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The Furniture Of Baltimore

Author: Ethel Hall Bjerkoe

(Article orginally published July 1952)

FURNITURE making began early in most of the important commercial centers of America and continued over a long period. In Baltimore, however, the making of fine furniture covered a relatively short span-from 1790 to 1820. The furniture produced during these three decades was of consummate beauty and distinction, following the designs in Hepplewhite's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, and Sheraton's The CabinetMaker and Upholsterer's DrawingBook, but with a distinctive departure in details.

One may ask why fine furniture *was not produced in Baltimore at an earlier date. Although a royal charter for the colony was granted to Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore, in 1632, and Leonard Calvert, his brother, came to America in 1633 with some 200 settlers, Baltimore-Town was not established until 1729 by a special act of the colonial legislature. Even then it did not become important until after the Revolution. By 1790, however, the city ranked third in volume of commerce with- an annual trade export of $2,000,000. With a prosperous group of householders needing furnishings of all types, BaltimoreTown at this time attracted craftsmen of all skills. Directories, advertisements, and such show that between 1790 and 1820 there were well over 300 cabinetmakers in the city.

Since few labeled pieces of furniture have been discovered, it is difficult in most instances to assign specific items to any one man. But it is true that at any period of time, in any locality, the work of its craftsmen will show definite local characteristics. Thus, the furniture constructed in Baltimore during these years has details markedly different from that made in other parts of America.

While the inlaid spread eagle was used elsewhere as a decorative motif, it was used very early in Baltimore, and at times in a form not found elsewhere-a bird standing with its right claw outstretched, holding a rod, on the upper end of which is draped a Liberty cap. Other features peculiar to Baltimore were the so-called Baltimore balloon, latticed mullions edged with satinwood inlay for secretary doors, larger carved rosettes on arm chairs, and the use of large panels of glass showing figures in classic Roman dress done in gold leaf.

The bellflower was a favorite for inlay with the men of Baltimore as it was elsewhere in America during this period, but they used it in a unique fashion. At times these pendant bellflowers were in shades of green, inset into layers of satinwood. Only on furniture made in Baltimore will a ram's head be found above the pendant bellflowers.

Another detail peculiar to Baltimore was the use of the tear-drop panel, rounded at the top and tapering down to a point on tapered legs. Since the shape of this panel bears some resemblance to a partially inflated balloon, the design is sometimes referred to as the Baltimore balloon. Often these tear-drop panels were inlaid with satinwood bellflowers.

The inlay on furniture was also unique, aside from the motifs used. Bold oval inlays in veneer were accentuated by inlaid lines of satinwood or other light colored wood. At times, wide bands of veneer were placed on outer edges to make the straight lines of the furniture more pronounced.

The various items of furniture having distinct Baltimore characteristics are limited. They include doubletopped card tables, Pembroke tables, dining tables of two or three parts, arm and side chairs, benches and window seats, sideboards, secretaries and desks, and tall case clocks. Although beds and sofas, and chests-on-chests must have been constructed, none have been thus far documented with definite details characteristic of the Baltimore workmen. The wood used for their fine furniture was generally mahogany, with inlay of satinwood, tulipwood, or other light wood commonly in use at the time; imported zebra wood was also used.

While we know the names of hundreds of Baltimore men who worked at furniture making, few are associated today with specific pieces of furniture. Two with whose work we are familiar are John and Hugh Finlay, who were working from 1799 to 1833. They have been known largely as makers of painted furniture. In 1803 and 1804, however, they made sets consisting of two marbletopped corner tables, a marble-top pier table, and a pier glass. These are believed to be copies of similar pieces in the Music Salon of Fontainebleau. The Finlays also made all the furniture for the "President's House" during President Madison's administration. Practically everything was destroyed when the British burned the house in 1814. Drawings for this furniture by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the famous architect, now in the possession of his descendants, are in the popular Greek style, and bear little relationship to that in the Hepplewhite and Sheraton manner.

Owned by the direct descendants of John B. Morris, for whom the set was made, but on indefinite loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a set of ten chairs, two settees, and a pier table, all the work of the Finlays. On the back of the painted chairs and settees are depicted the homes of distinguished Baltimoreans of the period. Several of the houses still exist.

A few years ago, more than twenty labeled or documented pieces of furniture were discovered, all made by John Needles. These show him to have been an exceptionally fine worker. Records indicate that he began work in Baltimore in 1810 and retired in 1853. His earlier furniture shows a continued interest in the Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles but this was soon supplanted by the French Empire, the Grecian, and the Gothic, as shown in the design books, of Thomas Hope, George Smith, the Nicholsons, and a Baltimore designer, John Hall. Needles used many types of wood for his robust, rather architectural furniture - curly and bird's-eye maple, mahogany, walnut, and rosewood. None of his work shows the distinctive inlay used by the fine craftsmen in the earlier years of the period.

In a discussion of Baltimore cabinetmakers, John Shaw of Annapolis, one of the best known craftsmen of Maryland, should not be omitted. Shaw was English-trained, and appeared on the Annapolis scene in 1773. Since he used a label, much of his furniture has been identified. His work shows characteristics similar to those of Baltimore-made pieces.

Shaw was an importer of English furniture but he was also an expert cabinetmaker. His first documented piece is a rather simple pine bookcase made for the colony's Loan Office in 1775. When the new State House at Annapolis was being built, Shaw was selected to make the furniture for the House of Delegates. At the Baltimore Museum of Art there are several pieces with Shaw's label, or attributed to him.

Shaw's work is generally in a transitional style between Chippendale and Hepplewhite, but his elaborate use of inlaid panels, tapered legs, and of crossbanding and other veneers show a deepening interest in the Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles. Features commonly found on his furniture are the ovoid spade foot, used on many sideboards, hunt boards, and tables; molded top edges; and a cross grained support at the rear of a bracket foot to give added strength, found on all his secretaries and desks.

Shaw used the finest West Indies mahogany for his work, with yellow pine, poplar, white oak, and chestnut as secondary woods. For his elaborate inlays he used the satinwood so popular with the Baltimore men, zebra wood from Africa, tulipwood from the West Indies, and the green dyes and burnt woods, also popular in Baltimore. However, Shaw did not use the bellflower, a favorite with Baltimore cabinetmakers, depending rather for his decoration upon bold medallions of conch shells, fans, eagles, acorns with leaves, and crossbandings of rare woods accentuated by line inlay.



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