For Marilyn Conover Barker, looking at old furniture is a lot like reading pioneer journals.
The historian, and author of a book titled The Legacy of Mormon Furniture, says the story of early Church members is told by their material culture, or the things they left behind.These objects, she explained, reveal insights about "Mormon people, their heritage and the things they were really trying to do in their daily lives." In essence, she continued, tools, accessories, dishes and furniture tell a story more poignant than words. They express the social dynamics of the time and place where they were created.
"The pioneers were sincerely trying to create an environment of refinement," Sister Barker said in a Church News interview. "They were trying to establish the best of civilization. The ideal was to be Zion and so quality, refinement, the best that mankind could have was what they were striving for."
For example, Sister Barker said, one early pioneer lined his wagon with tin, expecting to become a tinsmith in Utah. He was also a musician and included his piano in the wagon. When the trip became too difficult, he dug a hole along the trail large enough to hold the piano, lined it with tin, covered it over with dirt and proceeded to Utah. One year later he traveled back to the site, unearthed his piano and hauled it to his new home, she said.
Sister Barker, a member of the Federal Heights Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake, called the Mormon pioneers "very very ingenious" not only as they brought objects west, but also as they found ways to build top quality furniture in Utah.
Craftsmen – who traveled to Deseret, later Utah, from all over the world after joining the Church – brought with them styles that became popular in Utah before they were popular on the East coast of the United States. The craftsmen, from Germany, England and Scandinavia used European templates, design books and skills.
But they had to learn to improvise as they moved from landscape to landscape, Sister Barker explained. Craftsmen had to adapt to the materials found in the West – developing new designs and surface treatments – without affecting quality.
They grained the wood (pine, box elder and willow) found in the western United States to look like nice mahogany and rosewood, she said, emphasizing again early settlers' desire to surround themselves with quality objects.
"The woods available were not the hardwoods of their choice," Sister Barker explained. "You can't just count the fact that they were having to survive, but they were going to survive with standards."
She said the Mormon pioneers carried an attitude of excellence with them, calling their settlements "the best of American colonization."
She credits a great deal of the Mormon life-style to their leadership, which sponsored "taste and attitude" and identified "good workmen."
Brigham Young, a craftsman himself, "took pride and pleasure in assisting others with his knowledge and occasionally his skill," she said displaying a picture of a chest of drawers he made before he came to Utah.
Brigham Young also encouraged Church members to be resourceful. He commissioned craftsmen to build furniture from the logs brought west to build the tabernacle organ. "They used everything," she said, adding that they even used the wood from packing boxes, sometimes even specifying the type of wood material should packed in.
Flipping through her book she stopped and looked at a picture of a wardrobe made from packing boxes, local wood and hinges from gun barrels used by U.S. soldiers.
"Unquestionably, you could look at all the material culture and you could not deny what their aims and what their goals were," Sister Barker concluded.