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Musical Instruments in The House of the Seven Gables

Story and Photos by: Michael Judd

In the parlor of The House of the Seven Gables is a portrait of Susanna Ingersoll, former owner of the house and cousin to Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Contrary to her traditional reputation as a recluse, friends reported that she was lively and social. We know from Hawthorne’s letters that she met with him and others to play whist. She was also very musical. She loved to sing and play the pianoforte and to entertain friends and guests.  According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Susanna gave a “Garden Party” for naval heroes of the War of 1812.  Might she have provided musical accompaniments for singing and dancing?

There is a pianoforte in the parlor, where its rich rosewood and mahogany construction attracts comments and questions from visitors to The House of the Seven Gables.  Its forty ivory keys are fewer than those of a modern piano and, though the sound of the instrument is louder than that of the earlier harpsichords, it is not as loud as a modern piano.  In the 1820’s, Alphaeus Babcock, at the time working in Boston, made this particular pianoforte.

There is a beautiful mandolin, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, resting on top of the pianoforte, the gift of former Curator, Alan Collacchico.  When Alan donated it, he told us that it had been the prized possession of his Italian grandfather, who brought it with him when he immigrated to the United States from northern Italy.  His gift is particularly appropriate, as The House of the Seven Gables Settlement House program has long included in its mission, education services for immigrants and naturalization ceremonies for new American citizens.


At least one of the instruments in the parlor is connected to a particularly colorful episode in the history of The House of the Seven Gables.

The violin resting on the chair belonged to the Upton family. It was made by Charles E. Farley in 1892 in New Boston, N.Y. and was the gift of Elizabeth Eaton, the great-granddaughter of Henry Upton. She identified it as the “Upton violin.”  The family patriarch, Henry O. Upton, styled himself a “Music Teacher and Dance Master.” He was an accomplished musician, musical director and popular tenor soloist who gave voice, violin and pianoforte lessons.  He also offered dance lessons at Hamilton Hall and composed music for The House of the Seven Gables.

His family seems to have been as lively, flamboyant and accomplished as he was, as demonstrated in this remarkable Christmas photograph from 1904.  It shows the family and friends singing enthusiastically and mugging for the camera.  One woman, possibly objecting to the volume, has her fingers in her ears. Upton was the last private owner of The House of the Seven Gables until Caroline Emmerton purchased the home in 1908.


In the interpretation of this space, skilled teachers and guides often use the musical instruments in the parlor to teach lessons in “reading the object.”  Among the questions that they ask visitors is what activities perhaps went on in this room in the past.  Answers may refer to playing games like Mah-Jong, singing or dancing accompanied by the pianoforte, taking tea, with reference to the Japanese tea set, and reading and writing, as suggested by the Hawthorne desk.  Visitors learn important history lessons about the house and those who lived here from the musical instruments and associated artifacts in this room.

Date: July 31, 2018

Author: Sarah Garriepy

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