Middle Atlantic and Southern Colonies
In 1835, before the handcraft system of production in America had been replaced by modern industrial techniques, Alexis de Tocqueville characterized the utilitarian spirit in which Americans cultivated the arts: "They habitually put use before beauty, and they want beauty itself to be useful."1 Almost seventy years earlier, the colonial American painter John Durand clearly recognized the indifference of his contemporaries to the fine arts. His pathetic advertisement in The New York Journal (April 7, 1768) noted that many of the public regarded painting as a "superfluous ornament." The genius of artistic expression in eighteenth-century America, therefore, was found in beautiful and useful objects produced for homes and public buildings. Among the highest forms of creative endeavor in the decorative arts was the furniture that was made by craftsmen working throughout the colonies. It was no accident that master craftsmen were often referred to as "artists in their trade." Whether a cabinetmaker, carver, or turner, their apprenticeship training included the development of skills necessary to produce drawings and sketches. This training also included knowledge of architectural design, especially the rules of the orders of architecture and considerable acquaintance with perspective and correct proportion. Thomas Chippendale, the English cabinetmaker whose name is associated with the style of furniture produced in America between 1755 and 1790, included instructive material on these subjects in all three editions of his design book, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director. Indeed, he believed that the study of architecture and rules of perspective was "the very Soul and Basis" of the art of cabinetmaking.
Not all cabinetmakers in eighteenth-century America were artistic geniuses. Levels of competence varied, not only from region to region but within the same community. It was more difficult to hide incompetence in the production of furniture, where defects would be glaringly apparent to customers, than it was in a craft such as house carpentry.2 It is hard for modern Americans to comprehend the degree of personal responsibility a master craftsman in eighteenth-century society shouldered for the objects he produced. A cabinetmaker owned and operated a shop, purchased tools and raw materials, designed his products (often in consultation with his customers), supervised the work of journeymen, instructed apprentices, procured commissions for new work, and sold ready-made goods over the counter. Complaints, whether legitimate or not, were brought to the master cabinetmaker.
In part because of the personal nature of the craft, many apprentices and journeymen tried to remain within, or near, the community in which they had received their training. Their skill and integrity would be locally known, and such credentials were of great assistance in establishing a business in eighteenth-century America. They could also depend on the assistance of family, relatives, and friends in providing business contacts and possibly capital to help them set up as master cabinetmakers. Not every apprentice or journeyman could marry one of his master’s daughters, although many did. That too, would tend to keep a craftsman close to the community in which he had been trained.
The cost in both time and money of moving goods overland was often prohibitive and contributed greatly to the maintenance of local traditions and customs, and also encouraged the use of locally grown woods for cabinetwork, especially in those parts of furniture not exposed to customers or admirers. Although the vast majority of surviving American and English furniture of this period is made from mahogany, it is clear that American cabinetmakers were also willing to produce the widest possible range of forms in walnut, cherry, maple, or pine. In 1755, the Philadelphia cabinet – and chairmaker Francis Trumble listed twenty-three different types of furniture that he could produce in any of the major woods just noted.3 Lists of prices charged by cabinetmakers for furniture make it clear that the customer’s taste and ability to pay determined the wood selected by cabinetmakers for furniture made in the Chippendale period.4
Mahogany was known to American cabinetmakers at least as early as 1708, when over thirty-six feet of “Mahogany Plank" were listed in the inventory of the Philadelphia shop of Charles Plumley.5 Mahogany, a dense-grained hardwood with rich, lustrous patterns that could be enhanced by oil, wax, shellac, or varnish, was probably not fully appreciated until the introduction of the Chippendale style. Whatever the choice of major and secondary woods, colonial American cabinetmakers were more generous in their use of mahogany than were their English counterparts. The colonies were closer to the mahogany forests of the West Indies and Central America; consequently, cabinetmakers were not forced to treat it as so precious a commodity. Depending on the locale, forests close to every community provided quantities of white or yellow pine, red or white oak, maple, cherry, chestnut, red gum, ash, cypress, white cedar, tulipwood, and other woods used in the construction of furniture.
For all these reasons, American furniture in the Chippendale style tends to be a reflection of local construction habits and preferences for design generated by cabinetmakers and customers. New York cabinetmakers produced blocklike claw-and-ball feet, whereas Philadelphia artisans made theirs with prominent knuckles tightly grasping a flattened ball. Finials on Massachusetts case pieces are usually shaped like a corkscrew; their counterparts in Philadelphia simulate flames. Why did New York artisans prefer to taper the rear legs of their chairs and finish them with a rectangular pad? Why did Philadelphia woodworkers prefer to use a "stump” rear leg, merely rounding the edges of their stock? Records provide no clues for these regional preferences, yet study of collections of American furniture show that they existed.
This guide is arranged to encourage the comparison of forms produced within a given region with those made in other centers. Value judgments about construction, skill, proportion, the success of ornamentation—a kind of internal and external "good, better, and best"—should result for the reader.6
Initially, it is more important to develop a comparative sense of quality in furniture than it is to become familiar with craftsmen’s labels, ownership by persons of historical importance, family histories, or other means of "documentation" for furniture.
Very few pieces of American furniture bear the brand, label, or stamp of their makers. Labels, histories, original accounts or bills, or other documentation add to the price of antique furniture, but they add nothing to its aesthetic merit. Documentation helps to establish the existence of a form at a given time and in a given place, all of which is helpful because it advances knowledge and provides standards for comparison. Only by training the eye to see visual details—and then remembering them—can an individual begin to identify furniture of excellent quality.
It was part of the genius of Henry Francis du Pont that he assembled examples of furniture representative of the highest quality of typical forms produced by American cabinetmakers. He was not interested in unique forms because one could not learn enough from them. The Winterthur collection of American Chippendale furniture numbers more then 625 examples, and that figure does not include small forms (such as boxes), Windsor furniture, or furniture produced by non-English cultural groups such as the Pennsylvania Germans.
It is not surprising, in view of the museum’s geographical location, that the collection’s greatest strength lies in Chippendale furniture made in the Middle Atlantic colonies. The collection of New England Chippendale furniture would be considered superb by almost any other museum. Like most museums, Winterthur lacks comparable collections of Southern furniture. During the period from 1926 to 1961, when most of the collection was assembled, Southern furniture was neither readily available to Northern collectors, nor had much of it been clearly identified. Excellent collections of Southern furniture are available to the public at Colonial Williamsburg and the’Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The 151 pieces of furniture illustrated in this guide are a careful sampling of furniture at Winterthur made between 1755 and 1790 in New York, Philadelphia, and the South and, with the exception of the latter, are indicative of the range of forms produced in those areas.
The construction techniques and design of American Chippendale were derived from English, Irish, and Scottish sources.
Richard Magrath, in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised in 1772 that he was making "carved Chairs of the newest fashion… of the same Pattern as those imported by Peter Manigault, Esq." 7 Some colonial Americans became acquainted with the new style in the course of their travels overseas. Emigrant cabinetmakers from the British Isles were another important factor in transmitting style and techniques. John Brinner, a cabinet – and chairmaker in New York City, advertised in 1762 that he was "from London," noting that he had "brought over from London six artificers well skill’d in the above Branches." 8 Any one of these varied sources could account for such specific relationships as, for example, the similarity between the five-legged card and gaming tables made in New York (Figures 31 and 32) and a similar English table in the collection of Temple Newsam, Leeds, England. ° Government officials traveled from the British Isles to the colonies, and it can be assumed that they carried with them their fashion-conscious tastes. The influence of English design on colonial America in this period is best summarized by a sentence contained in a letter of May 18, 1765, from Captain Samuel Morris of Philadelphia to his nephew Samuel Powel, Jr., residing in London. "Household goods may be had here as cheap and as well made from English patterns." 10
Cabinetmakers were accustomed to making furniture with the aid of paper or wood patterns. A Chippendale side chair, for example, might require separate patterns for the crest rail, splat, seat rails, front legs, and one large, continuous pattern for a rear leg and stile. A cabinetmaker’s stock of patterns was as important as his awls, chisels, marking gauges, planes, and saws. Unlike most hand tools, however, patterns became stylistically obsolete and few eighteenth-or early nineteenth-century examples survive.
For some years prior to the introduction of the Chippendale. style into colonial America, English craftsmen and designers had published books of designs for architecture and ornamental furniture from which patterns could be copied or modified.11 None, however, had an impact in the English-speaking world comparable to The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, published in 1754 by one of the foremost of the London cabinetmakers, Thomas Chippendale (ca. 1718 —1779). Although it was a summary of current English fashion, the original contribution of his book, resulting in its widespread acceptance, was the fact that for the first time, it contained "Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture In the Most Fashionable Taste." In addition to ornamental luxuries for aristocratic or wealthy patrons, the Director contained designs "suited to the Fancy and Circumstances of Persons in all Degrees of Life." 12 Subsequent editions published in 1755 and 1762 attest to its popularity.
A copy of the 1762 edition of Chippendale’s Director was owned by the Library Company of Philadelphia shortly after its publication. Many of that city’s cabinetmakers were members of the library and would have had access to the design book. 13 Thomas Affleck, a Philadelphia cabinetmaker, is said to have owned a personal copy of the Director. 14 In 1776, Robert Bell published in Philadelphia American Independence the Interest and Glory of Great Britain. Inside the back board is Bell’s advertisement for new and used books of which No. 29 is "Chippendale’s 160 elegant and useful designs of household furniture." Because the third edition of 1762 contains 200 plates, it is obvious that the 1754 or 1755 edition was in Robert Bell’s stock. Thus the complete range of designs published by Thomas Chippendale was available to Philadelphia’s woodworkers. Among the stock of books that James Rivington, a bookseller, brought with him from London in 1760 was the recently published Household Furniture in Genteel Taste. It contained designs by leading craftsmen of London, including Thomas Chippendale. Rivington offered it for sale in New York and Philadelphia shops.15 It is certain that English architectural and furniture design books were available to many skilled craftsmen from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina, during the Chippendale period. .
Colonial newspaper advertisements make clear that from whatever source—imported furniture, emigrant craftsmen, visual ideas carried in the eyes and minds of travelers, or design books—it did not take long for the new style to be introduced to the American colonies. In 1755, only a year after the publication of Chippendale’s Director, a public vendue in Boston offered for sale "an exceeding good sett of Mahogany carv’d Chairs, new Fashion." In the same year, Francis Trumble of Philadelphia listed ready-made furniture "after the newest fashions." 16
What were the major design components of the "newest fashion" in English and American furniture? Chippendale described them in 1754 as being in the "Gothic, Chinese and modem taste," which by 1762 was crystallized on the title page of the Director in the phrase "the most fashionable taste." During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, admiration for the ruins of Gothic structures became a mark of sophistication, and a strong interest in Gothic architecture inspired a revival of interest in Gothic furniture. Chippendale and other designers did not, of course, advocate copying the furniture of the Middle Ages. In keeping with the spirit of this new ornamental style, he showed furniture designs incorporating cusps, pointed arcades, tracery, quatrefoils, and other late-medieval motifs. Colonial Americans used similar ornament on their furniture, as can be seen in Figures 7, 11, 36, 44, and 53 — 57. Chinese and Japanese decorative art began to exert a strong influence on European art after trade with the Far East expanded in the seventeenth century. Chinese influence in furniture design of this period can be discerned in the use of fretwork, railing, lattice, and straight-legged chairs and tables. The Chinese taste also had its American translation (Figures 9, 19, 33, 81, 85, and 90).
To Thomas Chippendale and his colonial American contemporaries, "modern taste" was a phrase used to describe the exciting ornamental style that abandoned the rigid, structural concepts of classical design and adopted curvilinear, asymmetrical arrangements of pierced shells, foliage, flowers, dripping vegetation, and other natural forms. Originating in France during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and undergoing continuous refinement in that country until the 1760s, it was referred to by artists, craftsmen, and designers as le gout moderne, translated precisely as "the modern taste." This unbalanced, sometimes exaggerated, decorative vocabulary is often identified by the term rococo, but not until the early nineteenth century was that term used, and then only in a pejorative sense.17 The term Chippendale was not used as an adjective to describe a furniture style until 1876 when it appeared in the English novel An Odd Couple by Mrs. Oliphant. An American edition appeared three years later in New York Citv.
Because the "modern taste" evolved gradually and never made a complete break with the classical tradition, it was widely accepted in England and colonial America. This style could embrace a traditional English Gothic strain, incorporate exotic elements from China, use classical ornament, and still satisfy the dictates of the English painter William Hogarth. In his Analysis of Beauty (1753), Hogarth had defined the S-curve, or cyma-recta, as the ultimate "line of beauty." Although he made his specific illustration a curved leg of a chair, the cabriole leg introduced early in the eighteenth century, he made it clear that this serpentine line should dominate the shape of furniture. "How inelegant would be the shape of all our moveables without it."18 The designs in Thomas Chippendale’s Director provided illustrations for all these style elements, helping to popularize them and eventually creating an image that made his name synonymous with the style.
Undoubtedly helping to popularize this style was the fact that few truly new furniture forms were introduced in England or America during the Chippendale period. On these shores, a number of small furniture forms for specialized purposes, evidence of increasing wealth and a taste for luxury, were developed. Fire screens to protect people from hot coals popping from a fireplace were a useful and attractive innovation (Figures 20 — 21 and 88 — 89). A profusion of stands to support basins, candlesticks, and kettles came into existence (Figures 25 — 29, 95, and 133 — 134). In New England and Charleston, South Carolina, the breakfront bookcase made its appearance. Never a common form, probably because of its expense, this type of. furniture was called a library bookcase by Chippendale. Kneehole bureau tables (Figure 109), sometimes used as desks but more frequently for dressing and grooming, had been known in Boston in small quantities between 1739 and 1752. Their popularity grew during the Chippendale period. China tables (Figures 36 and 135), with Gothic or Chinese pierced galleries, were a variant of the long-known tea table. New Pembroke, or breakfast, tables (Figures 96—97) with narrow leaves and broad tops offered a practical contrast to earlier drop-leaf examples constructed with narrow tops and wide leaves.
American cabinetmakers continued to make the high chest of drawers and developed it to the highest possible expression of a furniture form (Figures 81 — 83 and Plate XI). It provided ample storage for clothing and linens, but in England it was abandoned in favor of the clothes press and the double chest of drawers.
Despite the lack of new forms introduced in this period, American craftsmen introduced novelty in their furniture in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most striking change was the transformation of the solid splats of Queen Anne style arm – and side chairs into light, airy, fragile, but serviceable, backrests. Instead of using hoop-back or yoke-back crest rails that curved into the rear stiles, chairmakers now shaped the top or crest rail like a bow and supported it on the rear stiles. The results can be disturbing because the vertical thrust of the stiles is cut off abruptly. The unbalanced, asymmetrical effect was enhanced when the ends of crest rails were carved with elaborate shells or cabochon—a convex, peanut-shaped decoration (Figures 45 and 56).
In a nod to Chinese influence, straight legs were used for beds, chairs, sofas, and tables. These could be plain, carved or molded, and some terminated in blocks called Marlborough feet (Figures 48 — 49 and 85). Strong evidence of the continuity of earlier forms into the Chippendale period is the persistence of the claw-and-ball foot in American furniture. This type of foot was old-fashioned, not in the “modern taste," and none is illustrated in the Director. On the other hand, it did have a strong relationship to the natural ornament so prevalent in the new style. Carved hairy-paw or scroll feet were types occasionally employed by colonial artisans (Figures 50 — 52). They were quite stylish and are illustrated in Chippendale’s design book.
The serpentine line, or S-curve, so admired by William Hogarth and his contemporaries, was incorporated into the production of American case furniture or tables in a number of ingenious ways. Tops, drawer fronts, and skirts of card tables and chests of drawers might be serpentine (Figures 17, 31 — 32, 78, and 105). Ogee-bracket feet supported desks, desk and bookcases, chests of drawers, double chests, and tail-case clocks (Figures 86-87, 126, and 132). Repetition of cyma-curves on the edges of tilt-top tea tables produced the piecrust edge sought after by modern collectors (Figures 34, and 115-117).
By now it should be obvious that the nature of the rococo style is ornament, not structure. Most cabinetmakers simply grafted the new style of decoration onto established furniture forms. It is possible that American cabinetmakers quickly and readily accepted the new style because it was not necessary to retool. Existing patterns could be used to produce basic furniture shapes and the decoration of surfaces turned over to another woodworking specialist, the carver. Most cabinetmakers were not skilled in manipulating the chisels and gouges used by wood – carvers. The more exuberant, naturalistic forms that we associate with rococo taste were beyond their abilities. It is no accident that the most successful examples of American Chippendale furniture were produced in Philadelphia and Boston, where several carvers could be supported by a large number of cabinetmakers. Furniture carving in New York tends to be less successful, although at its best it competes with that of Philadelphia (Figure 37).
No matter how high the quality of ornament added to American furniture, the overall result would not have been successful had the basic forms been badly designed. Readers will find many authorities who claim for American furniture "an elegant simplicity" of design. Perhaps! In fact, however, the appearance of all furniture produced in America and England in this style was more likely to be related to the wealth and taste of the customer. Set prices were charged for every variation from a basic form. The amount of carving, molded edges, brackets, and so forth was dependent to a large degree on ability to pay for these "extras." An eighteenth-century gentleman ordering furniture faced the same problem as the twentieth-century car buyer confronted with myriad “options.” Among the most popular English architectural design books in the American colonies were Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (London, 1745) and A Collection of Designs in Architecture (London, 1757). The preface to both the American and English versions of the latter contains advice to artisans to make the original design as good as possible and not to overload any design with ornament.
American artisans and their customers could not ignore the influence of classical restraint that was part of their English cultural heritage and, therefore, they used the ornament provided by the Chippendale style with taste and good judgment. Exciting decoration grafted onto traditional, pleasing forms was a formula for successful design that has delighted owners of American Chippendale furniture ever since the eighteenth century.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, new translation by George Lawrence (New York – Harper & Row, 1966), p. 432.
2. Peter C. Marzio, "Carpentry in the Southern Colonies during the Eighteenth Century with Emphasis on Maryland and Virginia," Winterthur Portfolio 7 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1972), pp. 229-250.
3. Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), Jan 14.1755.
4. Harrold E. Gillingham, "Benjamin Lehman, A Germantown Cabinetmaker," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 54 (1930), pp. 289 — 306. Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: The Viking Press, 1966), p. 20.
5. William Macpherson Hornor, Jr., Blue Book. Philadelphia Furniture (Philadelphia: Privately printed, 1935), p. 9.
6. The visual approach was pioneered by Albert Sack, Fine Points of Furniture: Early American (New York: Crown Publishers, 1950).
7. South Carolina Gazette (Charleston), July 9, 1772.
8. New York Mercury, May 31, 1762.
9. Morrison H. Heckscher, "The New York Serpentine Card Table," Antiques, (May 1973), pp. 954963.
10. Quoted in Hornor. Blue Book, p. 81.
11. Peter Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs of the Eighteenth Century (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1958), pp. 1 — 21.
12. Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1762; reprint ed., New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966), title page.
13. Charles F. Hummel, "The Influence of English Design Books Upon the Philadelphia Cabinetmaker, 1760-1780" (M. A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1955), pp. 50-53.
14. Hornor, Blue Book, pp. 73, 78.
15. Hummel, "The Influence of English Design Books," pp. 53-54. Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs, pp. 51-52.
16. Boston Gazette, Nov. 17, 1755. Pennsylvania Gazette, Jan. 14, 1755.
17. Sidney Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1943), pp. 3-6, 223-225.
18. As quoted in Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs, p. 9.
Figures 1 and 2. Armchairs. These armchairs typify the ample proportions associated with New York seating furniture, differing only slightly from Philadelphia examples in their overall size (Figs. 39-47). New York chairmakers created an illusion of wide, heavy furniture. The outward thrust of arm supports, armrests, and seat rails, combined with broad splats make the chairs seem larger than chairs made elsewhere. The chairs appear to be identical, but a closer look reveals differences in the carving of the armrest terminals, splats, and crest rails.
Figure 2 is also slightly smaller and has no molded edge on its shoe, or splat, rail. Armchairs and side chairs similar to these were made for many New York families, which should warn that it is possible to assemble a "set” of chairs. Fig. 1: mahogany; 1765-75; H 39’k" (99.6 cm); no. IX of a set; acc. no. G59.2826. Fig. 2: mahogany; 1765-75; H 38’Yie" (98.8 cm); acc. no. G59.2827.
Figures 3 and 4. Comer Chairs. Roundabouts were chairs that could fit under the writing lid of a desk, hold a commode (Fig. 3), or be placed in a corner. These chairs exemplify the restrained New York interpretatipn of the Chippendale style. In Figure 4, heart-and-diamond-shaped cutouts in the otherwise solid, Queen Anne-style splat, and leaf-carving on the front leg concede to the new style. Square-sectioned claw-and-ball feet (Fig. 4) are common on New York furniture of this period. Figure 3 has feet closer to those found on Philadelphia furniture. Fig. 3: mahogany, red gum; 1760-75; H32" (81.3 cm); асе. no. C60.779. Fig. 4: mahogany, cherry; 1750-60; H 32" (81.3 cm); асе. no. C59.2838.