[Chapter I][p. ]
The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York
All members of the Dominy family in America appear to have possessed great mechanical aptitude. This study, however, is limited to three members of that family who worked from about 1760 to about 1840, when the last entries for making furniture were posted in their account books.1 Father, son, and grandson worked from the height of the handcraft period in America until the time of its rapid decline about 1840. After that, opportunities quickly disappeared for members of the Dominy family to earn a livelihood as craftsmen. In spite of superior abilities they simply could not support themselves as artisans. For that reason, among others, the term "Dominy craftsmen" has been applied only to Nathaniel Dominy IV (1737–1812), Nathaniel Dominy V (1770–1852), and Felix Dominy (1800–1868).2
The first Nathaniel Dominy settled in East Hampton about twenty-one years after the town was founded in 1648. Little else is known of him except that he was married in 1669 in East Hampton and that he died there in 1687. An inventory of his estate shows he was probably a yeoman, for few household furnishings are listed and most of the entries are of farm equipment.3 There is at least one document in which his son, Nathaniel Dominy II (1684–1768), refers to himself as a "yeoman," but there are additional references indicating that he was also a weaver and surveyor. Nathaniel II held several town offices, serving as "Assessor, tax collector, Highway Commissioner and Constable." The pattern the Dominy craftsmen were later to follow, that is, the concurrent pursuit of several lines of craft activities to support their families, appears to have been established by Nathaniel Dominy II. In addition to commissions as a surveyor and his work as a weaver and "yeoman," he supervised the building of the town's first poorhouse and, in company with several other townspeople, asked for permission to set up a sawmill. Although no direct connection can be made because of the lack of supporting evidence, the fact that his grandfather "looked after" the town clock in 1735 may have accounted for Nathaniel Dominy IV's becoming a clockmaker.4
Some members of the Dominy family state that Nathaniel Dominy III (1714–1778) trained his son Nathaniel IV both in woodworking and clockmaking. It is highly probable that Nathaniel III was a skilled woodworker because twice he is described as a "carponder [carpenter]" in land-sale deeds.5 In 1736 he married Elizabeth Eyres (also spelled Ayres), and because there were a number of English clockmakers of that name it has been suggested that Nathaniel Dominy IV could have learned the "art and mystery" of the clockmaker from the Eyres family.6 This theory, however, cannot be documented.
The name of this family of craftsmen is spelled in contemporary records in several different ways: Dominy, Domony, Domeny, Dommony, Domynie, Dominie, and Domine.7 The last two spellings appear in the accounts of John Lyon Gardiner, of Gardiner's Island, and on the [p. 4] drawer of a desk made for him by Nathaniel Dominy V (No. 242). In 1897 Judge Henry P. Hedges wrote in his History of East Hampton that the ethnic background of the Dominy family was Irish. Family tradition maintains that the original Dominys emigrated to America from England. Both theories, however, remain conjectural because no proof of the family's origin has been discovered. While speculating on the family's background, a third possibility can be introduced: because of the similarity in spelling and pronunciation of their name to the Dutch term for minister, Dominie, the family may have been Flemish and emigrated to England in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. East Hampton was of English origin, having been settled by a group from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is likely then—whatever their origin—that the Dominys were English by the time they arrived in East Hampton.8
Today the village is within easy driving distance of New York City (see map, p. 217), and the Long Island Railroad maintains service to its station at East Hampton. An airport provides facilities for commuters using public and private airplanes. But during the years when the Dominy craftsmen were active East Hampton Village (part of the larger township of East Hampton) was effectively isolated by land. Located near the easternmost tip of Long Island, it was over one hundred miles from New York City and the communities that flourished in Brooklyn and Queens during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The proximity of the village to water plus the relatively low cost of transporting freight and passengers by boat meant that communication with New York City and towns along the shores of Connecticut and Rhode Island was primarily by ship.
Because of the leadership of the Ladies Village Improvement Society and of steps taken sixty or seventy years ago, East Hampton is still a beautiful community. Change, however, is inevitable, and it is fortunate that several intelligent observers made notes about East Hampton and its people during the years when the Dominy craftsmen were most active. The comments of Lyman Beecher, John Lyon Gardiner, and Timothy Dwight give us a picture of the physical setting in which both Nathaniel Dominys and Felix worked and provide a measure of insight into the character of the people whom these artisans served. From 1799 to 1810 Lyman Beecher, progenitor of the family which included Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was pastor of the Presbyterian Church in East Hampton. In his autobiography he recalled that his first parish consisted of East Hampton Village and several small villages, including Amagansett, Accabonac or The Springs, Three Mile Harbor, Fireplace, Wainscott, and a settlement of free blacks appropriately named Freetown.9 According to Beecher, the village consisted of "the plainest farm-houses" standing on its main street, which was "part of the main highway on the southern branch of the island." Wood was piled near the front door of all houses, and their barns were close by, "also standing on the street." The size of Main Street, which today is approximately 150 feet wide, left a great impression upon the Reverend Mr. Beecher because, in his opinion, "one would imagine that the projectors of such a road supposed themselves possessed of a continent." Beecher was well aware of the limited travel over this land:
There was so little traveling that the road consisted of two ruts worn through the green turf [p. 5] for the wheels, and two narrow paths for the horses. The wide green street was generally covered with flocks of white geese.
The only trees in the place were a line of poplars between two of the principal residences, and a large elm, standing at an enormous height, which had been trimmed up to a head, and was a conspicuous waymark for miles around.
On Sunday, all the families from the villages above-mentioned came riding to meeting in great two-horse, uncovered wagons, with three seats, carrying nine persons. It is probable that more than half the inhabitants of these retired villages made no other journey during their whole lives. There was not a store in town and all our purchases were made in New York by a small schooner that ran once a week.10
Some indication of local taste and custom can be obtained from Beecher's statement that his wife introduced the first carpet to the village. All the other houses "had sanded floors, some of them worn through." After having a cotton foundation woven, Mrs. Beecher sized it and painted it in oils with a pattern of "bunches of roses and other flowers." When Deacon David Talmage, a good customer of the Dominys, came to see his minister, he asked, rhetorically, "D'ye think ye can have all that, and heaven too?"11
John Lyon Gardiner, seventh proprietor of Gardiner's Island and a very good customer of the Dominy craftsmen, described the East Hampton of 1798 in about the same terms as Lyman Beecher. Gardiner's conclusion was that "nothing more than usual for all country towns has taken place in East Hampton for this century past. Remote from their Capital, they have lived plain Agricultural lives & generally happy."12
A few years later, about 1811, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, visited East Hampton while on a tour of Long Island. His incisive description reveals mixed feelings:
The town of East Hampton is built principally on a single street, running very nearly from north-east to south-west. Its site is a perfect level. It is compactly built, and contains an ancient Presbyterian church, an academy, and about one hundred dwelling-houses. …The houses are generally of long standing. I saw but a single new one, and that was erected where another had been lately pulled down. Scarcely any of them are painted. In other respects they are generally in a tolerable state of repair. The passion for appearance, so far at least as building is concerned, seems hitherto to have fastened very little on the inhabitants of East Hampton. A general air of equality, simplicity, and quiet, is visible here in a degree perhaps singular."13
Dwight was very conscious of the fact that people in East Hampton were cut off from many contemporary aspects of American life. He dwelt at length upon the isolation of East Hampton and the "sense of stillness and sequestration from the world." His observations on the conservative fashions prevalent there are, of course, important in analyzing products made by the Dominy craftsmen:
There is…no want of the social character; but it is regulated rather by the long continued customs of this single spot, than by the mutable fashions of a great city, or the powerful influence of an extensive country, intimately connected in all its parts, and controlling, by the general opinion and practice, the personal conduct of every inhabitant. Living by themselves more than the people of most other places, they become more attentive to whatever is their own, and less to the concern of others. Hence their own customs, especially those [p. 6] which have come down from their ancestors (and these are about all that exist among them), have a commanding influence on their conduct.14
East Hampton's Main Street, although still beautiful, is quite different today from what it was when Lyman Beecher and Timothy Dwight saw it. The Dominy house stood on its north end, but no contemporary description of the house or shops exists. Fortunately the photographs taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940 recorded the appearance of the buildings in which the craftsmen lived and worked.
Illus. II A.
Fireplace wall of the Dominy House Parlor, 1940. Historic American Buildings Survey, Stanley P. Nixon photo
A public letter from Judson L. Banister, Mayor, East Hampton Village, appeared in the East Hampton Star, December 17, 1941. It noted that the Dominy House was ‘about to be torn down’. He stated that the property, then owned by Oscar Brill, could be purchased for $6,000, ‘only for the purpose of a museum, etc., and it was not for sale otherwise.’ The Mayor’s purpose in writing the letter was ‘to see if we could raise enough money by public subscription to purchase this property and restore the house which was built in 1715, . . . .’ Given the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the necessary funds were not raised. The house was torn down in 1946. The two attached craft shops were dismantled and moved to a beachfront property in East Hampton. In greatly modified form, they were still on that property in 2013.
In Robert J. Hefner (ed.), East Hampton Heritage. An Illustrated Architectural Record (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), page 20, the house is described as ‘one of the town’s best examples of lean-tos, … originally a minimum or single lean-to house and consisted of a porch with staircase in front of the chimney, a parlor to the south, and kitchen behind the chimney. A small chamber and milkroom were located beyond a back stairway in the southwest corner. A single bedroom and garret were above. The house was doubled or made bilaterally symmetrical around the chimney, by an addition to the north end.’
When the pictures were taken, the neglect of the property and structures was already evident. A northeast view of the buildings (Illus. II) reveals a two-and-a-half-story frame house, built in 1715, covered with weatherboards (clapboards) and wood shakes (shingles).15 The viewer would, of course, notice two separate batten doors and glass "lights." The vertical break in the facade shows that part of the house was a later addition. Perhaps this addition was made when the woodworking shop, seen at the right of the photograph, was built. The shop was certainly in existence by 1760; and because it has been shown that the woodworking
Northeast corner of the Dominy house, with the woodworking shop at the right. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The clock shop with its forge was added to the opposite end of the house, and only its chimney was visible from the northeast. From the southeast, however, the small clock shop could [p. 7]
First floor plan of the Dominy house. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The clock shop was a simple structure built of vertical planks with a wood-shingle roof. Historic American Buildings Survey architects estimated that it was erected about 1801, but later evidence shows that it was added to the house a few years before that date.17 It is the only structure on the property that can be precisely dated through records. At the annual town meeting held on April 7, 1795, the tenth resolution recorded by the clerk was "that the Trustees shall give a lease to Nathanel Dominy of ten feet square in the street adjoining his Clock makers shop during the term that his house now standing there shall Remain where it is &c."18 The clockmaker's shop referred to was the original, contained in the old house in a space no larger than 8 feet 7 1/2 inches by 7 feet (see Illus. III).19 Two years later the new shop had not been built, for at a town meeting of October 30, 1797, it was "agreed that the Clerk should sign a leese for a Peace of Land adjoining Mr. Nathl Dominys at the front of his House [p. 8]
Southeast corner of the Dominy house, with the clock shop at the left. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In 1926 Judge Samuel Seabury observed that the "chairs and tables" of Nathaniel Dominy IV "were of good design."21 When the Historic American Buildings Survey sent a team to record the Dominy buildings in 1940, however, the fame of these craftsmen rested primarily upon their clockmaking activity. As recently as the summer of 1963, when the author was conducting research in East Hampton and other Long Island communities, most people did not recognize the Dominys as cabinetmakers. Many older aunts or uncles, telling of furniture made by the Dominys, were excused by younger relatives who assumed advanced senility as the reason for such statements. It is not surprising, then, that little attention was paid to the woodworking shop. While three sheets providing complete details of the clock shop were prepared, none were made of the "carpenter's shop" (see Illus. III). The only photograph taken by the Survey architects was from the north end of this shop near the bed of the great wheel lathe (Illus. V). In this picture the accumulation of almost two hundred years—tools, scrap lumber, patterns, chain, rubber hose, and assorted piles of material that could be described only as "junk"—is very much in evidence. It is certain that the little shop in which the making of furniture, clock cases, mill parts, and other woodworking products took place was seldom as neat as the reconstructed shop at Winterthur (Illus. VI), and there is little doubt that it had ceased to be of practical use by 1940. It had changed from the busy shop operated by Nathaniel [p. 9]
Interior of the Dominy woodworking shop. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
All the equipment seen in Illustration VI, however, was in the original woodworking shop. These tools are discussed in detail in Part Two. The molding plane rack, or shelf (above a door leading to the kitchen of the old house), the tool racks, and the long ash pole with its support, used to power the pole lathe, were in the old woodworking shop. Their placement in the Museum's reconstruction was determined from the Historic American Buildings Survey drawings; from plans supplied by Nathaniel M. Dominy, an architect; and from marks found by the Museum's "clerk of the works," George H. Watson, on the interior of the original shops. The tilt-top tea table was made by Nathaniel Dominy V and is discussed in Part Three.
For practical reasons several features of the original shop are not a part of the reconstruction [p. 11] at Winterthur. Neither an unfinished attic (Illus. III, V), used to store lumber, large clamps, saws, and other bulky items, nor a rough attic ladder, attached to the wall above the bed of the great wheel lathe, were included. The ladder was eliminated so that the window in the north wall could be enlarged to provide an adequate viewing area (Illus. VI).
Long before 1940 the clock shop had ceased to function as a manufactory for clocks or a shop for repairing clocks and watches. Although Nathaniel Dominy VII (1827–1910) has been described as a "clockmaker,"23 this is not substantiated either in surviving examples of his work or in manuscript records. In fact, the evidence (discussed in detail in Chapter V) is quite clear that the clockmaking activity of the Dominy craftsmen ended with Felix Dominy in the 1830's. The late-nineteenth-century clocks which were stored in the clock shop when it was photographed in 1940 (Illus. VII) indicate that the repairing of clocks had come to a halt before the death of Nathaniel VII in 1910.24 Because Nathaniel VII operated a jewelry store, repaired clocks and watches, and acted as a general handyman, the task of separating the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century tools from the "early Sears Roebuck" examples found in both shops was enormous. Felix Dominy’s concern about his son, Nathaniel VII’s capabilities was stated in a letter sent to his son from Fire Island on August 8, 1847. ‘I am glad that you have more method in your business and am in hopes that you will get along and make a comfortable living. … . keep steady and tend to your business and you will always have enough’. But Nathaniel VII was an example of a jack of all trades but master of none. In 1880, Calvin Rae Smith of The College of the City of New York asked Nathaniel VII to repair two old chairs that Smith wished to include in a painting that he had just commenced. Smith also alluded to Nathaniel VII working as a hunting and fishing guide.
In the Dominy manuscript collection at Winterthur is a printed broadside advertising Nathaniel VII as a ‘Daguerrian Artist. His camera has survived as part of the Winterthur Museum collection.
The view of the east side of the clock shop, which fronted on Main Street, shows the workbenches presumably installed when the shop was built in 1798, the original lathe, tools and the racks for holding them, drawers built under the benches and
East and south interior of the Dominy clock shop. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
East interior of the Dominy clock shop. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of of Congress)
In the reconstruction of the clock shop at the Winterthur Museum the original equipment and tools used by the Dominy craftsmen were reassembled and installed, as seen in Illustrations IX and X. For example, the vise that originally held the gear-cutting engine was
Through the window in the south wall of the clock shop (illus. IX) are seen the gear-cutting engine, wood patterns used to make impressions in sand for clock-gear blanks, a shot mold [p. 14]
North interior of the Dominy clock shop forge. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In the center of the shop (Illus. X) is the "horologiographical, repeating, alarm, monition" clock made by Nathaniel Dominy IV in 1799 for David Gardiner, of Flushing, New York. Normally, clockworks were not put together inside the shop but were assembled in the home of the customer. Numerous entries in the Dominy account books detail extra charges for "setting up" a clock for their patrons. The simple slat-back chair on which the clockmaker sat while at work in this shop is seen near the gear-cutting engine. At the left, next to a box of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century watch crystals, is a lignum-vitae block supporting a watchmaker's brass anvil and leather mallet.
A brick forge housed under the same roof as the clock shop (see Illus. III) was reconstructed with antique brick. An ingenious use of small space enabled the Dominy craftsmen to perform some of the tasks of the farrier, blacksmith, coppersmith, and wheelwright in this tiny enclosure—at its widest slightly more than 6 feet and just over 10 feet long. The bellows that supplied air for the forge was housed overhead in an attic (Illus. XII) with a hose to deliver the air current to the exact spot desired. Pumping the bellows was accomplished by pulling a wood lever near the forge bed (Illus. XI). Just opposite was a small door that provided access to the parlor of the old Dominy house. Tools and equipment used in the forge area are discussed in greater detail in Part Two. In the photograph of the forge as it looked in 1940 one can see the wrought-iron bracket used to secure the metalworker's vise to the south-wall bench of the clock shop. It is at the lower right corner of the picture, resting on a piece of burlap.
This was the setting in which the Dominy craftsmen worked—a rural, conservative, and relatively isolated Long Island town in which their woodworking shop was serving its citizens at least by the mid-eighteenth century. The first of the craftsmen to venture into clockmaking, Nathaniel Dominy IV, practiced this craft in the old house built in 1715. By 1798 the clock shop and forge provided an improved facility not only for his watch repairing and clockmaking, but also for other metalworking pursuits. After his death in 1812 his son, Nathaniel Dominy V, and, a few years later, his grandson Felix had the use of both shops.[p. 16]
Plan and elevation of the Dominy clock shop forge. (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
1 "Two chairs" for Isaac Van Scoy, Jr., Nov. 18, 1840 (Account Book, Nathaniel Dominy V, Felix Dominy, and Nathaniel Dominy VII, 1809-1862, Joseph Downs Manuscript and Microfilm Collection [hereafter DMMC], Microfilm 310, The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum; original manuscript in Long Island Collection, East Hampton Free Library [hereafter EHFL]).
2 Birth and death dates are found in several sources. Manuscript entries are found in Account Book B, Nathaniel Dominys IV and V, 1762–1844 (DMMC, MS 59x9a). Summaries can be found in Newton J. Dominy, Genealogical History of the Dominy's Family (Dublin, Ohio, 1956), pp. 40–41, and in Jeannette E. Rattray, East Hampton History, Including Genealogies of Early Families (Garden City, N.Y., 1953; hereafter Rattray, EHH), pp. 288–96. The latter book incorrectly gives the death of Felix Dominy as Dec. 20, 1869. This is probably a typographical error. File No. 6563, Suffolk County Surrogate's Court, Riverhead, N.Y., contains a series of papers relating to Felix's death which list it as Dec. 20, 1868. There can be no doubt of the date because the papers were probated in Feb., 1869.
3 Rattray, EHH, p. 288. See also Morton Pennypacker, "Inventory of a Local Family's Effects Found," East Hampton Star, July 20, 1939, p. 8.
4 Records of the Town of East Hampton, Long Island, Suffolk Co., N.Y. (Sag Harbor, N.Y., 1889), III, 265–66, 460. See also Rattray, EHH, p. 289.
5 Book B, Index of Grantors, Suffolk County Clerk's Office, Riverhead, N.Y. See also EHFL, MS (x) FH/117.
7 Ibid., pp. 40, 55. See also Rattray, EHH, p. 287, as well as Records of the Town of East Hampton, I, 320, II, 89, 181.
8 Rattray, EHH, pp. 7–14, contains an excellent summary of the ethnic backgrounds of the early settlers of East Hampton.
9 Barbara M. Cross, ed., The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), I, 65-66. These communities are today part of the township of East Hampton. Beecher's list excluded Montauk and Sag Harbor, which are also part of the township.
10 Ibid., pp. 66, 86. This last statement is not completely true because the Dominys did provide a number of services for Beecher during his stay in East Hampton. His possible remoteness from local people is seen in Beecher's account with the Dominys; it was remarkably small for an eleven-year period, especially when compared with the accounts of other inhabitants.
12 "Notes and Observations on the Town of East Hampton…April 1798," Collections of The New-York Historical Society for the Year 1869, II, (1870), 225–60.
14 Ibid. Other contemporary descriptions of the township and village of East Hampton may be found in Horatio G. Spafford, A Gazetteer of the State of New-York (Albany, 1813), p. 180, and in John Disturnell, A Gazetteer of the State of New-York (Albany, 1842), pp. 149, 388, 448, 468.
15 Date assigned by Historic American Buildings Survey (hereafter HABS; the survey records are housed in the Library of Congress), NY-5418, 14 sheets, and confirmed by Robert M. Dominy, who told the author of a base stone, dated 1715, that was pointed out to visitors to the house. No Suffolk County records have been found to substantiate this date. Family history has dated the original house between 1650 and 1665; but no structural evidence was uncovered, either at the time of the HABS study or when the building was torn down. See Dominy, pp. 39, 47.
18 East Hampton Town Records, Volume E, 1728–1799, p. 82[b], Town of East Hampton MS, East Hampton Township Office, East Hampton, N.Y.; also recorded in Records of the Town of East Hampton, IV, 289-90.
20 East Hampton Town Records, Volume E, p. 201; also recorded in H. D. Sleight, ed., Journal of the Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonalty of East Hampton Town, 1772–1807 (Riverhead, N.Y., 1927), II, 147.
21 Two Hundred and Seventy-Five Years of East Hampton, Long Island, New York (East Hampton, N.Y., 1926), p. 67.
22 In Olde New York (New York, 1883), in a chapter calling East Hampton "The American Barbison," as quoted in Jeannette E. Rattray, The Old Hook Mill and Other Old English Windmills of East Hampton, Long Island, New York, and Vicinity (East Hampton, N.Y., 1942), p. 9. See also Rattray, EHH, p. 291.
24 For a number of years, Nathaniel Dominy VII advertised that he made "much admired Daguerrian Portraits." His connection with artists of the Barbizon School period is illustrated by a letter from Calvin Rae Smith to Nathaniel Dominy VII, New York City, Sept. 30, 1880. This artist was apparently teaching at the College of the City of New York (now City College of New York) at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street.
"Will you please repair the two old chairs that I selected as soon as you can conveniently. I would like to have them as soon as possible for I wish to paint them in a picture which I have commenced. If you will express them to me when finished with the bill, I will attend to it immediately upon receipt of same.
"I regret very much that I cannot spend the month of October at East Hampton as I should like to do a little shooting and also have a sail in that new boat of yours which I am sure must be a good sailer."
See DMMC, Broadside 59x9.152 and MS 59x9.128.
Copyright © 1968 by The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.
Additions and corrections copyright 2017 by Charles F. Hummel
Markup copyright 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin