrator] A table was called a board and you sat at a board in form, a table and a bench, so the suspended surface area on which you place things. And court means short so we're looking at this court cupboard will silver displayed on the top as it may have been in the period and it's meant for you to look at these goods, this court cupboard would have been the center of your parlor, which was the most important room in the house and for some people, it was one of only a very few rooms in the house. - [Narrator] So this is a tremendously valuable piece of furniture but it was displaying objects that had even greater value. - [Narrator] In the hierarchy of goods in a home of this period, you have your silver, then your textiles, and most people are surprised to learn that the textiles in the home are more valued than the furniture and this object would have held your silver, your textiles, your ceramics and glass, which fall to the bottom of the hierarchy. - [Narrator] I can imagine this dominating the parlor. This is something that drew your attention, not just in its vivid coloring but these decorative forms, these bulbous, vase-shaped columns on either side and half-spindles that decorate the entire front of the cabinet. We see elements that look very architectural. - [Narrator] Highly decorated and highly architectural. You have a cornice and here's your frieze. - [Narrator] And in its heaviness, it has a medieval feeling. - [Narrator] So they're throwing in ideas from medieval art and architecture, they're throwing in Renaissance and then there's also this style mannerism that is coming from Italy and so you have this mixture and by the time they arrive, it's like playing a game of telephone. The ideas traveling from Italy to France to Northern Europe and then they hop from Northern Europe to England and from England to the Americas. - [Narrator] The people who made this were the turner and the joiner so someone turned the decorative items that are symmetrical and someone joined the pieces of cabinetry together. - [Narrator] Using mortise and tenon joinery. The turner, he's working on a lathe to create these split spindles, even the bosses that you see here and these massive columns. - [Narrator] And so having luxurious furniture like this, the silver to go on top, having the textiles to go in the drawers and on the surface, these all were signifiers of that status of this very early colonist in Plymouth Colony. - [Narrator] For a separatist who believed that he was preordained, this would fit very well in his worldview. - [Narrator] So his great wealth signified that he had been selected by god, predestined for heaven. (gentle music)