– Ellery E. Foutch (Winter 2021)
This remarkable arrangement offers viewers the suggestion of a family tree, the shape of an almost triangular or pyramidal pine or evergreen like that of the Vermont state seal. Dozens of hairwork flowers span its limbs, from broad, four-petaled clusters to more spindly, open designs and other “flowers” that feature tight coils evoking chrysanthemums. Many of these flowers include golden beads at their center, almost like pollen on extending stamens; a few delicate spirals of wire add softness to the overall design. It is painstakingly mounted on an ivory linen backing and surrounded by a gilded frame. To the delight of historians (and likely its original family members), the reverse of the shadowbox is filled with careful cursive annotations indicating the names of those whose hair is incorporated in the wreath, as well as an inscription from the maker: “Made and presented by Abigail F. Wood to her sister Diana… 1857.”
Transcription, from top to bottom and left to right: “Made and presented by Abigail F. Wood to her sister Diana. / 5th Daisy Fannie Sibley / 3rd Daisy Sarah King / Corrilla Johnson / 6th Daisy Hattie Sibley / 4th My Infants Daisy Corrilla Wood / 2nd Daisy Mary Foster / A. [Combs?] / Carrie Foster / 1st Daisy Julia Foster / 4th Violet Freeman & Rufus T [damaged, but likely Tabor] / J Tabor and Family / 5th Violet Charles Jane & Diana / Sarah Foster & Hattie / Sarah Foster Fannie & Emma / 6th Violet Sisters / Center Flower: Aurelia Foster / Hiram Sibley / George & Freddie / 3rd Violet S.R. & D.F. Tabor [Samuel Robinson Tabor, 1802-1865, and Diana Foster Tabor, 1803-1868] / Edwin Foster / W. Wood & Henry / Eloise Foster [George?] & Nelson & Herbert / Mariah Foster, Owen, Charles, & William / Louis Tolle / S. Austin Foster / 2nd Violet Brothers / 1st Violet lower leaves Grandmother, Uncle King & Great Aunt Lydia / 1857 / 1st Violet top leaves My Parents.
Searching these names did indeed confirm the object’s status as a family tree, painstakingly reuniting a family separated by time, space, and death. The inscription also reveals the maker’s intent for the varying forms, with types labeled as “violets” and “daisies.” The roots or base of the tree features the eldest members of the family: Grandmother, Uncle King and “Great Aunt Lydia” (likely Lydia King, 1761-1843) on the bottom left, and “1st Violet top leaves My Parents,” Stephen Foster (1772-1850) and Mary King Foster (1782-1857).
Given the date written on the hairwork arrangement, it’s likely that Abigail was moved to create this family tree for her eldest sister Diana after the death of their mother in the spring of 1857. A violet on the right side is labeled “Brothers,” balanced on the left by a violet of “Sisters.” Close relationships are emblematized by intertwined flowers, composed of a combination of hair: Diana, the recipient of the arrangement, is grouped with her husband, Samuel Robinson Taylor; Abigail’s husband, Willard Wood, shares a blossom with their son Henry. The arrangement evidences a close attention to detail, compositional facility, and a keen ability to navigate the complicated strands of family relationships, organizing them in logical groupings and patterns. It is also an emblem of loss.
Stephen and Mary King Foster had ten children; Diana (b. 1803) was the oldest, and Abigail was ten years her junior (b. 1813). They lived in East Montpelier, where Stephen was a farmer, carpenter, and millwright (Pierce, 582). Shortly after Abigail’s birth, Stephen volunteered for the militia, departing with several other Vermonters to fight at Plattsburgh in 1814; he ascended to the rank of Captain. Little is known about Diana and Abigail’s youth, although Diana married Samuel R. Tabor on Valentine’s Day, 1832 (Murphy, 76); their younger brother Austin recalled playing practical jokes when “Bob” was courting Diana, once filling the cushion of a rocking chair on which Tabor liked to sit with pins (Foster, 6-7). Abigail wed Willard Wood (1806-1865) of Stansted, Quebec the winter following Diana’s wedding (9 Jan. 1833, Murphy, 86). A portrait of Abigail in her youth, likely commissioned in honor of her wedding, shows a pink-cheeked beauty whose brunette hair has been elaborately curled and arranged, suggesting the same facility and attention to detail that she would later devote to hairwork. Willard and Abigail soon moved across the U.S.-Canda Border to Rock Island, Quebec, where Willard purchased real estate and acted as a “Merchant Tailor.” (This knowledge helps us to see Abigail’s bountiful billowing sleeves in a new light, as well!)
Willard and Abigail had two children: a daughter, Corrilla, born 1836, and a son, Henry G. Wood, born around 1838. While we don’t know much about her daily life (outside of her likely support of Willard’s tailoring business), tragedy soon struck. Corrilla died at the young age of 13, in March of 1849. This must have been a profound loss: Corrilla’s tombstone is plaintively inscribed “Our only daughter,” and Abigail still referred to her in her 1857 hairwork as “My Infant.” Abigail’s younger brother, Austin, recalled the time of Corrilla’s death and Abigail’s religious fervor:
“The religious excitement ran very high in this vicinity [Rock Island] for several years. My sister, Mrs. Wood, whom I always regarded as an excellent Christian woman, was a firm believer in the doctrine of endless punishment. I recall the excitement through which she passed at the time when her daughter died (a very beautiful, innocent, and sweet girl of thirteen year, who had not experienced any especial change of heart and had not been converted). It was heart-rending in the extreme when she realized that Corrilla would not recover. Day after day she would pour out her soul in prayer for her daughter’s salvation, with an agony that is beyond my power to describe. For a time I feared very much that her reason would give way and she would become a maniac. At last the dear innocent girl consented to her mother’s request to have a minister come. They prayed and agonized together that she might not be doomed to hell. Before all was over I think the mother had hope that their united effort had brought an influence to bear upon Corrilla and she would be saved from unending suffering in the future world” (Foster, 36).
Almost seven years after finishing her hairwork tree, Abigail’s son, Henry, also died, just shy of his 26th birthday. The Stanstead Journal solemnly reported his illness and death: “At Rock Island, Stanstead, Canada East, July 13th, 1864, of quick consumption, after a very painful sickness which he bore with christian fortitude and resignation, HENRY G. WOOD, son of Willard and Abigail Wood, in his 26th year. Truly he was an affectionate and dutiful son, and a devoted christian in his last sickness.” Less than a year later, Willard died as well, leaving Abigail as the sole survivor of her small family: “Peacefully fell asleep in Jesus, WILLARD WOOD, of Rock Island, May 13, 1865, aged 58” (Stanstead Journal 25 May 1865).
It is hard to imagine the loss Abigail must have felt in these years. Some sense of this is evident in the simple decoration of Willard’s gravestone, which follows the curved, almost horseshoe-like shape of Corrilla’s; four broken links are carved under the curve of his name. Abigail seems to have stayed in Stanstead, living another 15 years after her husband’s death. Unusually for a woman of her time, she received an extensive obituary in the Stanstead Journal upon her death. Although much of the tribute reads as somewhat over-the-top platitudes to her virtue and sacrifice, it is worth quoting here at length for the esteem in which she was held:
“Mrs Abigail F. Wood was born at Montpelier, Vt., the 4th of May, 1813, and died at the family residence, Rock Island, the 27th day of January, 1880.
Her childhood and early life spent in her father’s house, indicated with remarkable accuracy the coming character. –Her sweetness of disposition and purity of spirit exerted an unusual influence within the family circle and beyond it and won for her the supreme affection of all her relatives and friends.
In 1833 she was married to Mr Willard Wood, and immediately removed to Rock Island, where she continued to reside until the day of her death.
Her domestic life presented a beautiful model of felicity and comfort, yet, as the following facts will show, was not by any means free from affliction. In 1849 she lost her only daughter, a lovely girl, who died at the early age of 13 years. In 1864 her second and only surviving child died, a young man of beautiful character and full of promise. This was a cup of sorrow, the bitterness of which was known only to the sufferer, but in the following year her heart was again wrung with grief, when in the mysterious providence of God, she was called to sustain if possible a severer loss in the death of her devoted husband. These afflictions were, as such afflictions always are, distressing beyond expression, but no murmur was ever known to escape her lips, she implicitly trusted and was sustained by the grace of God in a remarkable degree.
Mrs Wood’s Christian character seemed almost ideal. Her sympathy with the poor was intense, and she supplied their wants with a liberal hand. Her interest in all movements for the general welfare was lively, and she supported to the full extent of her ability every good cause. –Her regard for the Church of Christ was supreme, and she watched over it with a tender solicitude. In her Christian life every one felt there was a beautiful consistency, it was a living example of the truth of the Gospel, and altogether such in its holiness and usefulness as is rarely surpassed.
Mrs Wood’s feeble constitution and protracted illness, every one is familiar with. She suffered much and long, but relief came at last. Death had no terrors for her. She hailed with gladness the coming of her Saviour, and looked forward with joy to an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom. Like the tired child she has gone to her rest; like the weary pilgrim she has reached home; like the faithful servant she has gained her reward.”
Like the loops and sworls of her hairwork, the linked chains carved on Abigail and Willard’s gravestones evoke ties that bind, uniting this family beyond death.
* * * * * * * *
Abigail outlived her older sister Diana, recipient of the hairwork arrangement, as well. Diana is buried in the East Montpelier cemetery, about 65 miles south of the Wood family’s resting place– but her gravestone also features her name carved in raised letters around the upper circumference of a circle, echoing the stones chosen by Abigail for her daughter and husband (and later, her own stone). It is not clear what happened to the hairwork shadowbox after Diana’s death in 1868. Her family could have sent it to Abigail in remembrance, or it could have descended to one of her children.
The work’s whereabouts in the intervening decades are a mystery. But in 1960, it was donated to the Shelburne Museum; an adhesive label on the back of the frame reads “Gift Floyd James thru Coleman Twitchell.” How Floyd James (1904-1999) or Coleman Twitchell (1912-1987) came into possession of the heirloom is unclear (as of this writing, no family relationship to the Woods, Fosters, or Tabors has been discovered). James was a competitive golfer and worked for Barclay, Brown, and Jones Inc. of Boston from 1902-1966 (Fillion 1969); in 1964, he began serving on the Board of Trustees of the University of Vermont (Fillion 1966). Twitchell was a physician and an avid tennis player, helping to found the Burlington Tennis Club in 1957. While the two men must have been in the same social circles, one documented link is that their wives each served on the board of directors of the Visiting Nurse Association (“Visiting Nurses”). It is one of the ironies of the historical record that these two men who so prioritized their athletic pursuits came to be connected with an object so decidedly associated with “women’s work” and the feminine– and that the only published link between the two of them (as of this writing) is due to the volunteer service of their wives.
Cite this essay: Ellery E. Foutch, “Abigail Foster Wood, Hairwork Floral Tree in Shadow Box, 1857” in Perspectives on Hairwork, ed. E. Foutch (Winter 2021): https://elleryfoutch.middcreate.net/hairwork/abigail-foster-wood-hairwork-floral-tree-in-shadow-box-1857/ [date accessed]
With thanks to Nancie Ravenel for bringing this object to my attention and for being a partner in sleuthing! Additional thanks to Kathy Curtis (Stanstead Historical Society, Colby Curtis Museum), Patricia Svoboda (Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution), and to Rosie Laquerre, East Montpelier Town Clerk, Lyn Blackwell, and Sandal Cate, East Montpelier Historical Society.
“Dr. M. Coleman Twitchell.” Burlington Free Press 24 Jan. 1987, 14.
Durfee, Elizabeth Dole. Faces in the Parlor: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Portraits from Vermont Collections : February 12-August 13, 1989. Burlington: Robert Hull Fleming Museum, 1989.
Fillion, Donald. “Floyd James Receives Highest Award at Lettermen’s Dinner.” Burlington Free Press 15 Apr. 1966, 22.
Fillion, Donald. “Floyd James… Vermont’s Mr. Golf.” Burlington Free Press 15 Oct. 1969, 3.
Foster, Austin T. A Grandfather’s Reminiscences, 1822-1900. Hartford, CT: Finlay Bros., 1922. link
Hanson, Charles A. “Obituary: Abigail F. Wood.” Stanstead Journal 12 Feb. 1880, 3. link
Hill, Ellen C. and Marilyn S. Blackwell. Across the Onion: A History of East Montpelier Vermont, 1781-1981. East Montpelier: Historical Society, 1983.
Index of American Paintings, Smithsonian Institution: https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_VT-D-78
Murphy, Robert M. “Marriages in Montpelier, Burlington, and Berlin, Vt. 1789-1876.” Barre, VT: Vermont Historical Society, 2009. link
“Visiting Nurses Make 965 Calls in April, May.” Burlington Free Press 13 Jun. 1956, 4.
“Willard Wood.” Historic Rock Island site: https://localwiki.org/rock-island/Willard_Wood
Future research: East Montpelier Historical Society and Town Hall; Austin Foster Hawes papers, MS 637, Yale University Library (once all have reopened following COVID-19 precautions)