Perched on the south fork of the eastern end of Long Island, East Hampton today is best known as one of the towns comprising “the Hamptons,” a wealthy summer resort. In the eighteenth century, however, it was an isolated and largely self-sufficient community of small farming and fishing villages scattered over 70 square miles and connected to distant markets by sea. When families from those communities needed a clock, a set of chairs, a hay rake, or a cart wheel, they turned to the Dominy family of craftsmen. When the township voted to build a wind-powered gristmill, the elders commissioned a Dominy. Between the early 1760s and 1840s, three generations of this local craft dynasty—grandfather, Nathaniel IV (1737−1812); father, Nathaniel V (1770−1852); and son, Felix (1800−1868)—made and repaired clocks and watches and provided general woodworking, cabinetmaking, and carpentry to thousands of families in eastern Long Island and the Connecticut coast. They filled a critical need for multi-skilled woodworkers and metalworkers.Remarkably, the nearly complete contents of the Dominy woodworking and clockmaking shops survived in situ until 1946.
Acquired by Winterthur in 1957, the Dominy tool collection, comprising more than 1,000 hand tools and larger pieces of equipment, has been on display since 1960 in timber-frame structures that closely replicate the original shop buildings.
The tools, clocks, furniture, and farm equipment as well as the original shop buildings now under restoration by the town of East Hampton and the shop accounts and family papers housed in Winterthur Library tell a more complete story about a family of craftsmen and their pivotal role in the community than any other grouping of tools, documents, and artifacts in the country. Recognizing the importance of this collection as a national treasure, Winterthur is currently planning the reinstallation of the Dominy Gallery with improved lighting, new displays, and digital media designed to enable deeper exploration of the artifacts and documents.
The Dominy family arrived in East Hampton probably around 1669, twenty years after settlers from Lynn, Massachusetts, founded the town. Listed in property deeds as a carpenter and surveyor, Nathaniel III (1714−1778) established the Dominy woodworking tradition and probably trained his son, Nathaniel IV. In addition to general carpentry and cabinetmaking, Nathaniel IV made clocks and repaired watches. He taught woodworking skills to his son, Nathaniel V, who, from 1787 onward, worked as a house carpenter, millwright, wheelwright, surveyor, and cooper. Felix learned the fundamentals of clockmaking and watch repair from Nathaniel IV and gained additional experience in the shop of a New York City watchmaker and repairer in the years 1815 to 1817.
The Dominy family lived near the center of East Hampton village and owned and cultivated 100 acres of farmland scattered throughout the township. About 1715 they moved into a new house apparently built around the core of an earlier structure on the property that had a parlor below a second-floor chamber and a lean-to kitchen. Between 1745 and 1760, Nathaniel III doubled the size of the house with a two-story addition across the front. He also extended the lean-to, adding a woodworking shop of 485 square feet. Faithfully reconstructed at Winterthur, the shop is equipped with the original workbenches, shelves, racks, and other fixtures in the same positions that the Dominy craftsmen installed them, including a great wheel lathe, the only known eighteenth-century example, and a pole lathe, each probably made between 1750 and 1800.
As itemized in their accounts, the craftsmen made more than 1,700 objects in the woodworking shop with tools forged primarily in England and purchased in New York City through East Hampton merchants who sailed weekly to Manhattan.
In 1798 Nathaniel IV constructed a clock shop at the southeast corner of the house, built around a chimneystack containing a flue for a forge on one side and hearth on the other. Craftsmen there made some 80 cast-brass clock works, from simple to complex, for the next thirty years. Although they made no watches, Nathaniel IV and Felix did a brisk business repairing them. Their affordable rates attracted many clients from Suffolk County and coastal eastern Connecticut, and Felix listed more than 1,000 in a separate book for watch repairs.
After 1810, cabinetmakers newly arrived in the village of Sag Harbor began to compete with the Dominys for market share. In 1823 businessman Nathan Tinker advertised a “furniture warehouse,” well stocked with readymade furniture purchased wholesale in New York City and shipped up the Sound. After some seventy-five years supplying the needs of the community, the Dominy furniture business was undercut by the availability of stylish, inexpensive factory-made furniture. Similarly, the death knell for the Dominy clockmaking business was sounded with the advent of mass-produced, low-cost Connecticut shelf clocks. Priced out of the market, the Dominys stopped making clocks altogether in 1828.
By 1835, at age 65, Nathaniel V pulled back from full-time woodworking. That same year, no longer able to earn a living from clockmaking and watch repair, Felix moved from East Hampton for more lucrative work as keeper of the Fire Island lighthouse. By 1844 he was managing a summer hotel on Fire Island, and from 1861 to his death, in 1868, he owned and managed the Dominy House, a resort hotel in Bay Shore.
The family house, shops, and all contents passed to descendant Nathaniel VII and, after his death in 1910, to his son, Charles Mulford Dominy, also a woodworker.
By 1940, the homestead had fallen into disrepair; fearing its loss, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) dispatched a team to document the structure with photographs and measured drawings.
The following year Charles sold the property. The new owner offered to sell the structure to the town for a museum, but funds were not raised. Fortunately, before the house was dismantled in 1946, Charles’ children removed equipment and tools from both shops for safekeeping, storing larger items in the barn of a Southampton antiques dealer and placing hand tools, shop records, and family papers on loan at the East Hampton Historical Society and East Hampton Free Library. As demolition began, a private buyer stepped in and purchased both shops, moved them to his beachfront home, and combined them to make a guesthouse. Thanks to the generosity of two subsequent homeowners, the shops were ultimately donated to East Hampton with money to fund their reconfiguration and attachment to a replica of the exterior of the Dominy house.
In 1957 Charles F. Montgomery, director of Winterthur, became aware of the Dominy tools. With the support of Henry Francis du Pont, he pursued the acquisition of the collection, which was made possible through the generosity of Dominy family members and funds provided by Henry Belin du Pont. Replicas of the shops with the original tools opened to the public at Winterthur in 1960, followed by the 1968 publication of With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York, the definitive study of the Dominy archives, tools, furniture, and clocks by Curator of Collections Charles Hummel.
The Dominy shops reveal much about life, work, and craftsmanship of an earlier time, and the planned updates to the gallery will allow Winterthur to bring the remarkable story to an even wider audience.
Post by Josh Lane, Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil Curator of Furniture, Winterthur Museum