Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Cabinet Making In America

( Originally Published 1940 )



The second period of American furniture involves the evolution of craftsmanship from simple joining to the full status of the art and craft of cabinet making. This marked the end of the exclusive use of the rather elementary rectangular joining. The structural use of curved members began. The "cabriole leg" appeared and flourished. Ornamentations aimed at refinement: inlay veneering, japanning, and more intricate carving were used. Yet the important tendency was to achieve beauty by construction, rather than by decoration. Heretofore furniture had not been made with any general decorative scheme in mind. Now it was made in sets, with an eye to grouping and elegant effects.

The craft of cabinet making required not only technical skill but a considerable education, at least a knowledge of plane geometry, and familiarity with the standard "pattern books" of the day. The amount of furniture in use increased greatly. The affluence of the Colonists, reaching its high point about 1750, made the employment of cabinetmaker highly remunerative.

The same tendencies toward more gracious patterns of life which affected housebuilding and the development of architecture in America, also made themselves felt in furniture. An unusual fluency in the use of classic forms began. Furniture became almost entirely architectural in structural elements and ornament. The fluted column, the architrave, the pilaster, the abacus were essential features of its construction. The general effect was a greater formal elegance, lightness, and aloofness.

This is a period in which more distinct personalities emerge. The work of a good many cabinetmakers is identifiable because of the new custom of attaching labels, which even then was none too widely practiced.

Outstanding in this era were William Savery (1721-1787), Jonathan Gostelowe (c. 1745-1795), and Benjamin Randolph (c. 1762), of Philadelphia; Andrew Gautier (1720-1784), and Colonel Marinus Willet (1740-1830), of New York City; John Goddard (c. 1750) and his relatives by marriage, job, Christopher, and John Townsend, of Newport; Aaron Chapin (c. 1783) of Hartford, Connecticut; and Major Benjamin Frothingham (c. 1734-1790), of Charlestown, Massachusetts.

These men all worked in the manner of Thomas Chippendale. To work in the style of another artist or craftsman, without falling into mere imitation, is a difficult feat. Yet a good number of American cabinetmakers accomplished it, making definite contributions and clearly imprinting their own personalities upon their products.

The Quaker, William Savery, accomplished this adaptation to perfection, particularly in his chairs and highboys. He served a clientele of wealthy Quakers in a style which might be called a restrained Chippendale. He used the cabriole leg, claw-andball foot, fiddle-back, and other Chippendale elements with his own modifications. He was appointed Ward Assessor in 1754, and seven years before he died was in possession of property valued for taxation at $46,000.

Jonathan Gostelowe, Savery's younger competitor, was a good cabinetmaker, a vestryman in his church, a Major of Artillery during the Revolution, and a leading light in his guild: "The Gentlemen Cabinet and Chair Makers of Philadelphia."

A contributing reason for the pompous title of this craft guild was the fact that many real Gentlemen (in the economic definition which largely prevailed) were wont to familiarize themselves with various crafts. We have seen this in architecture and the same is true, to a somewhat lesser degree, in the field of cabinet making. As a matter of fact, many early books describing the techniques of even such crafts as glass-blowing, iron forging, weaving, and so on, are addressed to Gentlemen (and Ladiesl) "who may be interested in practicing these Mysteries." "Mystery," it might be explained, derived from the early English misterie, meaning trade.

The guilds entirely accepted this affectation of the gentry and perpetuated it in their official name, partly we may suppose, as a means of strengthening their effort toward exclusiveness. The natural function of such an organization was the betterment of general trade conditions and economic returns. At this stage of the game it was, however, more akin to an employer's protective association than a union as we know it today. Its primary efforts were directed toward the restricting of competition by making it difficult for newcomers to enter the field.

Another member of the Gentlemen Cabinet and Chair Makers, Benjamin Randolph, was particularly noted for fine chairs.

John Goddard, of Newport, Rhode Island, was celebrated for his Secretary Desks. These pieces were referred to, by collectors, as Rhode Island Desks for many years, until they were

finally identified as all being the work of Goddard of Newport. They are of mahogany, with block fronts. They are charac terized by the shell carving on the front of the writing-leaf, on the doors of the bookcase compartments above, and on the pigeon-hole drawers of the interior; also by Goddard's fondness for the broken-pediment top with flame finials.

John Goddard married into the Townsend family and probably served his apprenticeship under job Townsend. This latter craftsman was in business with his brother, Christopher. But Christopher's son, John Townsend, excelled both of them, especially in his block-front chests of drawers and secretaries, in which field he nearly excelled the master, Chippendale. He, with John Goddard's son, Thomas, carried on the GoddardTownsend association almost until his death in 1858.

Benjamin Frothingham, cabinetmaker, was the son of Benjamin Frothingham, joiner and cabinetmaker, and was born in Boston, in 1734.

Marinus Willet rates with Paul Revere as a craftsmanpatriot. He was born in the town of Jamaica, Long Island, in 1740. A most aggressive fighter for freedom on all fronts, he was one of Revere's fellow message-carriers. One of the most daring men in the Revolution, he led the Sons of Liberty when they attacked and seized the wagon trains that were starting from New York City to relieve the British Garrison at Boston on July b, 1775. He was later a leader in other military victories, most important of which was the defense of Fort Orange, an event which prevented the reinforcement of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's force and made possible the great American success at Saratoga.

The third period of our early furniture, the classic revival, was dominated by the dour character and skilful hands of Duncan Phyfe.

Nearly all that is known of Phyfe is derived from the researches of another cabinetmaker, Earnest Hagen, who became interested in the Scotchman and began, about 1880, to collect his work as well as the meagre documentary information concerning his personality. Museums and collectors today base their judgment of what is and what is not Duncan Phyfe's furniture largely on the opinions of Mr. Hagen.

Due to his own idiosyncrasies, not much is ever likely to be known of the character of Duncan Phyfe. His father, Gabel Fife, with his wife and approximately eight children, made the voyage from Scotland to Albany in 1783. Some commentators feel that Duncan may have been apprenticed to a coachmaker in Albany, as the Scots were masters of that craft at the time. In any event, he appeared in the New York City Directory of 1792 as "Fife, Duncan, joiner, 2 Broad St."

In the next Directory appears, "Phyfe, Duncan, cabinetmaker, 3 Broad St." He is supposed to have been taken up as a protege by a daughter of John Jacob Astor, which may have contributed to his phenomenal rise. That the other members of the family disliked the affectation of Duncan's P-h-y is indicated by the fact that they did not adopt it until to be linked with him was an assured honor. Even then, a widow of the clan reverted as far as "Fyfe" some forty years later.

Phyfe's career was launched apparently without struggle. He rose to the top like a cork and stayed there. In 1806 he moved to Partition Street, (later Fulton Street), where, by 18 11, he had three buildings for his home, shop, and showroom. A few years later he moved to a home across the street and used the former mansion as a warehouse. By this time he was employing nearly one hundred workmen. Long before this he had become the cabinetmaker of New York City, and his name was well known in Philadelphia and Boston. He received much higher prices for his work than any of his contemporaries.

He never advertised, which is strange when we reflect that there were no limits to the production he could have attained inasmuch as he was able to employ many men and produce his own type of work by means of supervision. He never belonged to any of the customary societies, guilds, fraternal orders, churches, political clubs, or organizations of any kind, by means of which most craftsmen sought business. Apparently he was willing to depend solely upon the perfection of his product to advertise his presence and ability. He is mentioned in none of the contemporary gossip columns, travel books, or diaries. It would seem, almost, that he never left his workshop.

It is said that he wore, at all hours of the day, a beaverskin cap, and that he kept a short-stemmed pipe in his mouth. He is said to have paid equal attention to those who had the money to buy his product and those who merely expressed a technical interest in his work. Famous travellers and personages were given no more attention than the ordinary customer or visitor. He was terse, polite, and precise.

In 1825 New York City celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal with a vast parade and elaborate ceremonies. The whole town turned out, marched, waved, yelled, shot things off, applauded, got drunk, burned colored lights, listened to orations, and otherwise showed its heartfelt anticipation of the wealth that was to flow through the new channel. In the great parade hundreds of cabinetmakers and chairmakers marched behind a flag which read, "By Industry We Thrive." The name of Duncan Phyfe does not appear in the official list of the marchers. He must have been in his workshop. But the records do show that the cedar boxes for the various medals, and the casket for the bottles of Lake Erie water which were sent to Lafayette in France, were made by Duncan Phyfe.

In 1846 Phyfe closed his flourishing business. His sons, whom he had briefly taken into partnership, were apparently either unable or unwilling to continue. Having made a sizable fortune he retired to his home across the street. In the backyard he had built a workshop. Here, as he moved toward death, he puttered among his familiar tools. Here he made doll-furniture for his little relatives. Here as an old man, he played as he had once worked, at his craft-art of cabinet making, until he died in 1854.

From about 1820 the exquisite quality of Phyfe's work had deteriorated under the pressure of popular taste demanding heavy imitations of Empire styles. Apparently this was a trend with which Phyfe could not cope. Unquestionably it stunted his real contributions at an untimely period, for he yielded and engaged in the production of what he himself, in 1830, called "Butcher furniture."

During the period of Duncan Phyfe, cabinetmakers became so numerous in America that any attempt to enumerate even the outstanding ones would be impractical. The census of 1810 states that the annual value of the American cabinetmakers' output was $1,426,047, not counting chairs which were valued at $105,185. It lists 596 cabinetmakers, in the 17 states, plus the District of Maine and the District of Columbia. Since a study of early directories and newspapers would make this figure appear to be not more than one third, at the most, of the actual number of cabinetmakers, the production figures should be similarly multiplied.

Lochlin Phyfe deserves mention. He worked with his celebrated brother throughout his career and made at least one trip to England in search of brasses to be used on Phyfe furniture. Many commentators conclude, from this, -that Phyfe imported his brassware from Britain. On the other hand, it is highly possible that these were used, for the most part, only as models and that the greater quantity of Duncan Phyfe's brasses were cast by his relative by marriage, the brassfounder, Wintringham.

One of Phyfe's chief competitors was the Frenchman, Charles Honore Lannuier. In his technique, he added English touches to essentially French furniture. (Phyfe's had been to some degree the reverse of this procedure.) Lannuier was born in France in 1779. He came to America in 1790 with his two brothers, Augustine, pastry-cook, and Stanislow, mantua-maker, and despite his meagre eleven years he himself is listed as an "ebeniste."

He first appears in New York City as "Lannuier, Henry, cabinetmaker, 60 Broad St." He died a young man, in 1819, yet was responsible for a great deal of early New York furniture, including probably a considerable amount, if not all, of that used by the first Congress of the United States when it sat in Federal Hall, New York City, in 1789.

Another note concerning Lannuier crops up in the records of the Common Council of the City of New York. In 1711 the Common Council ordered "Eighteen Rush Bottom Chairs." In 1721, the Council ordered "Eighteen Leather Chairs," from one Arnont Schemerboorn, for L16:6. In 1765, "24 Mahogany chairs" from Andrew Breestead, L39. And finally, in 1812, "$409 worth of chairs from Henry Lannuier."

Henry Connelly (c. 1770-1826) was the Phyfe of Philadelphia. Other cities also boasted their masters. In the following pages we shall take occasion to mention a few more, with emphasis upon their identification with essentially American types of production.

Identifying early American furniture is an ability which grows out of the study of a great many ornamental details and is always questionable. One must learn the origin and biography of each of hundreds of motifs, and the peculiar translations given to them by individual craftsmen at different times and in different places. There is no shortcut to this knowledge. Perhaps the best way to acquire it is to study carefully such a work as L. V. Lockwood's two huge volumes, Colonial Furniture in America; frequent museums to observe actual specimens; then return to the multitudinously illustrated volume.

As in all fields of the antique, there is much fakery connected with the glib identification of early American furniture. However, in deciding whether or not a piece of furniture is pre machine-age there are certain simple clues. Early cabinetmakers did not bother to finish wood where it was not necessary, hence the insides of cabinets, bottoms of chair seats, and so forth, will reveal the ridges left by the jack-plane. A close examination of sawed ends will reveal straight serrations if the piece is early. Modern work will show the slightly arched ridges left by our circular saw. The dove-tailing of early drawers will not be done with the mathematical precision of modern work. Early dovetailing employs large, uneven wedges. Modern nails and screws, if it is possible to examine them, are easily distinguishable by their precise design. Appropriate signs of wear, especially the flattening of the chair rungs, are easily distinguished from the too regular indentations sometimes created by the manufacturers of bogus antiques.

So far as the influence of American craftsmen upon European furniture forms is concerned, this must necessarily have been limited. The first furniture was made under the influence of recollections of the furniture of England. Later furniture was influenced by the varying trends in European importations. This was natural to our non-indigenous culture.

As in all the crafts, our influence was one of simplification, restraint, stronger construction; with a general tendency to promote the gadget, the space-saver, labor-saver, or other trickily arranged device. Various forms of drop-leaf tables, chair-tables, and other folding models found ready acceptance and development here.

The rocking-chair is probably as American as anything could be. In some quarters the rocking-chair is claimed as an American invention. Some authorities go so far as to attribute it to Ben jamin Franklin. Research, however, seems to indicate rockingchairs in the early 1 8th century. Moreover, since the cradle principle was well known in Europe it is probable that some experiment with rockers for chairs must have been tried.

Unquestionably, though, it was in America that the rocker achieved vast popularity. Before the vogue had passed, nearly every type of American chair was fitted out with rockers, in cluding the hideous and massive over-stuffed armchair mounted on rocker-rails. It is interesting to note that in modern Russia and various Balkan nations the rocker is still referred to as "an American chair."

Skipping matters of decoration, and with a backward reminder of certain distinctive features of design already discussed in the consideration of specific craftsmen, we can next regard the highboy as something of a special matter. Europe had likewise developed this piece but had largely discarded it by the end of the first quarter of the 18TH century. We continued to produce highboys, in a successive variety of styles well into the 19th century. Thus the highboy can be claimed as a distinctively American piece by sheer virtue of its persistence.

Perhaps our most complete adoption was the Windsor chair. Legend has it that King George the Third wandered, during a storm, into a peasant's cottage near Windsor Castle and sat in a chair, the back of which was made of many upright spindles. He is supposed to have been so struck by the rare comfort of this chair that he had it copied, and thence sprang the Windsor chair. This is probably apocryphal, for there were mediaeval chairs of a more or less similar type. But origins aside, the chair found an enormous acceptance in America. The many modifications of it are among our triumphs of early craftsmanship and design.

It seems first to have been introduced into Philadelphia, about 1760 and was called, for a short time, a "Philadelphia chair." It spread quickly throughout the country and was so popular that specialists sprang up, calling themselves "Windsor chair makers."

The original form has a U-shaped back, with from ten to twelve plain, slightly tapering spindles. From that developed the "hoop-back," the "fan-back," the "bow-back," the "combback" and the combinations of all these forms.

Sometimes a country gentleman bought the turned parts in town and made his own Windsor chairs during the dull winter months. The vogue lasted well into the third quarter of the 19th century.

A highly original chair designer was the enterprising Lambert Hitchcock. His father, John L. Hitchcock had been a worthy fighter in the Revolution and was lost at sea in 1801. About seventeen years later Lambert began a factory at Barkansted, Connecticut. The term "factory" is justly applied to this early enterprise, for Lambert's intention was to manufacture parts for chairs and ship them South, mainly to Charleston, South Carolina.

The South, with virtually no middle class and no artisan class, preferred to import its luxuries from Europe and generally found the work of local craftsmen suspect. Charleston, however, became such a mercantile center that it took on more of the character of a Northern metropolis and became a ready market for the craftsmen-manufacturers of the North. Thus Hitchcock's plan was not illogical. It became so immediately successful that it demanded expansion.

Hitchcock popularized the distinctly American "fancy chair." This was a plain chair of which only the front legs and front rungs were turned. The other parts were made flat, in the manner of a slat-black chair, but in various forms, the main point being that the back was decorated with a very fancy, stencilled design in gilt and other paints. Horns of plenty, fruit and leaf patterns, fountains with drinking birds, in blue, red, white, bronze, gold, and grey, were common designs.

To say that the company prospered is understatement. "Fancy chairs" became the most popular furniture form in America. Hitchcock shipped his chairs not only to the South, but in all directions. They were generally priced at about a dollar-and-a-half.

The children and women who worked in his factory applied the designs by dipping their naked fingers first in linseed oil and then in the dry powder of gold or bronze. A local observer comments that "their fingers became as stiff as boards."

Hitchcock usually imprinted his name on the underside of chair seats, making them easily identifiable. In 1826 he built a large factory of brick. His enterprise included the first commercial manufacture of rocking-chairs.

In 1829 Hitchcock went bankrupt, due to the common failure of over-reaching himself. But in a few years he had recovered. He married Eunice, the sister of his former book keeper, Arbro Alford, and took Alford into partnership. Again they prospered.

Before his death, Lambert achieved the dignity of a State Senatorship. As an ignominious anti-climax, however, in 1866, some time after his death, the town of Hitchcocksville changed its name to Riverton to avoid being confused with the town of Hotchkissville.

Though otherwise undistinguished, between 1790 and 1820, Baltimore artisans achieved fame for the exceptional quality of their veneer and inlay work. A characteristic identification of the Baltimore furniture of this period is the use of a decorative oval on the doors of secretaries, and other appropriate places. Louisiana also developed certain characteristics, partly due to natural French and Spanish influences, partly due to modifications necessitated by climate. The dampness, for example, made all forms of veneer impractical. Since mahogany is at its best in veneer, mahogany did not achieve the universal acclaim in Louisiana which had been accorded it elsewhere. Rosewood largely replaced it. Brass, ball-shaped feet, and marble tops on tables and chests-of-drawers were other characteristics necessitated by the climate. The four poster bed persisted in this region long after its disuse elsewhere, as a support for the essential draperies of mosquito-netting.

Francois Seignouret was the greatest cabinetmaker of early Louisiana. He was born in France in 1768 and was working in Louisiana between 1810-1815. He was especially fond of flowing carving, always raised on the actual wood of the piece, never applied. He was accomplished at a rippling sort of free-for-all beading and managed to lend a genuine elegance even to the most awkward pieces he was required to execute. He was the inventor of a special type of chair. The "Seignouret Chair" has a back which curves forward, forming rudimentary arms carved of one piece of wood with the seat band. This actually lends a maximum strength to the chair's construction and is hence a definite invention.

By the middle of the 19TH century, machine influences and the prevailing mediocrity of taste had greatly debased furniture production generally. The great period of American cabinet making had passed. The "Grand Rapids" era of American middle-class furniture had begun.



Bookmark and Share