Introducing Hannah Davis

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at the Walpole Town Hall, I will give a talk on antiques in the collection of the Walpole Historical Society.

My approach will be to compare items in their collection with other examples made elsewhere in New England. I have selected about a dozen items from the Walpole collection. Of interest is their Huntington tall clock, an eagle weathervane that once stood atop the Walpole Town Hall. For this article, I will give some history of Hannah Davis of Jaffrey, N.H. Hannah will be one of the topics I discuss.

Hannah Davis was born in Jaffrey in 1784, an only child. The death of Hannah’s parents left her alone and poor. It was 1818 when Hannah began making hatboxes to support herself.

Hannah sold her boxes to local merchants in the Jaffrey area. They became very popular. But selling these boxes wholesale wasn’t the answer. She needed to sell these hatboxes to retail customers so as to receive full price. A large box sold for 50 cents. Smaller trinket boxes were as little as 12 cents.

The hatbox process

She used spruce for the body of her boxes and pine for tops and bottoms. Hannah would personally select a spruce tree that she would have cut down. She invented a foot powered saw that could cut very thin strips of spruce – maybe an eighth of an inch thick. While the spruce was still green, Hannah would bend the green strips around a wooden form. The ends would be butted together and nailed.

For a cover and bottom, Hannah used pine about three-eighths inches thick. The cover has a narrow strip of wood about an inch wide nailed to its outside perimeter. The pine top was made the same size as the box. This way when the top was placed on the box, the inch wide perimeter strip would snuggly fit the box. Both the sides and top were covered with wallpaper, the interior with newspapers of the day.

Hannah Davis squirrel hatbox. Photo provided by Walpole Historical Society.


While wallpaper had been around for decades in France and England, its use was limited in this country. This wallpaper was created with woodblock printing methods. It was colorful wallpaper often with romantic scenes. In 1785, a machine was invented to print wallpaper in small sheets. In 1799, a machine was invented to print continuous lengths of wallpaper. Now we were on a roll.

It is not clear if Hannah purchased wallpaper or if she collected short pieces leftover from a wallpapering job. I imagine she used both sources. She used fanciful designs often in a folk art style. One of my favorite designs is the squirrel you see on the Walpole box pictured with this article.

Hannah was not alone manufacturing these hatboxes. Others throughout New England were producing them. Many of these boxes used pasteboard for the body. Pasteboard boxes didn’t hold up as well as Hannah’s. If the pasteboard got wet, the box would rapidly deteriorate. Hannah’s boxes have stood the test of time.

Hannah was very successful at both marketing and manufacturing. She would load a wagon with her boxes and drive to the mills in area towns. Many women worked in these mills. At break time, these women would purchase hatboxes directly from Hannah. She sold hundreds of boxes on these trips.

Another promotional tool Hannah employed was marking her boxes with a label. Producing boxes from the 1820s through the early 1850s, Hannah used ten different label designs.

It’s important to understand that at this time New England was still heavily forested. Today, we like to refinish antiques to reveal the native woods. But in Hannah’s time wide boards were available everywhere. What customers wanted was color.

Everything was painted in those days. Many colors were used; red, blue, chrome yellow, and Windsor green. Raised paneling in rooms were often painted red. Try to picture an early 1800s room. Red paneled walls with painted floors to simulate exotic woods or decorated floors. A step-back cupboard painted robin’s egg blue. Kitchen chairs painted chrome yellow and a Windsor green table. These rooms were bright and cheerful.

All accessories including wooden bowls, pipe boxes, and all other woodenwares were painted. People of this age wanted color in their lives not plain unadorned wood. White plaster walls were stenciled in bright reds and greens. Exciting wallpaper designs and colors replaced stenciled walls. Hannah’s colorful boxes were in demand.

If you don’t enjoy my presentation, I’ll give you your money back. How can I make such a wild claim? The program is free and open to everyone.

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