For nearly half a century, Stephen Smith worked as a cabinetmaker in Boston, beginning as a relatively small artisan and building his trade into a substantial firm with three partners. He is first listed in the city directory in 1829, and by the following year was recorded as a cabinetmaker with a shop in Wilson Lane and home at 3 Purchase Place. Smith remained at this address through most of the decade, but by 1839, he had moved his shop to 44 Cornhill, and in the late 1840s he relocated once again to 49 Cornhill. A major part of Smith's business during these years was the retail of stoves manufactured by his brothers-in-law, Thomas and John L. Lothrop, of Provincetown, Mass., but he also carried on a brisk trade in the manufacture of office and church furniture, cabinetry, and clocks, some of which he contracted out. At one level, business seems to have dominated Smith's life. Not only was he married to the sister of an important supplier of his, but his own sister, Sarah, was tied into his expanding business interests through her marriage to an associate, Daniel Scudder. Thomas Lothrop, too, was an avid businessman; so much so that he wrote of the death of his daughter in 1841 only to explain why he had not been able to transact his business affairs sooner.
George L. Smith, Stephen's brother, attempted to take a different path to financial success. Having heard of the discovery of gold in California in May, 1849, George wasted little time in deciding to try his hand at mining, and between September, 1849, and September, 1850, he worked claims along the Yuba River and in the vicinity of Sacramento. Unlike many miners who found as much disappointment as gold, George fared moderately well, and was able to send home several hundred dollars for his year's labor.
Eventually, as his trade expanded, Stephen Smith came to specialize in "bank and counting room furniture," and the 1865 business directory lists him as a furniture dealer, rather than manufacturer. In that year, his firm, Stephen Smith & Company, included George H. Crocker, James Norris, and George L. Smith as partners. The firm remained in business until at least 1877.
The Stephen Smith papers are a partial record of the business transactions of a Boston cabinetmaker and furniture dealer, concentrated in the years 1834-1853. Despite its incompleteness, the collection provides a good overview of the trade, and includes some detailed information on cabinetry, iron stoves, retail operations, clock making, apprenticing, and business practices, and gives some minor insight into the lives of an upwardly mobile member of the skilled artisan class.
The most informative series of letters in the collection are the more than ninety letters between Smith and his brothers-in-law, Thomas and John L. Lothrop, relating to the manufacture and sale of iron stoves, and the twenty letters written by a Concord, N.H., clockmaker, Abiel Chandler, discussing clock manufacturing and the consignment of his goods through Smith. Chandler's letters provide details on the prices, design and distribution of clocks. Labor arrangement are not a major topic in the collection, however, there are several letter relating to efforts to arrange apprenticeships for boys entering the cabinetmaking trade, and one regarding a boy named Henry, possibly a relative of the Lothrops, who wanted to become an apothecary (3:34). According to the Lothrops, Henry was a difficult case, and suffered from the serious fault of a short attention span and an interest only in things when they were new. One letter, written in 1842, includes notice of a convention for cabinetmakers in Boston (2:45).
The Smith papers contain ten letters relating to the California Gold Rush, six written by Stephen Smith's brother, George L. Smith, in 1849 and 1850, and two by a ship captain who transported them to California from Boston. George's letters include literate, optimistic descriptions of the voyage around the horn and of conditions in San Francisco and Sacramento during the first year of the Gold Rush. They are especially interesting in that George was a minor success at gold mining.
Among the miscellaneous items in the collection are two unusual, brief letters of some note. The first is a letter from a recent widower, Kimbal Smith (3:13), discussing the death of his wife and the emotional hardships he has faced, and the second is a plea from a young man in prison, John Daly (3:51), pleading with his father to get him out and providing a vivid, though very brief sketch of the horrifying conditions.