Field Guide

Gravestone Carvers

Who carved the stones?
Before research proved otherwise, it was thought that many of New England’s early gravestones were brought to the colonies as ballast on ships from England. A few were, their origin noted in their inscriptions, but most were quarried and carved not far from their present location by local stonecutters. Gravestone carving was usually a second, part-time occupation of stonemasons and other craftsmen, although some carvers supported themselves entirely with this work. Occasionally an amateur, probably a friend or family member of the deceased, cut a stone, and some of these display interesting folk carving.

The sophistication and skill of the early carvers varied tremendously, and these artisans often developed colorful, individual styles. Their work is found in pockets that included their home town and surrounding communities and can be identified by the kind of stone used, the size and shape of the stone, the ornamental carving, the lettering style, and the language, spacing, and spelling used in the inscription. When shown photographs of a colonial gravestone, a student of colonial gravestone carving can often identify the carver or carving school and the general area of the stone’s location.

Gravestone carving is not a lost art. Modern technology for quarrying, designing, engraving, and polishing stone includes the use of computers, stencils, and laser and power equipment that enlarge the creative possibilities far beyond those enjoyed by the early stonecutters. And at the same time, one can still find men and women who carve stone by hand. The country’s oldest and best-known stonecutting business of this kind is the John Stevens Shop, in Newport, Rhode Island, thought to be the continent’s oldest business operating continuously at its original site. This shop opened its doors shortly after John Stevens arrived from England in 1700. It continued through generations of stonecutting Stevenses until the family died out in 1929 and the shop was bought by another carver, John Howard Benson. Today it is owned by Benson’s son, John Everett Benson, who carved the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery and whose work is found across the nation. There are other modern carvers of distinction whose handcrafted work is found in our cemeteries, and occasionally in early yards as replicas for lost seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stones.

How is a carver identified?
Identifying a carver is like solving any mystery; the procedure varies with every case. There are, however, three basic avenues of approach. The researcher can search for a signature. Although only a small percentage of the stones are signed, a careful search may reveal a name or initials. A stonecutter was more likely to sign an important stone or one erected outside his area than one of his routine carvings in his home yard. Sometimes the signatures themselves are colorful––the following pair, for example. In bold letters across the base of the tympanum of the 1762 sandstone marker for Daniel House in East Glastonbury, Connecticut, the stonecutter announced that the stone was “MAD:BY:PETER: BUCKLAИD”; and the reverse side of the 1802 soapstone marker for Josiah Spurgin in Wallburg, North Carolina, reads, “MAID BY THE HAND OF JOSEPH CLODFELTER.” But most carvers’ signatures are simple and discretely located, often underground. For example, “G.Allen,Sc” in which the abbreviation “Sc” stands for sculpsit or “he carved it” in Latin.

Another approach to carver identification is to record names of deceased, death dates, and other data from stones whose carver is being sought. This collection of data is followed by a search of probate records of those names for any reference to payment made for the deceased’s gravestone. This may yield the name of a gravestone carver. A stone’s carver can also be identified by his carving style. Just as a trained eye can identify a painting as a Picasso or a Miró or a Warhol, an experienced researcher can analyze the characteristics of a gravestone or group of gravestones and conclude that the work in question is or is not by the same hand; that the carver is a known carver or one who has not been identified. Identification by style is fraught with the possibility of error. Some carvers in urban areas were full-time professionals working in shops whose members produced almost indistinguishable work. They sometimes specialized, one carving the ornamental motif, another inscribing the lettering. Apprentices copied the work of their masters. Carvers in an area sometime influenced one other enough to be called a carving school, and an individual carver often produced work in more than one style. Moreover, stonecutters moved, and in their new locations they might use a different kind of stone or change their style to suit their new customers. Finally, the trained eye of the researcher is fallible. Nevertheless, combinations of the procedures outlined here, plus other techniques that are developed as the plot thickens and the search narrows, do often result in the identification of a known carver’s work or the discovery of a “new” carver. The final step is to employ the tools and skills of the genealogist to discover the life of the man behind the name.

As noted in our introduction, interest in identifying the men who made the stones has grown enormously since research in this field was initiated by Harriette Forbes in the 1920s and enlarged by Ernest Caulfield in the 1950s. Study of carver attribution benefited from the 1976 bicentennial celebration, which focused attention on the country’s historic graveyards, and it was strengthened by the formation, in 1977, of the Association of Gravestone Studies (AGS). Outstanding among contributors to the field of carver research are Peter Benes, Theodore Chase, Michael Cornish, Robert Drinkwater, Laurel Gabel, Allan Ludwig, Vincent Luti, Stephen Petke, James Slater, Ralph Tucker, Richard Welch, and Gray Williams. Laurel Gabel, in her capacity as director of the AGS Research Clearinghouse, assists researchers and integrates their findings.

Taken from Early American Gravestones: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection written by Jessie Lie Farber, copyright 2003 American Antiquarian Society.