Purchase Story

American Furniture

A Book Review

The 2018 American Furniture is all about 18th-century furniture. It is a treat for old-time collectors and should inspire a new generation.

Boston Chairs

Erik K. Gronning calls his study of Boston’s early baroque seating “Luxury of Choice”and presents the evolution of the comfortable and sturdy Boston chair, with a curved back and molded stiles made of native maple and oak. He chronicles the evolution of stiles until the preference for the chair began to wane. He illustrates his text with clear photographs for this visual history.

He documents the first mention of this distinctive Boston chair in a bill that Thomas Fitch, a prominent Boston upholsterer, sent to Edmund Knight for £16.4 for “1 doz crook’d back chairs,” explaining that crooked or curved stiles had not been used in the Colonies before then.

Gronning then goes on to describe the evolution of these chairs, beginning with chairs with taller backs, leather-upholstered back panels, and decorative turned rear posts with finials made at the time Cromwellian chairs became retardataire in the last 15 years of the 17th century.

Gronning sorts the chairs into five groups, designated A through E. Group A includes high-back leather-upholstered chairs with ball-turned posts, and the armchairs have foliate carvings. Group B confirms that Boston chairmakers strove to keep abreast of English imports with cane and leather-upholstered chairs with various turned elements as opposed to the repetitive ball turnings of group A. Armchairs also have foliate carving in the English manner, and muffin-top finials replace the ball finials. To give the reader an inkling of what to expect, Gronning illustrates a lineup of turned posts, stretchers, and arm supports by group. His illustrations of posts, crests, and stretchers are illustrated like so many beetles or butterflies in natural history texts. Gronning, who studied entomology, got sidetracked into the furniture trade.

Gronning suggests that the constant importation of variously designed chairs compelled Boston craftsmen to offer choices, such as simple rectangular or turned side and rear stretchers or carved crests and stretchers. Turned stretchers represented a significant cost increase over standard rectangular forms but were cheaper than carved ones. Gronning illustrates some Boston chairs owned by New Yorkers to show that Boston chairs were part of an export trade. In time, some Boston-style chairs were made in New York.

He cites a letter from 1709 as the earliest recorded reference to a Boston chair with a carved crest. The letter was written by Thomas Fitch to Benjamin Faneuil regarding the latter’s failure to sell his chairs, saying that they are not out of fashion, while admitting that the plain ones sold faster. Gronning points out that, like English counterparts, the earliest carved-top Boston chairs have crests with horizontal slots through which the leather hide or textiles could be inserted, pulled tight, and attached to the back with wrought-iron tacks.

He points out the differences in Boston carving from English examples that have a broken-scroll design, called a “horsebone scroll” by English chairmakers, found on English case chairs made between 1690 and 1710. Boston carvers made the center of the volutes different sizes and added a circular device between the volute and the break in the scroll on stretchers. One of these distinctive group C chairs made in Boston has urn-shaped finials surmounted by a compressed ball and capped with a squat button. These are second-generation Boston chairs that have plainer turnings on their upper posts than earlier chairs.

Gronning quotes historian Neil Kamil, who states  that New York craftsmen “did not sit idle” while Boston chairs flooded their market. He illustrates a New York armchair with a carved crest and stretcher and a leather-back panel that was made for the Van Cortland family and points out the New York style arms and turnings. A Boston chair made for a New York family is the progenitor of group D. Its scroll-carved crest and stretcher replaced the “horsebone” design, but the crest barely extends above the finials, the lower side and rear stretchers are the same height, and the barrel turning remains above the seat. Less expensive examples were made without carved crest and stretchers.

C-scroll slotted crests, simplified turned rear posts, a cylindrical turning above the seat, and similarly sized front leg turnings are characteristics of group D chairs. They also have raised rear stretchers and crests that rarely rise above the finials.

Apparently New York chair makers responded to the demand for Boston chairs and made some chairs with double side stretchers (largely abandoned by Boston chairmakers by 1710) and muted balusters above the seat rail. The finials of New York chairs have large compressed spheres and crests that rise above the finials or no crest at all.

Gronning calls a chair at the Smithtown Historical Society and an armchair at Winterthur “the apex of Boston design for baroque seating.” They have features from group D—finials with conical caps, rear posts with ring turnings above the baluster—but also arch crests in conjunction with arched front stretchers. The crests rise above the finials. To accommodate a lower stretcher, the baluster turning is larger on the top section of the legs.

American Furniture 2018 Edited by Luke Beckerdite The Chipstone Foundation, distributed by Oxbow Books, 2018, 248 pages, hardbound, $65.

American Furniture 2018
Edited by Luke Beckerdite
The Chipstone Foundation, distributed by Oxbow Books, 2018, 248 pages, hardbound, $65.

The group E chairs do not have a slot for leather upholstery; instead the crests have an arched reserve for a face- nailed back panel. The largest number of group E side chairs descended in the Van Rensselaer family. Some have carved crests and stretchers, but these were soon supplanted by standard front stretchers with large bilaterally symmetrical balusters separated by a small reel attached with round mortises, a cost-saving measure. This “new stretcher marked a pivotal point in the progression of Boston chair design,” a variation of the classic Boston model that was popular for at least 15 years. Gronning shows the variety of seating choices patrons had in 1710 with group E chairs.

By 1710 Boston chairmakers began offering banister-back chairs with flag or rush seats as a cheaper alternative to leather chairs. No banister-back chairs in groups A, B, or C are known, those associated with group D are rare, and they are more common in group E. There are only two banister-back side chairs with carved crests and front stretchers known to Gronning. Most have bipartite front stretchers. Caned chairs were less expensive than leather-upholstered chairs.

The major design shift was replacing the turned posts with molded posts. Easier and quicker to make, they expedited construction. The standard Boston cane chair of the 1720s had straight molded posts, ogee-molded crests with carved embellishments, and tripartite stretchers. Some had double cyma-shaped skirts, but few skirts survive. Before 1720 nearly all baroque seating had turned feet.

Imported English cane chairs were the source of several other features used by Boston craftsmen during the late 1710s to mid-1720s: back-set arm supports, “crook’d” backs, vasiform splats, forward-set medial stretchers, and square-section cabriole legs. Many forms remained popular for decades.

Although some craftsmen may have moved to other coastal cities and towns, Gronning believes that most of the chairs that look like Boston examples were made there, with some shipped to Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Just as the reader begins to see the stylistic progression, Gronning shows aberrant chairs that demonstrate that stylistic progression is not always linear. “As with biological evolution, there were dead ends,” writes Gronning.

His thesis is that by 1710, Boston chairmakers for the first time provided Bostonians and American Colonists at large a luxury of choice predicated on imported designs for the rising middle and upper classes who could afford the cost of the varied styles of seating. He calls the Boston chair “the most successfully manufactured and marketed product of the eighteenth century.”

Taunton Chests

Emelie Gevalt’s “Revisiting Taunton: Robert Crosman, Esther Stevens Brazer, and the Changing Interpretations of Taunton Chests” explores the subject of her Winterthur thesis. She makes good use of images to present the vocabulary of design that Robert Crosman, a drum maker in Taunton, Massachusetts, used to decorate chests from 1726 to 1742. Gevalt catalogs the entire group of over two dozen Taunton chests and evaluates whether Brazer’s original attribution of 11 of these painted chests to Robert Crosman in her April 1933 article in The Magazine Antiques still holds water. She finds that it does, and then she adds 16 more chests to the Taunton census.

Gevalt’s study and that of other scholars over the years strengthens Brazer’s claim that Crosman was the primary maker, possibly aided by workers in his shop, and also the primary decorator.

Gevalt divides the chests into four groups, starting with miniature chests painted with a single tree of life and occasionally with two smaller trees on the drawer below, calling those group A. Group B chests have a profusion of trees of life, several types of foliage, fruit, and flowers, and 12 different birds. Group C chests have scrolled designs terminating in tulips. The designs cross over the drawer dividers and unify the surface of the chest. Group D are those that defy categorization, with compositions that depict birds, berries, and trees in various combinations. The occurrence of similar motifs in each group suggests they are by the same hand. Construction also suggests that all the chests are from the same shop, if not all made by the same hand.

Gevalt suggests that Brazer looked at Taunton chests as an antiquarian during the Colonial Revival, interested in the craftsman, rather than storytelling, and in the evolution of style, and rural painted furniture as folk art. Brazer wrote about 18th- and early 19th-century decorative painting on furniture and on tin. Her book Early American Decoration is a reference on painted designs and their restoration. The Esther Stevens Brazer Guild, now known as the Historical Society of Early American Decoration, is still operating.

Gevalt suggests that Crosman’s decoration reflects French ornamental design, calling to mind the grotesques of royal designers such as Jean Le Pautre (1618-1682) and Jean Bérain (1640-1711), whose scrolling vines spread out across the page interspersed with berries, flowers, and foliate forms. She notes that Daniel Marot was among the craftsmen who brought French design to England and that French Baroque designs were used by Jean Berger, a French immigrant to Boston from Lyon in 1709 whose drawing book includes designs for japanning as well as ornamental painting in the French taste.

Attached to Gevalt’s essay is a catalog of all the known Taunton chests. Those in museums are so indicated, but others listed mention only when they last sold at auction; they are probably in private collections, but that is not always indicated.

Rhode Island Cabinetmaker

Tara Gleason Chicirda and Mack Cox wrote “A Rhode Island Cabinetmaker in Kentucky: Revelations of a Clock Reexamined.” Once part of Virginia, Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1792. The treaty of Camp Charlotte in 1774 opened the region to western migration, and the first permanent settlements in Harrods’s Town (now Harrodsburg), St. Asaphs (now Stanford), and Boonesborough began in 1775. During the 1780s and 1790s settlers poured through the Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River, and a variety of craftsmen were among them.

Lexington, Kentucky, became the “Athens of the West,” the wealthiest town west of the Allegheny Mountains. At first it was a settlement of log cabins, but by 1796 Lexington grew into a town of 300 to 400 houses. In 1806 there were four cabinetmaker shops making household furniture. Most surviving Kentucky furniture is Neoclassical in design, but a few pieces dating from the 1790s reflect earlier styles. A walnut desk-and-bookcase made in Mercer County relates in design to desk-and-bookcases made along the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to Virginia, particularly those made in Winchester, Virginia, and neighboring Frederick County.

A tall-case clock at Colonial Williamsburg with a Fredericksburg, Virginia, movement made by Thomas Walker is one of the earliest surviving examples of Kentucky furniture. For decades the case has been attributed to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg bought it from Ginsburg & Levy in the 1940s. Bernard Levy wrote to then-curator John Graham that the case was of southern origin, the rosettes were almost the same as those found on a John Goddard block-and-shell clock, and the finials were like Philadelphia finials. A similar clock case with a Walker movement has finials in the Rhode Island style, their lower sections with fluted petals rising to the middle of the ball, and the upper flames simulated by spirals that were carved, filed, and finished on the lathe.

The Kentucky history of the clocks raised questions about the origin of the Walker case. The use of chestnut as a secondary wood was probably a conscious choice for a cabinetmaker who might have immigrated to Kentucky from Rhode Island. In addition the clock case has typical Rhode Island hood joinery, and the cyma-shaped profile of the back of the rear feet is found on Rhode Island furniture.

There is only one Rhode Island cabinetmaker known to have worked in Fayette County, Kentucky, at an early date. Daniel Spencer (1741-1796), who apprenticed in Newport, possibly with his uncle John Goddard, relocated to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, by 1771 and to Providence the following year. A number of block-and-shell pieces made when he was in Providence are attributed to him. A simple flat-top desk-and-bookcase signed by Spencer is illustrated.

Spencer had financial difficulties, and after the death of his first wife he relocated to Lexington, Kentucky. He took a shop in Lexington and advertised in June 1793 that he would carry on the cabinetmaking trade. Little is known about his life in Kentucky. He died in April 1796.

The Kentucky clock cases attributed to Spencer reflect his Providence work and the evolving tastes of Lexington’s early consumers. No Rhode Island clock cases by Spencer have been identified, but he did make the form. In 1767 he charged Thomas Claggett of Newport £300 (“highly inflated currency”) for one.

Savery Labels

Philip D. Zimmerman discusses William Savery’s furniture labels, putting them in chronological order, and makes a good case for dating Savery labeled furniture later than what has been suggested previously by scholars.

Savery remains in the forefront of early American furniture makers, and it is nice to have the eight known labels on 30 Savery pieces on a timeline. These 30 Savery pieces are the largest group of Colonial American furniture documented by a label to one maker.

William Hornor published six Savery labels in his Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture in 1935. None are dated, nor can they be dated by an existing bill of sale. On all but one of them Savery’s address is written as “a little below the market, in Second Street.” One has no address. Hornor puts them in what he thought was chronological order by putting the ones that reference his shop at the “Sign of the Chair” before the one that reads at the “Sign of the Chest of Drawers, Coffin and Chair….”

Zimmerman uses the furniture on which the labels appear to provide dating. He illustrates the only example that survives with the first label, a rush-seated side chair. It is the only Savery label that references rush-bottomed chairs, “All sorts of rush bottom chairs made and sold by William Savery, at the sign of the Chair, a little below the Market,” and it makes no reference to joiner’s work, a phrase that he used on subsequent labels.

Five other rush-seated chairs, including one with a slat back, survive with other Savery labels, but the shape of the crest rail, the baluster-shaped splat, the rounded shoulders, the placement of the side stretchers, the cabriole legs, the turned front stretcher, and the scalloped skirt on the side chair suggest that it is the earliest.

Zimmerman dates both the chair and the label to 1760. He explains the 1760 date by documenting Savery’s working dates and the existence of other craftsmen’s labels. There is no birth record for Savery, but Savery signed a note in 1741 for £3.18 to John Wister “for the use of My Master Salomon Fussel & Me,” identifying his master, Philadelphia turner and slat-back chair maker Solomon Fussell (1704-1762). Fussell’s ledger book covers the years 1738 to 1749. Savery’s 1787 death notice puts his age at 65, so Zimmerman puts his birth between May 1721 and May 1722, suggesting that he reached his majority in 1742 or 1743 and opened his own shop.

The latest label Hornor illustrated, the one referencing the new shop sign, “At the sign of the Chest of Drawers, Coffin, and Chair, a little below the Market, in Second-Street,” appears on seven pieces of furniture. A high chest of drawers with a pierced pediment is stylistically the latest piece in this group that includes a pierced-splat joined armchair and a tall-case clock case.

The fifth Savery label illustrated by Hornor appears on three pieces of furniture, including on Savery’s only known serpentine-front chest of drawers, which is illustrated in the February 1926 issue of The Magazine Antiques. Zimmerman says the first documented evidence of a serpentine form in American furniture is Benjamin Randolph’s bill to Colonel George Craughan, dated April 2, 1765, for a “Comade [commode] Buroe Table,” priced at £15. The term commode means serpentine front. The next occurrence of the term commode is Thomas Affleck’s 1771 bill to John Cadwalader for “2 Commode Card Tables” and “2 Mahogany Commode Sophias for the recesses.” Zimmerman dates furniture with Hornor’s labels five and six after the late 1760s.

Zimmerman then looks to typeface and dingbats (printer’s ornaments) for clues. He sees the labels that reference joiner’s work as coming after the rush-bottom chair label. None of the furniture with these labels displays late style features comparable to the pierced-pediment high chest or the commode chest; consequently they predate the new shop sign label and the Savery name-only label illustrated in Hornor’s book at the bottom left of page 77.

Zimmerman illustrates a similar name-only label that appears on the till of a blanket chest, and he contends that the blanket chest cannot be earlier than the label referencing the new shop sign. This label has new graphics, likely the work of a different printer than the other seven labels. It does not include an address, but it provides space for a number to be inked in. Zimmerman places this label last, explaining that Savery no longer identified himself by what he made, and he did not list his place of business.

Having identified the earliest and the two latest labels, Zimmerman establishes the sequence for the remaining labels, all of which have identical wording: “At the sign of the Chair, a little below the Market, in Second Street.”

With the labels in order, Zimmerman then puts them on a timeline from 1758/59 to 1787. He suggests that Savery had new labels printed about every three and a half years. Work probably slowed in 1777 and 1778 during the Revolutionary War. He believes Savery worked for 15 or 17 years before he ordered his first label. He believes this label sequence improves the accuracy of dating Savery’s work. In most cases, it pushes the dating ten or 15 years later than furniture historians have suggested by using style analysis to date objects earlier than datable historical evidence indicates.

Book Reviews

American Furniture concludes with a chapter of book reviews:

Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle by Christine Jackson, Brock Jobe, and Clark Pearce, reviewed by Amber C. Albert, Historical Association of Catawba County;
Opening the Door: Safes of the Shenandoah Valley by Kurt C. Russ and Jeffrey S. Evans, reviewed by Tara Gleason Chicirda of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation;
Claggett: Newport’s Illustrious Clockmakers by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III, reviewed by Bob Frishman of Bell-Time Clocks;
Musical Clocks of Early America, 1730-1830: A Catalogue Raisonné by Gary R. Sullivan and Kate Van Winkle Keller, reviewed by Jeanne Schinto;
Rather Elegant Than Showy: The Classical Furniture of Isaac Vose by Robert D. Mussey Jr. and Clark Pearce, reviewed by Matthew A. Thurlow of The Decorative Arts Trust.


Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest

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