Southern Antiques/Chapter 2

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II

SOUTHERN CABINETMAKERS


PERHAPS there is no more pronounced instinct in the general character of the early Southerner than that of home-making. Scattered throughout this broad land today, are houses dating back to within a few decades of the first settlement of the white man on the North American continent, and there is much about them of beauty and comfort to impress the traveler. The fact is obvious that the best of the energies of these valiant and resourceful people were employed in surrounding themselves not only with what was comfortable and enduring, but with what was made for beauty as well.

The manner of living on the best of the plantations is reflected in the wonder of today: the fine sites on high hills overlooking winding rivers that the masters chose for their houses; their gardens with boxwood, guelder-rose and moss fringes left to tell the story; the broad sweep of the lawn revealed through rare trees; white-columned houses with doorways of Ionic or Doric entablature; silver-plated door knobs, red walnut panelings, stairways with precious carving, and exquisitely made chimney pieces, with an abundance of servants to keep bright the crested plate, the china from Canton, fine glass and best furniture from England, brought often to their doors on their own ships.

All of this speaks of a passion for beauty of the owner; but back of it were hardships which even those best provided for had to endure, and the necessity always to cope with conditions as they were. It was inevitable that, out of it something fine as well as useful in the way of furniture making must evolve itself in these five colonies, with a need so immediate, the demand so increasing, and much of the material and labor at hand so easily obtained.

There were four carpenters numbered among the "Gentlemen" company composing the Virginia colony the year following their first arrival. Scant equipment was allowed in the ships coming over for many years, and furniture sent from England could not of course have met the demand. In 1748 there were three hundred thousand people to be provided for in Virginia alone, at a time when she extended from sea to sea. Because of the western expansion of the colony, the small farmer class living inland grew so rapidly that Tidewater aristocracy was in danger of being overwhelmed. Such a vast number of people needed furniture and needed it badly, and despite what they had with them or what followed them over, at least one-half the population must have supplied themselves with furniture at hand. What we know of what was owned at the time is derived largely from wills and inventories of the wealthy planters, and we cannot be guided solely by them.

"If you could help me to a carpenter, a bricklayer or mason, I would willingly pay you somewhat extraordinarily," was the cry of William Byrd, who having made his arrival in Virginia somewhat late in the sixteen hundreds, was ordering such and other goods of quality by the first ship from home, as he proceeded to set himself up. Carpenters and joiners, so varied were the uses to which they were put, were always in demand, and with the joinery of the first simple furniture corresponding to that of the house, we must believe that the work of furniture building was largely in their hands, as the cabinetmaker slowly emerged.

So excellent was the work that some of the Southern craftsmen eventually performed, that in 1768 we find Abraham Pearce, a cabinetmaker and carver from London, declaring in the South Carolina Gazette, that he "executes every Article . . . in the most elegant and workmanlike Manner," and announcing that, "Orders from the Country or any of the Northern provinces will be punctually complied with."

Landing, as the pioneers did, on barren shores, with the necessity for home-building ahead, the activities and resources of every one of them was called into play, and in every group there was some one or two, at least, who must assume the rôle of carpenter, if not, in fact, already chosen directly with reference to that trade. Shiploads, coming from time to time, provided them more and more, as the colonies pushed inward to meet further emergency. Plantation heads in need of extra help often secured such assistance, though it was necessary on the larger plantations for a cabinetmaker of ability to be numbered among the retainers, with need to be supplied both in the manor house and at the quarters as well.

As time wore on, and cabinetmaking progressed, various types asserted themselves. There were men putting out pieces of high merit, who worked independently, maintained fine shops, and were in the market for skilled craftsmen and apprentices as well, furnishing themselves with the best woods, and in time importing mahogany from the West Indies. Journeymen cabinetmakers went from place to place, supplied private needs, often on the plantation, or in shops and with other cabinetmakers, performed the task set for them, and moved on to other fields as the call arose. Considering the calls made for them in the newspapers, whether "taylors," weavers, or barbers or not, these journeymen laborers were in much demand. "Journeymen Cabinet Makers who understand their Business will meet with good encouragement by applying to Edmund Dickenson," we read, for example, in the Virginia Gazette, of Williamsburg, just following the Revolution, "Two journeymen chair makers" are listed as wanted by James Shackelford at Hanovertown, Virginia.

Apprentices were often bound. "Joseph Fontaine of Charles City County binds himself as an apprentice to George Donald, Cabinet Maker of Richmond for six years to learn the trade of cabinet maker," is set forth in the Gazette, and again, to the same man, we read at another time that "John Scott, guardian of Joseph Scott binds sd. Joseph as apprentice to learn the trade of cabinet maker." As advertised in connection with the vendue of an estate in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, among the salable articles we find a "White male servant versed in making chairs, tables and desks." The indentured, as well as the slaves, were often called to the bench; and sorry fellows some of them were, to be sure, impressed into service as need would arise, and perhaps often none too much in love with the task. An old Virginia newspaper records the disappearance of Joffath Rainbird, "a cabinet maker and Joiner by trade in Charles County, Maryland, a smooth-tongued, inſinuating Fellow and an Englishman born."

Two of them at a time took off from one of the Virginia plantations, Richard Kibble, "a ſquat Fellow of a ſwarthy Complexion," and Samuel Vlein, "ſmall and thin." Vlein's clothes must certainly have betrayed him, "a little White Cloth Coat with Cape, a white Jacket flowered on the Breaſt with green Silk, a white Linen Shirt, a black Wig, an old Hat, a Pair of red Camblet Breeches" and, not to mention osnabrigs, white stockings and old shoes. Kibble's was no better, "his coat a burnished color, green double breaſted Jacket, a check'd Shirt, a red ſpotted Silk Handkerchief about his neck, a black natural Wig, a good Hat with black Crape about it"; and to complete the picture, along with "greaſy Leather Breeches," worsted stockings and good shoes, "there were many Letters and Figures on his breaſt and left Arm . . . the End of his noſe turns up pretty much and he professes to be a Carpenter and Joiner by trade." Vlein and Kibble, both one-time convicts, joiners and carpenters by trade, God rest their souls.

By 1640 Virginia had almost fifteen thousand people, and the demand for furniture was steadily increasing. More than one family often lived under one roof; families were large, as a rule, and the door stood open for strangers and friends alike, at all hours. The amount of furniture required rose as the standards of living advanced. Virginia looked out for herself in this, one of her major needs, and her county files reveal a host of men at work. The earliest cabinetmakers recorded were those at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Norfolk, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, and Wheeling (now in West Virginia) had cabinet shops. Petersburg, Richmond, Blackstone, and Wheeling produced chairs from 1760.

One of the master designers of furniture in Virginia, perhaps, as time wore on, as well as in architecture, was Thomas Jefferson, whose experiences in Paris, Southern France, Italy, and England in the period of the classical revival of architecture and furniture, from 1784 to 1789, must have served him in good stead. Numbered among the books on the Monticello shelves was one entitled, in his manuscript catalogue, as follows: "Chippendale's Cabinetmaker's Designs. Fol. Gentleman and cabinet-maker's directory; being a collection of . . . designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste . . . (with) a short explanation of the five orders of architecture—3d ed London 1755."

One of Jefferson's notes, written while traveling in Europe, records a "Memorandum on a Tour from Paris to Amsterdam, Strasburg, and back to Paris," and describes "Dining tables letting down with single or double leaves," and shows a set of miniature drawings illustrating his ideas.

His outstanding design was, perhaps, the table on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. In writing young Coolidge, of Boston, recently married to Ellen Randolph, child of the heart of his old age, to whom he was presenting the treasure, he wrote, "Now I still happen to possess the writing box on which it was written. It was made from a drawing of my own by Ben Randall, a cabinet maker in whose house I took my first lodging on my arrival in Philadelphia in May, 1776, and I have used it ever since, it claims no merit of particular beauty. It is plain, neat, convenient and taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate quarto volume, it yet displays itself sufficiently for any writing."

Jefferson maintained his own cabinetmakers at Monticello, and no detail, we are told, was too small for his own supervision. He, himself, tells the story of the grief of John Hemmings, his henchman at the bench, over the loss at sea of a piece made at his bench. "That beautiful writing desk he had taken so much pains to make for you." A clock, and other things at Monticello, record the genius of the mountain sage and philosopher. Dinsmore, a carpenter, likely assisted in this work.

Some mention, too, must be made of Bucktrout, who is known to have supplied Councillor Carter, in 1772, with eight mahogany chairs, and whose advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, August 11, 1766, announces that "Bucktrout, Cabinet Maker from London on the main Street near the Capitol in Williamsburg, makes all sorts of cabinet work, either plain or ornamental in the neateſt and neweſt fashion . . . . N. B. Where likewise may be had the Mathematical Gouty chair." In 1770, two bedsteads likewise were supplied the Councillor by another cabinetmaker from Williamsburg, Atwell by name.

Dr. Henry Berkley lists cabinetmakers in Maryland from every section of the State, as advertised in newspapers or noted in directories or otherwise: numerous men in Annapolis and the Northern Neck, in old Londontown and Dumfries, ports of shipping now extinct; in Frederick and Hagerstown, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many in Baltimore, between 1746 and 1820, three hundred men or more plying their art.

Gerrard Hopkins, advertising as early as 1767, supposed to have had his training with Robert Moore, in Philadelphia, son of Samuel Hopkins, of Anne Arundel County, held forth at the Sign of the Tea Table and Chair in Gay Street, Baltimore Town, "and working in mahogany, walnut and cherry, sold things" in the newest fashions of that day. He continued to work for many years, dying as the century came to a close.

The cabinetmakers working at Annapolis were all English born, or sons of English artisans, we are told. Westward, in the State, they were English or largely German. The Baltimore cabinetmakers composed a varied group, with English, Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, and French found among the number. Some of the French, possibly from San Domingo, and Italians had shops for twenty years, and were building furniture during that time, the Reverdy Ghiselin chairs in the Saint John's College Museum representing some of their work.

Although many outstanding pieces are shown in this book, as a result of the workmanship of North Carolina craftsmen, the names of the men do not appear, except in particular instances. In that section of the State settled by the Germans and Scotch-Irish, where it is known that shops were frequent along the post road, many journeymen traveled back and forth in employment of their trade. In Wachovia, the Moravian settlement, in North Carolina at Salem, now Winston-Salem, two names, Feldhausen and Ingebretsen, are outstanding.

When the purchase of ground had been arranged in London, and in 1753 the foremost of the settlers having received a blessing for the undertaking, were ready to mount their horses for Philadelphia, there to proceed South to undertake the establishment of a colony in North Carolina, where their ideals of living and the worship of God might find realization, these two men were among the number, having been selected particularly in regard to their trade. Heinrich Feldhausen, born in Holstein, listed as shoemaker, carpenter, millwright, turner, and Pennsylvania farmer, in his certification for Moravian membership, must have been something of a man. Erich Ingebretsen, just thirty-one, born in Norway, likewise millwright and carpenter, was by no means an inconspicuous person, becoming as he did later, single brothers' vorsteher, church warder, and vestryman for the Parish of Dobbs.

Down the Chesapeake to Norfolk the little company sailed, there to take horse and make their way to Edenton, and, on through Guilford County, to the point of settlement at Bethabara and Salem. Here it was that the big work of the two craftsmen began, with the brothers' houses to be built, equipment to be provided, as they took their places as pioneers in joinery, where other joiners arose to meet the need. A cabinetmaker before many years is mentioned at Salem.

In Georgia various cabinetmakers have been listed, and there were as many as thirty accredited to Savannah; but there is little evidence of any work of outstanding merit being done there by the local men, although the influences surrounding the craft around Savannah could not have been far removed from those at Charleston, with the same ships calling often at both ports. Atlanta, as well as Savannah, had cabinet shops by the end of the eighteenth century.

Advertisements appearing, mainly in the South Carolina Gazette, from 1732 on, reveal the working of an unusually active line of men carrying on a high-class trade, some businesses of long standing, men of various birth and extraction, putting out furniture of exquisite workmanship. No attempt will be made to call the long list of these worthies, though many names will appear from time to time in this book, the total number of them, so far arrived at, considerably exceeding two hundred.

Abraham Pearce, from London, carver as well as cabinetmaker, has been shown seeking to supply the Northern trade; and John Packrow, in 1764 announced that, having given over his business at Jacksonborough, "and carrying it on at the upper end of Tradd Street, he was returning thanks to his country and town customers for their Favours."

Cabinetmakers from England and the North found it profitable to set themselves up in towns throughout the South, and at Charleston, as early as 1732, James McClellan, "cabinet maker from London," announced himself through the Charleston paper. In 1747 William Hizner, from Philadelphia, entered the Maryland field, Anderson, from Liverpool the year before setting up at Annapolis. In 1743 we read that William Lupton, "cabinet maker from London," was making himself available in Charles Town; Thomas Lining, five years later, "lately arrived from London," was announced. Robert Deans, "Joiner from Scotland," in 1750 made himself known. So they came: Richard Baylis from London, 1739, Hall from London, MacGrath, Fisher, Biggard from Philadelphia, and Warham from Boston.

Josiah Claypoole, in Charles Town, as early as March 22, 1740, from Philadelphia, is shown doing work of excellent variety, although none too well pleased at the treatment his fine furniture received at the hands of negro servants. He made desks and bookcases even at that early period, with arched pediments and ogee heads, evidencing the high character of furniture to which these craftsmen aspired, as shown by the following notice from the South Carolina Gazette:

"Notice is hereby given that all Persons may be supplied with all Sorts of Joyner's and Cabinet Maker's Work, as Desks and Bookcases, with Arch'd Pediment and O.G. Heads, Common Desks of all Sorts, Chests of Drawers of all fashions, fluted or plain; all sorts of Tea Tables, Frames for Marble Tables all after the newest and best Fashions and with the greatest Neatness and Accuracy by Josiah Claypoole from Philadelphia, who may be spoke with at Captain Crosthwaite's in King Street. . . . . N. B. He will warrant his work for seven years, the ill usage of careless Servants only excepted."

So much was foreign training taken as a matter of course, that Isaac Johns, according to the Maryland Journal, felt called upon to explain that although he "cannot boast of European education," he had "served his apprenticeship to William Moore in this town who has had long experience in the several shops in the principal towns of the United States."

Best wood, native and foreign, was supplied; books of design were available. Tools of all descriptions were advertised as imported, some even by Shaw and Middleton, at one time cabinetmakers and later importers as well. Locks and brasses were brought in. The outstanding influence, of course, on the general quality of what was made, were the examples of furniture of exquisite line that came into the South from elsewhere, however much they may have served to reduce the amount of furniture produced.

The Southern colonies were mainly English in settlement, and in close touch with the mother country, and the generally accepted theory is that much furniture was imported from Britain into the South. The contention cannot be denied. The plantation owners, largely of Cavalier extraction and connected by birth with well-established people in England, as the mode of living over there improved, were entirely without any other idea than that of keeping pace in their living, when possible, with their kinsmen abroad. So these lordly gentlemen were constantly directing their agents, as has been pointed out, for disposals of such funds as were placed in their hands as a result of the sale of their tobacco, cotton and rice, in plate and silver, china, glass, rugs and furniture when occasion demanded.

Importers, too, brought in rich goods. Especially in Maryland, do we find them listed as doing particularly good business. Stephen West, of Maryland, lists at one time, as from London, "household and kitchen furniture of the very best kinds. Beds and furniture, screens, mahogany chairs, tables of all sizes, card tables, tea tables, elbow chairs, tea boards, dressing tables, carpets, looking-glasses, pewter dishes," and other things, "all to be sold very cheap." (1752).

Furniture, too, was brought South from the North. The ship, Sea Nymph, of London, in 1739, according to the Gazette from New England, coming into the York with one dozen desks and one dozen tables along with ballast. Drawers, fine desks, and other things came aboard the sloop, Ruth, of Rhode Island, the same year.

With factors from English merchants in almost every port, inducements offered, and the buying of foreign stuff made easy, competition must have been difficult. "Any person," declared one of the traders in 1731, in the Virginia Gazette, "who is inclinable to deal for a Parcel of Goods at the Value of Three or Four Hundred pounds may be supply'd Cheap for Tobacco, to be paid Time enough to be Sent back Home by this year's ship." But the local craftsman, undaunted, worked on, not without inducements of his own to offer, and his argument that home-produced furniture could be secured at less price and in less time, was a sound one. In marked confidence as to the excellence of his work, he boasted outright that he was not to be outdone.

Then, too, there was an ebb as well as a flow in the tide of importation, particularly as the colonists reacted in resentment to the Stamp Act, and the further injustices put upon them following its repeal in 1766. When the next year, a new tax was put on tea, glass, papers, and painters' material, and the Townsend Act followed, imposing other duties on tea and glass, sugar, lead, and paper, the wrath of the colonists further overflowed. Charles Carroll, of Maryland, in 1768, in high feather, made his wrath plain to an English friend, informing him by letter, of his confidence in the ability of American craftsmen to produce for the colonists anything which at that time they were buying from England, which they might choose to shut off.

"Every duty you send us Operates Apparently as Bounty and Encouragement to us to manufacture tht species of goods." American linens and woolens had received a great boost on the passing of the Stamp Act. "Surprising & astonishing was ye progress in Manufacture Here Especially in the Woolen & Linnen Branches," he told him. "The repeal of the Act gave a great check to thm . But they are reassured not with a noisy & ostentatious Parade, But wth a sullen Resentment & determined Resolution never more to abandon thm." As for Gentleman Carroll, at the time of the first excitement he had manufactured "a Suite of Cloathes" for himself. "I wore it to incite others to follow my Example" he continued; "I dropt my manufacture & laid aside my Cloathes upon the repeal of the Stamp Act. I have this year Built a Commodious House for as many Manufacturers as will be able to Cloathe between three & four hundred slaves."

Copies were made of best furniture imported, even that imported by so great a person as Peter Manigault, at the time of his death, one of the richest men in America, and listed as merchant, factor, trader, manufacturer and planter, who went to sea in his own ships, to England, the Barbadoes or North American ports. And one MacGrath was bold enough to believe that work that went out from his shop was of sufficient merit to be announced as following importations of the great Manigault into Charles Town.

In 1772 Richard MacGrath was offering goods which "he will engage to be as good as any imported from Europe and will sell them at the lowest prices for cash or short credit—Double Chest of Drawers with neat and light pediment Heads which take off and put on occasionally. Dining Tables; Commode Card Tables, Breakfast Ditto with Stretchers; China Tables; Sophas with commode fronts, divided into three sweeps which give them a noble look; carved chairs of the newest fashion, splat Backs, with hollow slats and commode Fronts of the same pattern as those imported by Peter Manigault, Esq.—He is now making some Hollow-Seated Chairs, the seats to take in and out, and nearly the Pattern of another set of chairs imported by the same Gentleman, which have a light, airy look and make the sitting easy beyond expression."