Southern Antiques/Chapter 4

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IV

FURNITURE OF THE PIONEERS


AMERICA, in the first fifty years of her existence, was largely under control of the British influence in many ways, and the idea of house and furniture clung closely to early English tradition, when many often slept in one bed, none too comfortable, and wherever a fireplace happened to be. Chairs were unusual, the use of them attended with such ceremony as the commoner seldom attained to. The wainscot chair, the early important British chair, with its rectangular joinings, upstanding posts and heavy stretchers, thought in fact to have descended from old church chairs, and used on occasions of state in England, has been copied both in the North and South.

The first Southern settlers, in many instances, could do no better for themselves by way of shelter than huts and cabins, and even caves, with the Cavalier-born, as well as the less fortunate, having to bide their time until something better could be produced. Following the cabins in Maryland, came the pine-board house, green-shingled and shuttered or paneled at the windows, and as housebuilding got under way in Maryland and Virginia, the barn-type house, with high pitched roofs, and chimneys built outside the walls, largely prevailed. The general type in Virginia clung to the idea of the central hall with two large rooms on either side.

The use of tents has been implied for the early settlers of the Clarendon colony to the South, but some of the South Carolina colonists lived in mud and clay houses of a better type, one of which is said to have stood to this day near Kingstree, in Williamsburg County. An example of the houses built of native cement, composed of lime and oyster shell, tabby, as it is called, is that on Fripp's Island, near Beaufort. Early houses, too, were built sometimes of marl, in South Carolina.

The early artisans and laborers found their comfort in nothing short of peglegged stools, plank tables rudely set up, and benches with pillows of pine, when they could get them for furniture; but it was not to continue so with the wealthy men of the colonies, with dignity in their living early presenting itself. Finding themselves possessed of numberless slaves and far-reaching lands, as the century progressed, they spent freely, and were, by the middle of the seventeenth century, ready to fall into line with the general movement abroad for more comfort. Their inventories and wills reveal a constant reaching out after luxuries; and some, before the century was over, were actually living in affluence and splendor.

Adam Thoroughgood, member of the King's Council, took himself a wife in 1626, and very soon built himself a house of straw-bound brick interlaid with something better, the oldest house now standing in Virginia today; and in its kitchen-dining room, in the keeping room or parlor, with paneled chimney piece and deep windows, in the hall and above the stairs, may be seen something of the style of living to which even the lone planters of the day might attain.

Toddsbury, in Gloucester County, Virginia, built in 1658, a veritable gem in architectural design and execution as seen in these distant days, has remained the wonder of succeeding generations. Its maple-paneled dining room with fluted pilasters, its slow, ascending stairway, the delicacy of its balustrade and beauty of its spindles, posts and dado, help to make the wonder grow. Bacon's Castle, in Surry County, built in 1649; the Galt house in Williamsburg, where the Grand Assembly met in 1677, and others in Virginia, might be mentioned. The Wormeley house stands out, dignified, ornate, and richly furnished, where Ralph Wormeley, in the manner of a lord, lived up to the dignities of a member of the King's Council, overlooking the broad lowlands of the river.

Cross Manor, Calvert's Rest, Brushwood, on the South Wicomico, hark back to the stately days of early Maryland. The Old Brick House on the Edisto Island, in South Carolina, with its walls two feet thick, its cypress paneling and painting in oil by master hands, tells a story somewhat different from that of the oldest house at Beaufort, so arranged that muskets could be exploded from both sides, with a place provided below where ammunition might be kept at hand.

Throughout, joiners and carpenters were at work. The more prosperous depended on importation for the best of their furniture. The home craftsmen copied for the less wealthy citizens. The piece of most service was the chest, containing, as a rule, what store of worldly goods the colonist had been allowed to bring across. "A bord of which ship I did put My Self Wth Chest and Cloathes," wrote the Reverend John Lawrence, in those early days, striking a popular note; for passage was seldom asked for without it. The finer, or "joyned" chests, came from England. The simpler chests in the South were made in cedar, spruce, oak, pine, walnut, and cypress, by which swamp pine must have been meant, is often mentioned. Carving came into the South with the later chests after the middle of the seventeenth century. Chests marked the beginning everywhere of a line of noble furniture.

Cupboards partake, throughout, of the seventeenth century forms, and were the most decorated pieces of their day, due to the various treatments they received in their design. Both the court cupboard and the press cupboard were built on the same general idea, of one carcass placed upon another. The top section of the press cupboard was similar to the lower, and closed at the bottom. That of the court cupboard was usually open, with the shelf. Cupboards of much charm of later date remain of the old South.

The earliest found in the South is the court cupboard, and the word is generally accepted as referring to the carved oak cupboard of the early seventeenth century. The earliest example presented is one which, according to design, must have been made between 1615 and 1620, and it is known to have come from Virginia. The oak Virginia-made cupboard, lined with Southern pine, which is illustrated, stamped with its early style, makes safe the assumption that this piece is one of the first made in Virginia, and as far as can be determined, the first in the United States.

Early beds in any quantity have not been found in the South. Due to their cumbersomeness, many of them have been done away with, it is thought. What the settlers made and used was simple, with the bed furniture, perhaps, of more moment than the bed. Some heavily carved oak beds may have been brought over from England in the early days, but none have survived.

The earliest tables in England had bulbous, turned legs like the turnings of the court cupboard; the large tables, with stretcher base, were in use until about 1710. The gate-leg table was generally used for a dining table and took the place of the refectory table, as it was called. A chair of the wainscot type is shown in this book, discovered in Chesterfield County, Virginia. The first quarter of the seventeenth century is the period to which this type is accredited in England. This chair, it then appears, might have been made before 1620. The Bible box, used in early days for writing, which preceded the slant-top desk of the end of this period, was the forerunner of the secretary of today.

It is to be regretted that few people in the South tried to collect these examples of furniture of this early period. Local pieces that have been found are simplified copies of English models from native woods, and the few examples that have been found, have gone to enrich private collections of the North, as pioneer dealers from other parts of America were buying the Southern-made pieces long before interest was aroused here. Little attempt will be made here to show the influence of design on the Southern cabinetmaker prior to 1700.

With this study before us, it is not amiss to have looked into the manner of living of these pioneers, and to further acquaint ourselves with some of the types of things they used. Maryland and Virginia rooms were large, with the walls often lined, or glazed, or even figured with flowers. The colonists made much of color at the windows, on their walls and floors, and on their beds, using there such stuffs, delightfully colored, of their own devising, with finer textiles which found their way from elsewhere.

The oft quoted inventory of April 15, 1641, showed goods, as set forth by her husband, to be reserved for Dame Thoroughgood at the time of his passing. Outstanding was a bed, table, six chairs, stools, cushions, and a cupboard, all of which to make life livable for this brave lady on the waters of Lynnhaven. "Imprimis:" we read, "one bed with blankets, rug and the furniture thereto, belonging: two pairs of sheets and pillow cases; one table with carpet; table cloth and napkins, knives and forks: one cupboard and cupboard cloth two . . . one linen, one woollen, six chairs, six stools, six cushions, six pictures hanging in the chamber, one pewter basin and ewer, one warming pan, one pair andirons in the chimney, one pair tongs, one fire shovel, one chair of wicker for a child. Plate for the cupboard, one salt cellar, one bowl, one tankard, one wine cup, one dozen spoons."

William Fitzhugh, "less out for the fashions," as he said, of himself, than other Virginia gentlemen of the late seventeenth century about him, was constrained to declare, "I neither abound nor want." He said of his house, "my own dwelling house furnished with accommodations for a comfortable and gentile living, as a good dwelling house with rooms, four of them hung, and nine of them plentifully furnished with all things necessary and convenient." But when shipping black walnut to England, however, he satisfied his longing for luxuries by ordering, by the first ship bound for his river, "a table, pair of stands, Case Drawers & looking Glass Answerable, two large leather carpets and set of dressing boxes answerable to the table and stand"; later, considerable plate, by way of knives, forks, spoons, porringers, and candlesticks, all to be crested.

Living everywhere, it would seem, had improved. A far inland mountain farmer in Rappahannock County, Virginia, George Nicholls, lists in his will, with a court cupboard, other chests and articles which even then denote decided comfort: "two tables, one six and one four foot, one form, one great looking glass, one couch, one great joyned chair, one pair of andirons . . . one feather bed and furniture, two high bedsteads."

In the records of the Society of Friends, in the Lower Meeting record books in Virginia, around 1700, is an inventory of one William Bresy, seemingly well provided for in life. Besides innumerable chairs, chests, trunks, frame cupboards, and beds, he records feather beds and furniture, one-half dozen leather chairs, three sealskin trunks, one small gilt trunk, one fine square table, one-half dozen "joyn't" stools, two "tracle" bedsteads, "three cover cloths, belonging to the cupboard in Susannah's room," three pewter "pye" plates, one pottle pot, two brass skimmers, three urn spits, two pieces of blue linen, one drip pan, two pewter chamber pots, one silver "beker," one sack cup, one silver dram cup, two old negro men, two old negro women, not to mention "one English man servant, thirty sheep, a mare and a colt."