During the past two decades several people have influenced and contributed greatly to the development of the analytical and typological approach I have taken in this book. Although I never met the late Dr. Torsten Lcnk, his work The Flintlock: its origin and development has served as a monument of inspiration. Likewise, Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age by Joe Kinding, Jr. revealed the tremendous understanding that is possible when a detailed and intensive study is carried out on objects that w ere created under the dictates of function and style. John Bivins Jr. and William F. Muller have, by their incisive and discerning observations, also contributed to this methodology. Harold B. Gill Jr. has been an equivalent source of values and principles in historical research, and his substantial material contribution is evident throughout this book.
This work would not have been possible w ithout the financial support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in W ashington, D. C., and the personal efforts of the staffs of both the Colonial W illiamsburg Foundation and the Virginia Museum. In particular, Graham llood and Carolyn Weekley provided essential help, as did editors George Cruger and Monica I lamm; designers Raymond Geary and Gene Rudy; and the photographers Delmore A. Wenzel, Hans Lorenz, Ronald Jennings, Katherine Wetzel, and Dennis Me Waters.
The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in W inston – Salem, North Carolina, was a major resource. Its research files furnished much information and brought to my attention many objects w ithout w hich this study would have been severely fragmented. In addition to the files, Frank I lorton and Bradford Rauschenberg, research fellows, were extremely helpful.
Many others, both museum colleagues and private individuals, have made substantial contributions, and a special thanks is due the owners of pieces illustrated and studied in this work. While it is not practical to recognize everyone, there are others who have made exceptional contributions as w ell: Mr. and Mrs. William Adams, Bernard Caperton, John D. Davis, Christopher Gilbert, Margaret Gill, Marshall Goodwin,
Charles Granquist, Leroy Graves, Lindsey Grigsby, Mack Headley, Brock Jobe, Joe Kindig 111, Rebecca Lehman, Mr. and Mrs. James Melchor, J. Roderick Moore, Albert Skutans, Earl Soles, Jr., Mary Ellen Stumpf, Peter Thornton, Thomas W. Wood. The typists were Deborah Laubach, Gwen Schwartz, Emeline Wood, Joette I leadley, Deborah Wallace, and Sandra Green.
The largest contribution to this work was made by Sumpter Priddy 111, who served as my assistant throughout the preparation of this book, put in countless hours of research and editing, and did the principal research and writing of the general introduction.
And, a final acknow ledgcmcnt to my wife, Georgia Allen, for her encouragement and constant support in this endeavor.
—WALLACE B. GUSLER Curator of Furniture The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation June 30, 1978
Twenty-six years have passed since Furniture of the Old South 1640-1820 opened in Richmond during January of 1952. That landmark exhibition, sponsored jointly by the Virginia Museum, l’he Magazine Antiques, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, w as the first large-scale presentation of southern furniture to the American public, and it spurred an increased awareness of the subject that has been follow ed by extensive and revealing research. T his has resulted in a steady stream of furniture discoveries showing that cabinetmaking in the early South reached an exceedingly high level of sophistication from both stylistic and technical standpoints.1
Yet, despite the advances of recent decades, the South’s appreciation of its decorative arts matured noticeably more slow ly than in other regions of the nation. Collections of antique furniture were begun as early as 1793 in New Kngland, when an American chair in the “antique fashion” was bequeathed to the Massachusetts Historical Society. By 1842, w hen antique collecting was still virtually unheard of in the South, the movement was gaining considerable momentum in the Northeast, prompting the librarian of the American Antiquarian Society in W’orehester, Massachusetts to proclaim that old furnishings were eagerly sought as “the most cherished ornaments of the draw ing room. . .
There is currently little indication that nineteenth-century Virginians expressed any great curiosity about the lifestyles and furnishing of their early forebears. W ith the exception of individuals who preserved objects that had descended in their own families, or the unusual collector who purchased a furnishing that had belonged to a revolutionary hero,3 little value was attached to such pursuits. The founding of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1853 and the campaign to return Washington’s possessions to his home are among the earliest attempts at historic preservation in the country.4 But alas, the inspiration for doing so did not come from within, and Virginia must be seen not as the leader in the movement, but as a follow er.
Popular interest in antique collecting in the Northeast w as further reflected during 1876, when two exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia emphasized the growing curiosity of nineteenth-century Americans toward the homes and lifestyles of their ancestors. The Connecticut Cottage, which portrayed “the character of American houses of a century ago,” was filled with early furniture on loan from Connecticut residents. A more rustic approach w as found in the “Old Log Cabin,” where a series of rooms, including a New Kngland kitchen, were filled w ith furniture and cooking utensils “whose very simplicity made them incomprehensible to the victim of modern improvements.”5
There w as little southern participation in the Centennial Exposition, and despite an invitation to do so, the government of Virginia “declined to make any contribution.”6 No documents are currently available to verify the reactions of southern visitors to the Connecticut Cottage or the Old Log Cabin, but it is doubtful that New England interiors held much meaning to the South, which was still deeply embittered by the Civil W ar and by the economic depression that followed. The post-w ar period was, of necessity, a time for redefining southern society, and the recreation of a colonial Virginia home would have undoubtedly brought to mind the loss of a w ay of life, and not the
nostalgic remembrances that these images inspired in the North.
As an indication of public awareness during this period, it is important to note that the Virginia 1 listorieal Society, which led the movement to preserve the state’s historical documentary materials, received its lirst gift of furniture in 1882." The Society did not have a permanent home during its early years, which may well have discouraged potential donors. Hut the gift—a table on which George Mason had written the Bill of Rights—came nearly fifty years after the founding of the Society, and almost a century behind the lirst recorded donation in Massachusetts. Like many furnishings associated with historic figures during the nineteenth century, George Mason’s table stood among a class of objects often referred to as “relics,” a word often used to mean a remembrance or a souvenir. Its religious definition, however, as “a memorial to a departed saint, martyr, or holy person,”" may actually better explain the sentimentality that spurred nineteenth-century collectors to gather these historic possessions. Beyond the realm of such objects, however, there was little interest in collecting antique furnishings in the South. Other “old” furniture was often given away, discarded, or relegated to outbuildings and back porches. There were few museums, anti few er historical societies, and the shortage severely hampered the preservation of valuable historical materials. At the critical time when historians from Pennsylvania to Maine were salvaging important artifacts for public or private collections, there were no decorative arts scholars and few collections emerging in the South.
One of the earliest exhibitions in V irginia to include furniture w as the Art Loan Exhibition held in Norfolk during May of 1879. Over 300 objects were displayed there, the vast majority of them paintings. A small representation of the decorative arts was also shown, including a “looking glass brought over in the Mayflower,” two tables owned in Williamsburg, and a chair “formerly the property of Lord Dunmore”— the latter piece is included in this study (fig. 58).!l The last three examples were owned by Miss Sallie Galt of Williamsburg and came from a house that virtually burst at the seams with ancestral furniture. Miss Galt w as an outstanding woman in many respects, certainly one to be lauded for her farsightedness, but she is also important because she represents a generation of Virginians who cautiously preserved the memory of their forebears by preserving the material possessions they had owned.10 It was this reverence for family heritage that was to play an important role in preserving the furniture that makes this study possible. And vet, the impetus for knowing something about it—how, w hen, and by whom it was made—w as not to come from within.
By the 1920s the steady interest in antiques among collectors and dealers in the Northeast had resulted in dozens of books that explored the decorative arts of that region and attempted to define its regional schools. Yet, there was not the first volume to examine the South’s contribution to colonial cabinetmaking. Many northern scholars took note of the South’s lack of interest in their arts, but neither private collectors nor dealers hesitated to take advantage of the availability of antiques found there at reasonable prices. One publication from 1928 told of an imaginary excursion by three collectors who ventured to “Richwood” and “Petersvillc” in Virginia, w here “. . .two thirds of the poultry in the
suburban districts have reared their broods for more than half a century in rare old I lepplewhite sideboards, magnificent old cabriole-legged scrutoires, or exquisite old block-front chcsts-on-chests that the old families of old Virginia long ago relegated to the old barn.”" Dealers from Maryland northward ventured into the South to help stock their shops, and by 1931 one author was prompted to comment, somewhat
shortsightedly, that the South had been practically “cleaned of its finer
* ”12 pieces.
Not all who were interested in southern furniture carried it north for collections or for sale. By the early 1920s a New England printer, Paul 11. Burroughs, settled in Clinton, South Carolina and found to his dismay an abundance of southern furniture either neglected or discarded. In 1931 he published Southern Antiques, the first text on the subject and one that is still considered a classic despite the findings of more recent research.13 Unfortunately, Burroughs’ book spurred no major contributions to southern decorative arts scholarship, and it was nearly two decades before southerners w ere again poignantly aware of the dearth of information available on their arts. In 1949, Joseph Downs, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, stood before a crowd at the first Williamsburg Antiques Forum and boldly declared that little of artistic merit was made in the region south of Baltimore.14 By the time the Forum had ended, strong sentiments expressed the need for a response. At the insistence of I lelen Comstock, then an editorial consultant for The Magazine Antiques, it was decided that an exhibition should be organized to show the scope of southern furniture production. Leslie Cheek, Jr., director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, volunteered his museum’s facilities, and with the aid of the Colonial Williamsburg Inundation, Furniture of the old South 1640-1820 opened to an enthusiastic crow d in Richmond in January of 1952. That exhibition, accompanied by the February issue of The Magazine Antiques, reintroduced the subject to the American public.15
Since 1952 there has been a slow but steady increase in scholarship regarding the decorative arts of the American South. F. Milby Burton’s pioneering work on Charleston Furniture was the first major regional study, and it has been followed, largely in articles, by work by a number of scholars.1H The I960 founding of the Museum of Farly Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem by Frank 11 orton was a major step in establishing a focal point for regional studies, and the first printing of MESDA’s biannual Journal in 1975 provided an important forum for introducing new discoveries and for consolidating past research.17
Work by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has also contributed to furthering the knowledge of southern furniture, and from the outset, at the insistence of Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, a concerted effort was made to fill the newly restored buildings w ith Virginia-made materials. After his death in 1939, however, the Foundation slackened its pursuit of his sound philosophy, and despite an occasional purchase of southern – made furniture, there was little attempt to isolate regional schools. As late as 1971, there w as still not a single indisputably identifiable piece of Williamsburg furniture.18 Thanks to the research of the last half decade, there are now literally hundreds.
A number of factors have contributed to a misidcntification of the
sophisticated furniture that was produced in colonial V irginia. Not the least of these factors is its striking similarity to Knglish design—a point that has met with some degree of misunderstanding by traditional historians, who prefer to think of the “divergence” of American furniture styles. This was further complicated by a traditional southern bias that goods produced in England were better than those made here, a viewpoint that probably developed as much from nineteenth-century experience—when regional tensions were increasing and the South turned to England as a source of manufactured goods—as it did from colonial ties with England in the eighteenth century. Added to this is a prejudice often encountered in the twentieth-century—that “English” means “inferior”—and a clearer image begins to emerge. Since southern furniture was often considered “English” by its owners, it never received the close scrutiny of scholars because the label was taken at face value. I Iowever erroneous the viewpoint, the piece was automatically deemed unworthy of further examination. Some furniture historians, at a loss to identify stylish furniture of southern origin, concluded that little or none was produced there. Others, lacking published sources for the subject, sometimes interpreted this to mean that no primary materials existed at all.
Once the art historians had “established” the fact that little of artistic merit was produced in the South, social historians, lacking an ability to interpret the physical evidence themselves, often drew upon documents for evidence that would “reinforce” these findings. They usually came to the conclusion that Virginia’s taste for “things English” condemned its native craftsmen largely to repair work; that artisans were forced to “confine their activities principally to the retailing of imported goods and the making of repairs.”19 An incomplete understanding of the cabinetmaker’s trade also contributed greatly to this misrepresentation. The true scope of talent of capable artisans was never discussed because, in addition to making furniture, they did repair gunstocks, set up bedsteads, and put up fencing—jobs that “might well have been done by ordinary carpenters or a handyman.”20 There was also little understanding of the hierarchy established in larger cabinet shops, where a range of workmen, from the servant, to the journeyman, and finally to the master, bespeaks a clearly delineated division of labor.
It cannot be denied that Southerners sometimes imported furniture from England, but the assumption that Virginia’s wealthier families filled their homes with imported furnishings in the highest fashion, leaving their native artisans “to cater to those who could not afford the best”21 is untenable. Two factors support this denial; first, one must consider the surviving furniture and the documents, and then, one must carefully scrutinize the very products that were imported. Take, for example, the work of Philip Bell, a London cabinetmaker who exported furniture to Virginia.22 .Much of Bell’s cabinet work is known for its stark simplicity, and some of it undoubtedly fulfilled the many requests made by wealthy planters through their London agents for furniture that was “plain but neat.” Perhaps the phrase “perfectly plain,” used by Robert Beverley of Blandfield, sums it up best.23 The very criticism often leveled against standard Virginia furniture, that of its sheer austerity, w as also a hallmark of imported English examples. It will probably prove
to be typical as well of venture cargo that was shipped south from New England once more research is completed. It becomes increasingly apparent, then, that the character of much southern colonial furniture reflects not so much the ability of the local cabinetmakers, hut the tastes of their patrons instead.
Much of the time and material expended in the production of representative “plain hut neat” Virginia furniture is invisible when contrasted with more elaborate examples found in the Northeast. Despite the fact that early furniture is admired because it is so well constructed, the final analysis of a piece has traditionally lain solely in the artistic merit, or flamboyance, of its exterior. Unfortunately, there have been few comparative studies of regional constructional traits, and none have been carried out whatsoever for case pieces. In this area, Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia makes a particularly valuable contribution, for its in-depth structural analysis is essential not only for a technical understanding of this furniture, but also for a full appreciation of its aesthetic worth. For example, full dustboards between drawers, paneled backs, and “composite” feet arc rare features in more elaborate pieces from other areas, but they are standard on quality furniture from eastern Virginia. Although these features do little to enhance the outward appearance or to affect the artistic merit of a piece, they were time-consuming refinements that assured permanence, and they reflect an aesthetic that differed significantly from the one usually expressed in the North.
Among historians who have viewed the topic of Southern furniture, a common fallacy occurs when they cite seventeenth – and eighteenth – century sources lamenting the shortage of craftsmen as proof of little or no production throughout the colonial period. Robert Beverley’s observation, taken from the introduction to his History of Virginia published in 1705, is perhaps the most frequently cited of all:
“. . .tho their country be overrun with Wood, yet they have all their
Wooden-Ware from England; their cabinets, chairs, tables, stools, chests,
boxes, cartwheels, and all other things, even so much as their bowls, and
Birchen Brooms, to the eternal reproach of their laziness.”24
Another observation from the early eighteenth century attempted to explain the reason: “For want of towns, markets, and money, there is but little encouragement for Tradesmen and artificers, and therefore little choice of them, and their labour very dear in the Country.” By the mid eighteenth century, however, marked changes were visible along Virginia’s coast and fall line. A series of towns, previously little more than communities of a few houses, had emerged, creating an atmosphere conducive to business in a colony that might otherwise be considered dependent upon agriculture. Historians, nonetheless, have traditionally emphasized the rural character of the South to explain that “beyond basic needs, almost no crafts developed” there in the eighteenth century.25 They have been so thoroughly schooled in the relationship between concentrated urban population and well developed crafts that high – quality products have never been considered remotely possible in Virginia, where no major city, outside of Norfolk, existed. Compensation was offered in the admission that “architecture became the most successful art form in the region,”26 and compared to the dearth of
research available for its furniture, this was not a totally unwarranted view. Architecture has been studied w ith enthusiasm in the South for over half a century, while the analysis that comprises the majority of this study has been assembled in the last five years. Oddly enough, at least in the case of Williamsburg, it has become apparent that the artistic quality of its cabinet production actually surpasses that of its buildings, which are usually restrained in character.
But even after the old prejudices and misconceptions have been dispelled, someone w ill invariably ask; “I low can Virginia-made objects that display so close an affinity to English precedent, or are attributed to English-trained artisans, be honestly considered American?” The answer might be found in a comparison of southern furniture with the products of seventeenth-century New England—where furniture w as also inspired by English designs or made by transplanted cabinetmakers. Admittedly the products of New England and the Middle Colonies expressed an ever-increasing freedom from English archetypes, and by the middle of the eighteenth century northern artisans were building on decades of independence that made their styles distinctly different. But the very concept of measuring an object’s “American-ncss” is in many respects a self-defeating exercise unless one places the furniture in a larger social context. Southern furniture of the eighteenth century has sometimes been denigrated because it does not show the same strong independence from English design exemplified by pieces from the middle colonies and New England. Yet the products of eighteenth – century W illiamsburg, Baltimore, Annapolis, Norfolk, or Charleston should not under any circumstance be viewed merely as English styles transplanted into colonial America while other colonies were producing sophisticated furniture of “native design.” Nor should they be regarded as less creative or less “indigenous.” Instead, they should be valued as a reflection of another segment of the multi-faceted character of American society—the segment that maintained the closest ties w ith England, that turned to England as the source for her law and custom, her architecture, literature, and taste. Southern furniture of the eighteenth century is closely allied to the styles used in England because that was the direction in which southern society focused itself.
By the end of the American Revolution, the towns that flourished along the coast and the fall line w ere considerably larger than they had been in mid-century. Documentary evidence indicates that they attracted an increasingly diverse community of craftsmen and, as one would expect, a large number of furnishings survive from the post – Rcvolutionary period. Initial observation seems to indicate that they represent sophisticated production not only from the larger tow ns of eastern Virginia, but from those west of the Blue Ridge as well. Only in-depth study, however, will further clarify the scope of their contributions to cabinetmaking in early America, and it w ill be years before a picture is complete that will fully portray the products of this region. If the examples discovered to date give any indication of the total, it promises to be an impressive and exciting panorama.
—SUMPTER PRIDDY III
1. "Furniture uf the Old South, 1640-1820,” Alice Winchester, cd.. The Magazine Antiques 61 (February 1952):38-I00.
2. Richard FI. Saunders, “Collecting American Decorative Arts in New F. ngland." The Magazine Antiques 109 (May I976):996-I003. See also Rodris Roth. “Relic Furniture of the Nineteenth Century," The Magazine Antiques 101 (May 19721:874-878.
3. One of the earliest purchases of antique furniture in Virginia was made at an undetermined date in the middle of the nineteenth century when Mann Valentine, later founder of the Valentine Museum in Richmond, acquired a federal shield-hack side chair that had originally belonged to George Washington. Information courtesy of FJi/aheth Childs, curator, the Valentine Museum.
4. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Mount Vernon in Virginia (Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. I960).
5. Saunders, “Collecting."
6. International Exhibition 18 7Л Official Catalogue: Complete in One Volume (Philadelphia: John Nagle and Company. 1876).
7. Letter from George Mason, Alexandria, Virginia, July 26, 1880. to Col. John Ott of the Virginia Historical Society. The George Mason Papers. (Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. Information courtesy of Mrs. Kenneth Southall, curator of special collections, Virginia Historical Society. April 1978.)
8. The Oxford English Dictionary 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961): 405.
9. “Art Loan Ivxhibition for the Benefit of the Ladies Parish Aid Society of St. Paul s Church. Norfolk, a. at Mechanics I fill. May 27, 1879" (Norfolk: no publisher), p. 8, entry 302. Research Library, Colonial W illiamsburg Foundation, W illiamsburg, Virginia.
10. collection of Galt family papers in the Karl Gregg Swcm I. ibrary of the College of William and Mary has correspondence and notes referring to furniture and household inventories written by Miss Sallie Galt during the late nineteenth century. I ler interest in colonial Virginia furniture is a subject worthy of further pursuit.
11. Kenneth L. Roberts, Antiquemania(New York: Doubleday, Doran
and Company, Inc., 1928), p. 17. This source is tpioted in the introduction to Barry Greenlaw’s England Furniture at Williamsburg (Williamsburg: Colonial 33 illiamsburg Foundation, 1974).
12. Mary Ralls Dockstadcr, “Simple Furniture of the Old South,” The Magazine Antiques 20 (August 1931 ):84.
13. Paul II. Burroughs. Southern Antiques (Richmond: Garret and Massic, 1931).
14. Susan Stitt, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (FVinston – Salcm. North Carolina: Old Salem, Inc., 1970).
15. “Furniture of the Old South.”
16. K. Milby Burton. Charleston Furniture ПІЮ-І82І (Charleston, South Carolina: Charleston Museum, 1955).
17. Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts I (May 1975).
18. T his fact hampered the interpretation of objects excavated from both the Anthony Hay and Peter Scott shops. For further information on these excavations, see Ivor Noel I lumc, Williamsburg Cabinetmakers: The Archaeological Evidence, Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Scries No. 6 (33 illiamsburg: Colonial 33 illiamsburg Foundation. 1971).
19. Carl Bridcnbaugh, Seal of Empire: The Political Role of Eighteenth- Century Williamsburg, 33 illiamsburg in America Series No. І (ЗЗ ІІ – liamsburg: Colonial 33’illiamsburg Foundation, 1950), p. 30.
20. Mills Brow n, "Cabinetmaking in the F. ighteenth (lenturv" (unpublished research report, Colonial 33 illiamsburg Foundation, 33 illiamsburg, Virginia. 1959), p. 141.
21. Ibid., p. 105.
22. George Washington was among those who ordered furniture from Bell. Sec Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Washington Furniture at Mount Vernon (Mt. Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon I. allies’ Association of the Union, 1966).
23. Thomas I. Waterman, The Mansions of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1945), p. 143
24. Robert Beverley, History and Present State of Virginia, cd. Louis B. 33 right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946), p. 295.
25. Carl Bridenbaugh. The Colonial Craftsman (New York: New York University Press, 1950), p. 9.
26. Carl Bridcnbaugh. Myths and Realities of the American South (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p. 47.