A Book Review
One day in 1717 a young man named John Head stepped off a boat from England onto the docks in Philadelphia. Not yet 30 years old, he had been born in Bury St. Edmunds in County Suffolk in 1688. He arrived in the Quaker city with his wife, Rebecca, and four of their eventual 11 children in hand. (It is said that “the two youngest he & his wife carried in a tub from the landing to their dwelling.”) They would never return to their old home. Head had been trained as a joiner in Bury St. Edmunds, and he probably came to the New World to seek greater economic opportunity in an emerging Colonial city that was only a few years older than himself. And he succeeded.
Head quickly set up shop, and, like most artisans, he soon began keeping an account book to record his daily cash and barter interactions with his customers. He would maintain these records for the next 35 or so years, until about a year before his death in 1754. He eventually covered some 231 pages of transactions in his reasonably legible handwriting, employing his sometimes idiosyncratic spelling. Little did he know that some three centuries later his quotidian accounts would be discovered in his adopted hometown in the Vaux collection at the American Philosophical Society, a scholarly organization that traces its own roots to 1743. He might be amazed to learn, as claimed by English furniture historian Adam Bowett, that the Head “account book is the earliest and most complete record of a cabinetmaker’s work to have survived either in North America or in Great Britain.” He undoubtedly would be stunned to see the degree of scholarly attention that his career has received in the 21st century.
I suspect that historian Jay Robert Stiefel, author of this extraordinary book, knows more about Head than the cabinetmaker himself knew. Stiefel has been analyzing and dissecting Head’s life and career for more than 20 years now. This magisterial publication is the culmination of his work on Head and his account book, giving us a detailed, thorough, contextual, and sophisticated look at nearly everything that this important document reveals. Stiefel tells us much about Head’s life in particular, but also about the cabinetmaking trade and social history of life in Philadelphia during the first half of the 18th century.
Kemble Widmer’s equally impressive analysis of the accounts of the Salem, Massachusetts, cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould (1734-1781), whose career picked up when Head’s left off in the 1750s and carried through the end of the 1770s, is an important corollary to Stiefel’s work.1 When Widmer and Stiefel are read together, we have before us two foundational studies about the business of 18th-century American cabinetmaking that were simply not available a generation earlier, notwithstanding the pioneering craft-focused publications of Charles Hummel and others. Stiefel and Widmer, each in his own way, provide a detailed and nuanced look at the business side of furniture making; each is adept at linking accounts with surviving objects; and each provides the collector and curator with rich connoisseurship insights and aesthetic analysis.
Stiefel has seemingly left no stone unturned in documenting Head’s account book and all that it entails. We learn about Head’s home and real estate, his food and drink, his livestock and his transportation equipment, and his dress and personal adornment, as well as the more expected facts about his shop tools, materials, organization, and business practices. But we also learn about the furniture that emerged from his shop over nearly three decades.
The Cabinetmaker’s Account: John Head’s Record of Craft & Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753 by Jay Robert Stiefel. American Philosophical Society Press, 2019, 298 pages, hardbound, $85.
Stiefel and other furniture historians have found about 60 objects that can now be associated with Head’s shop, using the account book as a map to link names and surviving furniture together. These form an important part of the discussion in nine chapters that move from form to form, summarizing Head’s production of each type, from high chests to tables, to beds, to chests, and so on. Aesthetically, Head’s high chests and dressing tables, such as the ones made for Caspar Wistar (pp. 182-83, figs. 17.15 and 17.16), are perhaps his most impressive achievement. His shop’s clock cases for local clockmakers are perhaps equally striking. But, as was the case with most craftsmen, his shop also made more mundane articles, such as close stools and coffins. Head had dealings with many famous Philadelphians such as James Logan, Isaac Norris, and Thomas Masters, as well as with a host of fellow craftsmen such as glassmaker Caspar Wistar, pewterer Simon Edgell (who receives his own chapter), and many furniture and clock makers. Ironically, Head was not as famous in his own day as many of his more prosperous relatives in the hat-making trade. Their 18th-century fame has now been eclipsed by Head’s posthumous elevation to the pantheon of important early American furniture makers.
After more than a quarter-century of production, the last record of furniture making in Head’s account book came in 1744, although he continued to keep track of other transactions until 1753. He died in October 1754 at age 66. Unlike many Colonial artisans, Head seems to have achieved a good degree of economic success.
Stiefel sums up his career by noting that Head supplied furniture to “several hundred households” over 40 years, making his shop “one of the most active in Philadelphia.” He clearly was able to work quickly and efficiently, developing “modular construction” and a simplified system of chalk shop markings. He also was an innovator, using slightly “splayed legs to increase the stability of his case pieces on frame,” as with the Richardson family high chest (seen as fig. 17.11 on p. 176), and he used excellent materials in his furniture, including choice selections of walnut.
Stiefel also focuses on Head’s aesthetic achievements, praising the “harmonious designs, elegant proportions, and Classical geometry of his furniture,” including his clock cases, high chests, and turned elements. All these attributes make him “early Philadelphia’s most prominent identifiable cabinetmaker,” an amazing transformation for an individual given only a single line by William Macpherson Hornor in his Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture,published in 1935.
Much of Stiefel’s initial research on Head’s account book has been available online since 2001 and thus may be familiar to many readers of this journal.2 Why, one wonders, did the American Philosophical Society decide to issue this printed version in 2019? Patrick Spero, the society’s librarian and director, provides the answer, which may surprise some readers. He and the society concluded that “digital rarely means permanent—quite the opposite in fact. As coding language and file storage formats evolve, we cannot be sure that in twenty or fifty years Stiefel’s original publication will be available to scholars as it appears today. As it turns out, old-fashioned printing remains the best way to ensure that Stiefel’s conclusions remain accessible for generations and that his scholarly contributions are preserved. Paper, as Head’s three-hundred-year-old account book reminds us, is close to permanent.” Thus, we have this beautifully illustrated and designed book in front of us. A photographic reproduction of the full Head account book from stem to stern is available as a searchable document on the APS website, giving us the benefit of both worlds.3
Generations of social historians have demonstrated that the seemingly routine documents left behind by people of the “middling sort,” when interpreted by skillful historians, are sources as rich as the diaries and letters of the wealthy and famous. They can lead us to insights into social and economic life that have often been overlooked, deepening our understanding of the past. The Cabinetmaker’s Account, as presented and interpreted by Jay Robert Stiefel, is one such document that brings us closer to comprehending the context that generated our treasured “antiques.”
1. Kemble Widmer, Joyce King, et al., In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London, 2014).
2 See American Philosophical Society, Library Bulletin 1, no. 1 (winter 2001), available online (www.amphilsoc.org/bulletin/20011/head.htm). Some of the material from that digital publication is reprinted in the volume under review here as an appendix (pp. 263-65).
3 See https://diglib.amphilsoc.org/islandora/object/john-head-account-book-1718-1753#page/1/mode/1up.
Gerald W.R. Ward is the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest