Wallace Nutting was a dyspeptic minister so overwhelmed by urban life and modern values that he led millions of Americans on a nostalgic journey into the colonial age.
As the Martha Stewart of the Colonial Revival, he influenced the décor of countless American homes. He spurred a wave of historic preservation and advanced the study of American decorative arts and architecture.
A nervous breakdown forced Wallace Nutting to retire from the pulpit at 43. He took to selling photographs of rural scenes and colonial homes to earn a living. Before Martha Stewart ever brandished her glue gun, Wallace Nutting created an empire of hand-tinted photographs, books, reproduction furniture and experiences, all evoking a better, happier time. By 1915, he earned $1,000 a day.
As an entrepreneur and a businessman, the Wallace Nutting name stood for quality, according to Charles T. Lyle, executive director of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, and curator of a recent Nutting exhibit.
“Wallace Nutting was a true pioneer in the emerging fields of historic preservation, and in the study and appreciation of American decorative arts and architecture,” Lyle said. “Nutting created an aesthetic that popularized the use of American antiques that people wanted to have in their own homes and could live with comfortably.”
Historic New England has an online collection of Wallace Nutting photographs, called the Wallace Nutting photographic collection, 1910s-1930s. It’s searchable by state. Click here to see it.
Following are photographs of six colonial homes featured by Wallace Nutting. If you have any Wallace Nutting favorites, please share them in the comments section.
Joseph Webb House
In 1914 Wallace Nutting began buying a series of colonial homes that he called “The Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses.” They gave him the freedom to create ‘a proper setting for quaint pictures with attractive background and furnishings.’ But he didn’t have to adapt to the schedules and room arrangements of the new house museums.
One of those homes was the Webb House in Wethersfield, Conn. Joseph Webb, a successful merchant with ships that traded in the West Indies, built it in 1752. He died at 34, leaving six children and a widow. Diplomat Silas Deane, executor of the estate, later married Webb’s widow and built a house next door.
Webb’s son Joseph, Jr., inherited the house. In 1774, he hosted Gen. George Washington for five nights while he planned the Siege of Yorktown with the Comte de Rochambeau. It passed through several owners after Webb sold it in 1790. Martin Welles bought it around 1820, and it stayed in his family until 1913. Wallace Nutting bought it in 1916 as a sales office, studio and tourist attraction.
He lovingly photographed the details of the house, including the doors, the fireplaces, the shell dome cupboard and the china inside. For a time the public flocked to Wethersfield to pay 25 cents for admission to the house. World War I and gas rationing interrupted the business.
Nutting sold the house to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1919. Today it belongs to the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.
211 Main Street, Wethersfield, Conn.
Since childhood, Wallace Nutting set his heart on becoming a Congregational minister. He grew up in Augusta, Maine, and attended Philips Exeter Academy before entering Harvard. After graduating seminary he took a job as minister at the Fryeburg Congregational Church for a season.
Wallace Nutting was back in Maine in 1914, photographing the Wadsworth House, now the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, in Portland.
Elizabeth and Peleg Wadsworth, a Revolutionary War general, raised 10 children in the house, built in 1785-86. It was the first brick building in Portland and the oldest standing building on the peninsula.
Wadsworth’s grandson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lived in the house from the time he was 8 months old until he was 35. Henry’s younger sister Anne Longfellow Pierce was the last family member to live in the house. When she died in 1901, she left it to the Maine Historical Society, which has run it as Maine’s first house museum since 1902.
Wallace Nutting was buried in Augusta after he died at home in Framingham, Mass., on July 19, 1941, at age 79.
The Wadsworth-Longfellow House opens to the public from Maine through October; click here for information about hours and directions.
489 Congress Street, Portland, Maine.
Wallace Nutting was born in the village of Gleasondale, Mass., on Nov. 17, 1861. His father died in the Civil War when he was eight months old.
A story about his ancestor resonated with him. The forebear was killed in an Indian raid in Groton, Mass., in 1639, and his head stuck on a pole to warn off new settlers.
Nutting returned to Massachusetts again and again. He bought the Cutler-Bartlett House in Newburyport and the Ironmaster’s House in Saugus.
In 1917 he bought the Hazen-Spiller House in Haverhill, where Indian raiders burned many wood houses. That may have contributed to the decision to have the house made of brick. Many brick makers lived in Haverhill, and the house is notable for both its size and its two fireplaces. Rather than two central fireplaces, the fireplaces in the house stand at either end of the building.
Richard Hazen, member of an early Haverhill family, built the house.
Nutting’s speculated the house was partially a shoe factory and garrison, used by early settlers to escape Indian raids. He dated the house to sometime before 1700. But today historians date it to 1724, after the Indian raids in Haverhill ceased.
Wallace Nutting operated the house as a museum in 1918, though it was not one of his more successful properties. Today the house has private ownership.
8 Groveland St., Haverhill, Mass.
Wallace Nutting eventually took his art of hand-colored photography to a new level. He began to stage scenes of domestic life with people dressed in colonial garb inside of colonial houses, such as the woman descending the staircase, above.
He bought the Wentworth-Gardner House in 1915 and restored it as one of his ‘Chain of Colonial Picture Homes.’ It’s a Georgian-style waterfront mansion in Portsmouth, N.H., built in 1760 by Mark Hunking Wentworth. Mark Wentworth was a wealthy member of the prominent Wentworth family. His brother was colonial Gov. Benning Wentworth. He built the house as a wedding gift for his son Thomas and his daughter-in-law Anne Tasker.
The house itself very nearly wound up in New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased it with the intention of dismantling it and moving it. But the museum changed its mind and left it in place. The house is notable for the skill of the local craftsmen who carved its intricate details to mimic the tastes of the English aristocracy.
140 Mechanic St., Portsmouth, N.H.
Eleazer Arnold House
Nutting had his final pulpit at the Union Congregational Church in Providence. He hated the city, but he found a way to soothe his jangled nerves in the countryside. “I took long bicycle rides on Monday,” he wrote.
On those bicycle trips, he began to take photographs of landscapes. He then made a deal with a local printer to print platinotypes of birches and blossoms of photos he’d taken in Northern New England. Nutting had so much success he opened a studio in New York City, but soon moved to Southbury, Conn.
He photographed the Eleazer Arnold House in Lincoln, R.I. Wheeler, a tavern owner, built the house in 1693. It’s a rare example of a 17th century ‘stone-ender,’ a house with fieldstone side walls and chimney and wooden end walls. The building type came from western England, mostly to northern Rhode Island.
Nutting’s photograph shows the side stone façade.
The Eleazer Arnold House was donated to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1919, when Wallace Nutting took the photograph. The public can visit on weekends year-round from 11 am-4 pm.
487 Great Road, Lincoln, R.I.
Gen. David Robinson House
Wallace Nutting collected furniture as props for his photographs, then opened a factory and sold high-quality reproductions. But he lost $100,000 in the venture, he wrote.
His furniture was so authentic unscrupulous dealers bought pieces, aged them artificially and sold them for a hundred times what they paid. Wallace Nutting also published The Furniture Treasury in 1928, which collectors then used as a standard guide for many years.
In the 1920s, Wallace Nutting began publishing his States Beautiful series of travel books. Read his book, Vermont Beautiful, online by clicking here.
One example of Nutting’s colonial vignettes is this oddly hand-colored photograph of a man and a woman in period dress standing at the gate of the Gen. David Robinson House in Bennington, Vt. The man wears a coat tinted bright red but the woman is in black and white.
General David Robinson, a Revolutionary War general, built his house in 1796. Handed down through the family, in 1912 it contained an invaluable collection of Revolutionary relics. Those included the sword and hat worn by Robinson during the Battle of Bennington.
Monument Avenue, opposite the Robinson marker, Bennington, Vt.
Images: Wallace Nutting images courtesy Historic New England; Wentworth-Gardner House By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28778716; Hazen-Spiller House By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9715789. This story was updated i 2022.