Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d. ser., 69, no. 4
October 2012

Digital Projects

The Material and Social Practices of Intellectual Work: Jonathan Edwards’s Study

By Wilson H. Kimnach and Kenneth P. Minkema

Edward's portait
Jonathan Edwards, by Joseph Badger, c. 1750. Yale University Art Gallery, bequest of Eugene Phelps Edwards, 1938.

This online exhibition of the objects which comprised Edwards’s study offers insight into his intellectual production through an examination of his material world and the means by which he forged, preserved, and communicated his ideas. What emerges is a portrait of a highly disciplined and organized individual who worked with the technologies at his disposal in his provincial setting and who cared deeply about the manner in which his ideas were broadcast. Edwards largely fabricated the environment in which he worked, and the books he acquired, the writing implements, the homemade notebooks and hand-stitched manuscripts, and the customized furniture he utilized all helped to shape the texts he left behind. He made his quills, brewed his ink, cut his paper, and bound his notebooks; he chose and adapted his study furniture, such as a writing table, desk, small bookcase, and, at Stockbridge, a table that doubled as a stool. In these respects, he was quite traditional and preindustrial, not yet caught up in the emerging consumer culture. Edwards also no doubt had a hand in designing his rotating book table and expansions to his desk, and he certainly was active in shaping the physical makeup of his published writings and their dissemination. In these ways, he reflected and shaped emerging, selective tastes and forms among the provincial gentry of which he was a part. Scholars of Edwards are fortunate that so much of the customized apparatus that made up his study has survived—albeit in scattered locations—since all the houses he called home have been destroyed and there are thus few remaining material “relics” of his working life to contextualize his writings. This virtual exhibition provides a unique opportunity to view Edwards’s study furniture all together in one place once more.

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bookcase chair galleys on the floor stool Desk Lazy Susan table
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Illustration: Warren Snow, Snow Woodworks, Inc. • Art Direction: Catherine Thompson, Bydesign Ltd. •
Textual Editor: Kaylan Stevenson • Web Design: Kim Foley


Art Credits Click here, to read the article via JSTOR


“Blank Bible”

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The “Blank Bible”

In 1730 Edwards received a unique volume from his brother-in-law and former ministerial candidate Benjamin Pierpont. On the flyleaf, Edwards formally titled the volume “Miscellaneious Observations on the Holy Scriptures,” but he customarily referred to it as his “Blank Bible.” It consists of the leaves of an octavo-sized edition of the King James Bible interleaved with quarto-sized pieces of foolscap, with the whole bound together in calf. A red rule down the middle of each blank page creates two columns, matching the double-columned format of the printed Bible, thus providing a format for writing glosses on particular verses or passages of Holy Writ. The “Blank Bible” became Edwards’s main repository of scripture commentary, containing over five thousand entries. Even more, this manuscript volume became an index of indexes to Edwards’s larger corpus; he refers here to other notebooks, sermons, letters, and works by other authors, creating avenues through his writings by which to pursue thoughts on particular topics.

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Small Bookcase

The inventory of Edwards’s estate lists among the study furniture a “Small Book Case,” the configuration of which is unknown. We can only speculate that he may have had it built soon after moving to Northampton, Massachusetts, perhaps as a companion piece to his new William and Mary desk. Quite possibly, the “Small Book Case” may have consisted of only two or three widely separated shelves, which could accommodate folio-sized volumes as well as shorter ones. By the end of his life, Edwards had a collection of over eight hundred books and pamphlets. He acquired books through visits to shops as well as by writing to book dealers and intermediaries. He learned about books, both published and those forthcoming, through conversation and correspondence with family, friends, and colleagues. Another important source of information were advertisements printed in books and magazines, which Edwards copied, sometimes verbatim, into his “‘Catalogue’ of Reading,” a list of books he wanted to read. Books he could not purchase, he borrowed from friends and family as well as public, college, and professional libraries. As a minister and local intellectual, Edwards himself was an important lender of books in his community and within his clerical network.

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Click to see larger image of 'Catalogue of Reading' Click to see larger image of London Magazine

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Click to see larger image of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Books

Beginning as a college student, Edwards collected books and pamphlets, until by the end of his life he had a collection of more than eight hundred titles. He acquired books through visits to shops as well as by writing to book dealers and intermediaries, sometimes having to wait months before getting a volume he sought. He learned about books, already available or forthcoming, from family, friends, and colleagues, through conversation and correspondence. Advertisements for books published and forthcoming, printed in books and magazines, were an important source for Edwards, who copied them, sometimes verbatim, into his “‘Catalogue’ of Reading,” a list of books he wanted to read. Books he could not purchase could be borrowed sometimes from friends, or from family, public, college, and professional libraries. As a minister and local intellectual, Edwards himself was an important lender of books in his communities and among his clerical network.

Lower Cabinet

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Lower cabinet

Supporting the book cases are two flanking cabinets, each with its own storage areas, a closed area below and an open one above, topped by a small version of the horizontal boxes that stretch across the entire assemblage. The closed areas of the cabinets could have been used to store larger volumes in Edwards’s library.

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Edwards' central desk

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Central Desk

Edwards’s central writing and storage unit was his William and Mary desk, made in all likelihood in a Boston shop. He probably purchased the piece after he moved into his first settled pastorate at Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1727. Edwards’s relocation to Northampton and his acquisition of a desk coincided with two significant changes in his compositional practices: he changed the size of his sermon manuscripts and used the desk drawers to categorize and store them. Employing smaller pieces of paper made the booklets less noticeable in the pulpit, giving the impression of extemporaneity; the smaller size likewise allowed the booklets to fit in the desk drawers, thereby providing a convenient filing space.

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chair

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Chair

We cannot be sure what kind of chair Edwards kept by his desk, or if he had one he liked to sit in during reading sessions. But in Princeton University’s Maclean House, the back part of which Edwards inhabited during his short time at the college, is an armchair that he is purported to have used. It is a fiddleback-style armchair (so named for the shape of the back support), with a deep seat and simple turnings below. If Edwards did use this piece, he was most likely provided with it on arrival, since he would not have been able to bring it with him and had not yet had an opportunity to purchase furniture. This at least gives an idea of the sort of chair he may have preferred in his leisure hours. Thus, the study chair he used earlier in his life is yet something of a mystery, but the fact that no mention is made of it in the 1759 inventory of his estate suggests that it was a conventional chair.

Edwards' desk with flanking cabinets and bookcases

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Detail of bookcases on Edwards's desk. Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University. Photograph by the authors.

Great Bookcases

As Edwards aged, he needed more shelves to accommodate his library as well as his manuscripts, which likewise multiplied as his writing projects became more ambitious. When Edwards moved to Stockbridge and reestablished his study in his new home in October 1751, he set about adding elements to his original desk. One important aspect of these modifications was the addition of two side cabinets surmounted by several tiers of horizontal book boxes, inspired by a chest of drawers he saw at the house of Abigail Williams Sergeant, the widow of his missionary predecessor John Sergeant. The “Book Case,” as it was described in the inventory taken of Edwards’s estate in 1759 (or the “great bookcase,” as Edwards himself called it), provided nearly thirty feet of extra storage.

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Inside of top drawer of central desk Partitioned drawer

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Sermon on Prov. 24:13-14 Sermon on Gen. 19:14

Desk Drawers and Sermons

Edwards’s desk gave him more storage for his growing number of manuscripts, especially sermons, which would have grown at the rate of several each week. The desk drawers provided an ideal place to store his sermon booklets, and their physical dimensions coincided with the new dimensions that his booklets took on shortly after coming to Northampton.

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floor floor

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Galley Proofs

From the time he was first published at the age of twenty-eight until his death, Edwards was nearly constantly preparing sermons, essays, and treatises for the press. As an author, he was involved in virtually all of the activities that went into producing, promoting, and advertising his publications. He was particularly concerned about the physical aspects of the printed word, expressing his preference for the paper, typeface, binding, and covers with which his books and pamphlets were constructed and corresponding with printers to insure proper quality. Before final printing of the work in hand, Edwards proofread galley proofs of the pages. Even so, some errors crept in, and he typically prepared an errata sheet, which was included in the final, bound version.

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Edwards' six-sided lazy Susan table

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Underside of the  lazy Susan table

Lazy Susan Table

An awareness of a need to move easily between his notebooks and sources most likely inspired Edwards to acquire something that posterity would have trumpeted more loudly had it been produced for a Benjamin Franklin or a Thomas Jefferson: the “lazy Susan” book table. Known as the lazy Susan table because the top spins on a central axis, this piece features six canted panels with molding affixed to the bottoms. On these panels, Edwards could place six (and more if need be) open books and manuscripts, any of which he could access from his stationary seat with a gentle pull. Similar in purpose to Thomas Jefferson’s later revolving bookstand, Edwards’s lazy Susan table was an eminently functional expression of an emerging vernacular aesthetic on the rise in the Connecticut River valley during the mid-eighteenth century.

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Moulding on Edwards desk

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Desk Molding

The only thing that really had to be done to Edwards’s original desk to incorporate the side cabinets stylistically was the removal of the base moldings on the sides of the desk so that the two new cupboards could be placed snugly alongside. These cupboards closely resemble those in the Sergeant piece, each having a pair of fielded paneled doors on the bottom with the same wooden-knobbed latch at the top of each outside door.

Miscellanies Oilcloth cover

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History of Redemption Example of fan paper
Faith notebook

Notebooks

During the course of his life, Edwards constructed dozens of his own notebooks, cutting the paper, boring the holes for binding, stitching the sheets together, and, in many cases, attaching a cover. He crafted notebooks of various sizes—duodecimo, octavo, quarto, and folio—for both temporary and long-term use. Sometimes, in an attempt to economize by using and reusing scraps on hand, his notebooks took on rather eccentric appearances, incorporating oddly shaped pieces of paper, discarded letter covers, family documents, newspapers, and other items.

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floor floor

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paper on table

Paper

Paper was perhaps the most indispensable ingredient in Edwards’s study for crafting original thoughts and fine-tuning the language in which they were expressed. But he was remarkably practical in the use and reuse of paper, since it was expensive and hard to come by. For fair copies of his writings destined for publication, for correspondence, and his permanent notebooks, he used high-quality foolscap. For temporary notebooks, later sermons, letter drafts, and other items for private use, he often contented himself with scraps of paper salvaged from around the house. In later years, he resorted to pieces of unused fan paper, as thin as rice paper, and a partially written seventeenth-century commonplace book, which he deconstructed, crossing out the existing entries and writing around them. For one notebook, he even took the cover off a printed work—in French, which he could not read—turned it upside down, and wrote in the blank margins. Whenever possible, Edwards sent to Boston, or solicited the aid of a friend or neighbor going there, to purchase paper that came from Europe, and increasingly from England, which came to dominate the paper trade during the eighteenth century.

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Pen and Ink

In a time when stationery products were increasingly available commercially in urban centers, Edwards was still rather traditional. All evidence points to his making his own quills and brewing his own ink, though on his travels he might have purchased the necessary supplies or borrowed them from family or friends. Home production of writing implements required a several-day process. Ink making involved the assembling, mixing, and cooking of several necessary ingredients, some purchased from abroad, others found locally. Rounding out his implements for writing were the usual items: a well to store ink, an ink blotter, a penknife for sharpening quills, and a sander to seal and dry ink on the page.

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Pricing and Advertising

For Edwards, publishing was an involved and potentially expensive undertaking. To alert readers about his forthcoming titles, he composed notices for newspapers describing his writings. For sermons, even one as sensational as Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God, a few newspaper lines might suffice. More substantial compositions often warranted much lengthier descriptions. For example, the Humble Attempt To promote Explicit Agreement And Visible Union Of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer merited a full-column notice of nearly nine hundred words, which appeared in the August 20, 1747, issue of the Boston Weekly News-Letter and described the proposed volume as octavo in size, totaling “about 12 Sheets.” As an incentive, those ordering more than twelve copies would receive one gratis. But, delays followed because Edwards kept adding to the book—not an isolated complaint from Samuel Kneeland, his publisher. Although a shorter notice appeared in the September 24, 1747, issue, stating the volume would “speedily be publish’d,” it was not until the January 21, 1748, issue that a final advertisement heralded that the book was available at last. However, interested readers were informed, “the above Book rising higher in Pages than was calculated,” the price was raised to seven shillings and sixpence, a substantial increase. To secure commitments from printers, Edwards worked hard to coordinate the collection of subscriptions from potential readers and distributors, calling on friends and colleagues to assist.

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Sermon on Prov. 24:13-14

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Sermon on Gen. 19:14

Sermons

Edwards’s central writing and storage unit was his William and Mary–era desk, made in all likelihood in a Boston shop. He probably purchased the piece when he moved into his first settled pastorate at Northampton in 1727. Edwards’s move to Northampton and his acquisition of a desk coincided with two significant changes in his compositional practices: he changed the size of his sermon manuscripts and used the desk drawers to categorize and store them. Using smaller pieces of paper made the booklets less noticeable in the pulpit, and so gave the impression of extemporaneity; and the shorter size allowed the booklets to fit in the desk drawers, thereby providing a convenient filing system.

stool

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Stool

After he arrived at Stockbridge, Edwards added another piece of furniture to his study ensemble. This one, he repurposed to suit his needs: he took a small, low tavern table and used it as a seat. Positioned between his writing table, lazy Susan table, and desk, this backless seat would have allowed him to shift position to face any of the other pieces. Employing his knack for adaptation in the study, Edwards took an item, slightly altered it, and used it to increase his efficiency. After Edwards’s death, the table-stool remained in his home, eventually ending up in the collections of the Mission House, his missionary predecessor John Sergeant’s former house in Stockbridge, where it can be seen today.

Writing Table

At some point in Edwards’s life, perhaps even before he acquired his desk, he incorporated into his study what is called in the estate inventory a “Writing Table.” This term is so nondescript that the object could have been one of any of a broad range of table types, ranging from what is typically called a “tavern table” with a stretcher bottom, drummed into service from another part of the house, to a more primitive trestle-style piece, to something more formal resembling period tables explicitly designed for writing. Whatever the variety, doubtless the area of the top was chosen to provide ample room for open books, manuscript notebooks, candles, writing utensils, and the occasional pipe, cup of tea, or glass of claret. Indeed, this table may have been the one that functioned as Edwards’s first desk. In any case, it provided more surface area to work on and to keep multiple projects going at once.