Southern Antiques/Chapter 3
WOODS USED IN SOUTHERN FURNITURE
WOOD was the treasure of the early pioneer. Captain John Smith gave vent to his feelings in regard to the "oke." John Bartram, on a trip South, from Georgia, sent home accounts of his host squaring logs for shipment in cypress and in pine wood. Such Virginia Gazettes as are available, lift the curtain of the 1730's and reveal a busy fleet of small vessels clearing in the York and James for long voyages to distant ports. Bringing in such stuffs as Madeira, and sundry European luxuries, rum from the Barbadoes, negroes from New Guinea, and much else besides, they got away loaded with staves, hoops and headings, oak plank, and with much walnut, for England, where the quality was inferior to that the colonies produced.
The schooner Grampus cleared for Boston with corn, peas, wheat, and four hundred feet of walnut plank; a brigantine for Grenock, with tobacco and oak; the Snow Kitty and Nora for London, with tobacco, oak and skins; the Staunton for London, with "500 feet of Walnut Plank"; one with "Oak Boards" for Bristol; another with staves and headings for Glasgow; and the Buchanan out of the York with "Oak Board" for Antigua and Barbadoes.
Walnut, cherry, and pine were the woods most used by the early furniture makers of the South, until the advent of mahogany, when that wood, of course, went rapidly to a place of unquestioned supremacy. Virginia, from the earliest times, has been noted, as today, for its fine old walnut trees; and home-grown walnut, appealing to the luxurious, and used abundantly for paneling in Southern houses was, as a rule, the first choice of the Southern furniture builders for highly finished pieces. Due to its fine sheen and smooth grain, its other general characteristics which make it, today, often difficult to distinguish from mahogany, it did much to lift the general character of the work produced.
Early Southern pine, highly serviceable and lasting, and found in great abundance, was made use of for framing of furniture, and as a base for veneer. Oak, the king of woods, so thought, plentiful as it was, was little used, except in earliest times and after 1700, its chief employment was for the framework of larger pieces. Little maple or birchwood was used, except in the earlier days, and it went into disuse until 1800, although it grew in abundance. Poplar, almost as soft as pine, easily planed, was used extensively for drawer and side pulls.
Cherry, besides being popular in Annapolis, where both the wild and the cultivated was employed, was used in Maryland to a great extent, inland. From the earliest times, and up to the Victorian period, it was used particularly around the Moravian settlement at Salem, and red and white cherry is recognized in the majority of local-made furniture in the western part of North Carolina, as well as around the Moravian settlement. Many handsome pieces are found with fronts veneered with curly or burl white cherry, which has a close resemblance to maple, with sides of red cherry resembling mahogany.
Mahogany was used as early as 1750, in Baltimore, and its advent into the United States, the best of it from the West Indies, the Santo Domingo, marked an era in furniture building here as elsewhere. Its virtues have ofttimes been listed: its strength and wearing qualities, its fine grain, its value as a veneer, the ease with which it is worked, the magic wrought from it in the hands of the carver, its susceptibility to polish and the sheen of it under stain—and Southern craftsmen rose to their best heights with this wood in their hands. Many fine inlaid Southern pieces of mahogany have been found in the vicinity of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Edenton; some around Norfolk, Charlottesville, and many, of course, in Maryland. Many advertisements, in South Carolina and elsewhere, offered mahogany furniture as the greatest of their achievements. In this connection, the South Carolina Gazette, of August 12, 1732, presents an interesting advertisement:
"At Newmarket Plantation, about a mile from Charles Town will continue to be sold all sorts of Cabinet Work, Chest of Drawers, and Mahogany Tables and Chairs, made after the best Manner, as also all Sorts of Peer Glasses, Sconces and Dressing Glasses. Where all sorts of Bespoke Work is made at lowest Prices by Mess. Broomhead & Blythe."
Maple, boxwood, holly, and satinwood were employed in the South for inlay, or sometimes, veneer, which after the advent of Hepplewhite, had some use. Pieces showing earlier use were imported.
It has been shown by Dr. Henry J. Berkley, of Maryland, that pine, yellow and white, was used there from the earliest times, for seats of chairs, legs and tops of tables, and common furniture, and used also with veneers. Hard, yellow pine was used for construction when not seen. White was also used in Maryland framing, as were ash, oak, and gum. Desks and cabinets, with frame wood bottom, and sides of drawers not covered with mahogany, cherry, or walnut veneer, he finds, rare there. Furniture found in Maryland, lined with pine is, assuredly, he thinks, from elsewhere, although he has seen one fine hunt table with a frame of white pine. I have found instances where the fronts of drawers would be of Southern pine veneered with mahogany, the back piece of Southern pine, from the period of 1790 to 1820.
Dr. Berkley calls particular attention to the virtues of the various types of tulip, or poplar, as used extensively in Maryland for framework. Planing well, and sawing without splitting, it is soft as pine, and is easily worked, growing straight and tall with a diameter of six or eight feet. He recites its freedom from knots, the fact that it does not buckle or twist when wet, and that it is seemingly not affected by the changes of time. It was used, he says, for frames and drawer lining from earliest colonial days, in Southern Maryland; and New York and Philadelphia craftsmen later employed it, as did the great Chippendale, but it has not been used—except, perhaps, in Norfolk—in the South, where yellow pine is the predominant wood for bottoms and sides of drawers.