The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton

Charles Hummel | December 31, 1998

They were a well-known, respected local family of full-service craftsmen whose activities were supported by a 100-acre farm - a recipe for success.


For more than 100 years, four generations of the Dominy family were able to support themselves and their families with their craftsmanship. Because virtually no records or products documented to Nathaniel Dominy 3d (1714-1778), a carpenter and surveyor, have survived, my studies have focused on a father, son, and grandson active between 1760 and about 1850. They are Nathaniel 4th (1737-1812), Nathaniel 5th (1770-1852), and Felix Dominy (1800-1868).

Part of the reason for their success is that they were in the right place at the right time. By the time Nathaniel 4th began working, his family had lived in East Hampton for almost 100 years.

The first Nathaniel settled here about 1669, only 21 years after the town's founding. The house in which Nathaniel 4th lived was built in about 1715, 45 years before he became active as a craftsman, on North Main Street, on the road that led from the town to Three Mile Harbor and Long Island Sound. Dominy males had also married into local families such as Edwards, Baker, and Miller. In short, they were a known and trusted family.

They were also a known quantity as producers of goods. Nathaniel 2d (1684-1768) was a weaver and a surveyor, the latter always an important service skill in an agricultural community. He supervised the building of the town's first poorhouse and was a partner in a local sawmill. Nathaniel 4th was a joiner, house and barn carpenter, turner, millwright, coffinmaker, clockmaker, and a repairer of guns, jewelry, and watches. His son Nathaniel 5th was a cabinetmaker, joiner, turner, millwright, wheelwright, coffinmaker, and repairer of small boats. And Felix Dominy, Nathaniel 5th's son, was a clockmaker, jewelry, and watch repairer, and general metalworker.

What the local community needed in the way of woodwork or metalwork - furniture, house and mill carpentry, clocks, watch repair, agricultural tools, spinning wheels, dry cooperage, coffins, and more - the Dominys provided for well over 100 years.

The family was fortunate in that, like most craftsmen producing goods in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they lived in a rural region. (The Assessment Roll of the Town of East Hampton for 1814 notes that the Dominys owned 100 acres of land.)

City craftsmen in colonial America generally were forced to purchase food and other basic necessities of living. Thus, their overhead costs were higher than their counterparts working in rural areas.

In short, they were a well-known, respected local family of full-service craftsmen whose activities were supported by a 100-acre farm - a recipe for success.

Outside East Hampton, the Dominys provided services to customers in Flushing, Huntington, Islip, Moriches, Patchogue, Quogue, Riverhead, Smithtown, Southold, and at least eight other towns on Long Island. They also had clients in Haddam, Hartford, Lyme, Moodus, New Haven, Saybrook, Stonington, and Wethersfield, Conn., a short sail across Gardiner's Bay and Long Island Sound.

Sometimes they would travel to seek additional work. In 1795, Nathaniel 4th credited Nathan Dayton with 12 shillings for the use of Dayton's mare "on a clock-tour to Mastick." In 1809, he advertised in the Suffolk Gazette: "A tour to the western parts of this county," for the purpose of repairing clocks.

Another key to the Dominys' success is the fact that there were always a substantial number of years during which a father and son worked together. This enabled them to specialize and to increase production.

Nathaniel 4th had received sufficient training to begin working on his own by 1758. His father did not die until 1778, thus enabling Nathaniel 4th to concentrate on making clocks and repairing both watches and clocks, as well as other metalwork, while Nathaniel 3d, the carpenter and surveyor, focused on woodwork. When "young Nat," Nathaniel 5th, began working in about 1789, his father was able to concentrate, again, on metalwork, clockwork, and watch and clock repair until his death in 1812. Young Nat focused on woodwork until Nathaniel 4th died, adding metalwork until his son, Felix, took on metalwork, clockwork, and watch repair in 1817.

From 1769 through 1827, Na thaniel 4th and Felix kept a record of all watches coming into their shop for repair, including the names of their owners, makers, and serial numbers. Altogether there are 4,600 entries, representing 1,983 owners and 1,108 different watchmakers. It was an incredibly lucrative business that accounted for a significant portion of the Dominys' annual income.

Because their names appear prominently on the dials of clocks made on North Main Street, the Dominy craftsmen have been primarily known as clockmakers. But close examination of their records and surviving products indicates that they earned more from furniture production and watch repair than from clockmaking. At least 936 pieces of furniture were made in the Dominy woodworking shop between 1760 and 1840.

Both a pole lathe and a great wheel lathe were used to make parts for more than 350 chairs recorded in the accounts. Armchairs and side chairs were made in splat-back, fiddle-back, slat-back, and Windsor types, usually for adults, but occasionally for children as well. Nathaniel 5th, after 1804, also produced rocking chairs.

The Dominys' templates - patterns for furniture parts such as chair splats or crest rails, used by all cabinetmakers and joiners from the 17th century to the present day - have survived in greater numbers than is the case for any American woodworker of the Colonial or early-Republic periods. By outlining the shape of the template on boards, with a scratch awl or pencil, the craftsman could produce objects in quantity. These and other labor-saving devices hastened the process of cutting, shaping, and assembling pieces made in the shop.

Time is money, then as now. These craftsmen worked 10 to 12 hours each day, six days a week. It is a romantic notion that craftsmen like the Dominys didn't care about time and took as long as perfection required to complete an object.

Slat-back chairs were probably the most common type they made. Sixty-one are listed in accounts between 1796 and 1818, at prices from four to six shillings. A "great" slat-back armchair, such as one made for Abraham Sherrill Jr. in 1822, cost 14 shillings and eight hours of labor to complete.

A set of mahogany Windsor chairs made in 1794 for Capt. William J. Rysam of Sag Harbor cost 10 shillings each. That price probably does not include the materials, because Captain Rysam was the owner of a mahogany grove in Honduras. Very few American Windsor chairs were made of mahogany and it is likely, therefore, that Captain Rysam supplied Nathaniel Dominy 5th with the material for his chairs.

Rysam was a man of means who by 1799 had acquired a shipyard, a pier at the foot of Bay Street in Sag Harbor, and a ropewalk. He was the sole owner of the 200-ton brig Merchant. Nathaniel 5th also built for him a double-geared sawmill, which was later dismantled and shipped on an armed vessel to Honduras, where it was re-erected.

All the circular tops of Dominy stands and tables were made using an "arbor and cross," the most important piece of lathe equipment to survive in the Dominy Tool Collection at the Winterthur Museum. Responding to a growing demand, in 1795 Nathaniel 5th had a local blacksmith, Deacon David Talmage, make "an Arbor and Cross for Turning Stands," which he then set in the bed of the great wheel lathe.

Turned legs and joinery were features of a mahogany breakfast table that Nathaniel 5th made for his son Felix, probably at the time of Felix's marriage to Phoebe Miller in 1826. Its late-Sheraton design would not have been out of place in New York City, but then, Felix had received his clock and watch training in that city. Presumably, he would have expected a fashionable table for his family's use.

By far the most ambitious and expensive piece of furniture made in the Dominys' woodworking shop was a maple desk and bookcase made for John Lyon Gardiner in 1800, at a cost of 20 pounds 8 shillings. That price included carting it to Fireplace, just opposite Gardiner's Island. Nathaniel 5th spent about 10 days making it. It was inherited by Winthrop Gardiner Jr. about 1933 and is now owned by Winterthur.

John Lion Gardiner, born in the same year as Nathaniel Dominy 5th (1770), was one of the best customers for Dominy-made objects.

From 1769 through 1835, the Dominys made at least 34 pieces of furniture for nine separate members of the Sherrill family. In return for furniture and other goods, the Sherrills supplied the craftsmen with shoes for the daughters of Nathaniel 5th, work in the Dominys' woodworking shop, field work, carting of wood, rental of a horse, butchering of animals to supply meat, and even hammering out the iron triangle that Nathaniel 4th used to support his clock-gear cutting engine.

It was a barter economy. In exchange for their products the Dominys also received household goods such as woven coverlets, "Sundries of Earthenware," linen cloth, shoes, skeins of wool, indigo, spoons, hats and blanketing. Customers also paid with foodstuffs - bushels of wheat, corn, rye, oats, spices, rice, beef, mutton, fish, salt pork, vinegar, apples, tea, molasses, rum, and tobacco, as well as with supplies and services.

Gun repair and the stocking of guns were another source of income. In 1800, for example, the Dominys were paid for "stocking a gun" and also for "2 Rifles, sixpence." At that price, the latter could only be mock toy or training devices for militia drills. (Felix Dominy was active in the militia from 1817 to 1835.)

Although the Dominy craftsmen's claim to fame initially rested on the products of their clock shop, there can be no doubt that they would not have prospered solely from the sale of clocks. They made only 90 clocks over a 60-year period. One of the most expensive was made for David Gardiner of Flushing in 1799. Described in Nathaniel 4th's bill as "an Horologiographical, Repeating, alarm, monition clock," it cost the equivalent of $90. The painted enamel dial, like most used by American clockmakers in this period, was manufactured in England, at "Osborne's Manufactory/Birmingham." David Gardiner purchased the dial in New York City.

By the late 1820s or early 1830s, time was running out for the makers of handcrafted clocks. Steampower had been applied to moving boats. It had also been applied to moving railroad trains and machinery. Goods could be produced cheaper, in greater quantity, and much faster than was possible by the Dominys in their handcraft shops.

In 1828, Sarah Nicoll of Islip canceled an order for a clock by writing to Felix Dominy that "some of my friends think it such a piece of folly for me to have an expensive clock made." In other words, I can get a cheaper clock of Connecticut manufacture that will serve my purpose.

For the Dominys to try to earn a living as craftsmen any more was like tilting at the windmills they had built on the eastern end of Long Island. Felix Dominy moved to Babylon by 1835 to become the keeper of the Fire Island Lighthouse. By 1847, he was operating a hotel on Fire Island during the summer and in Bay Shore during the winter.

Winterthur is proud to be the custodian of the major collection of material related to the Dominy craftsmen.

Charles Hummel, now retired from Delaware's Winterthur Museum as senior deputy director, continues to teach there. This is excerpted from a 350th anniversary lecture, underwritten by Bruce and Jane Collins, presented on Nov. 7.

The Dominy house and woodworking shop on North Main Street was torn down in 1946.