Archives: 2018

Editor's Welcome
Cabinetmaking in the Southern Backcountry: The Ledger Book of John C. Burgner, 1818–1844

Daniel Kurt Ackermann
Fig. 9: Secretary desk by John C. Burgner, 1819, Greene Co. or Washington Co., TN. Cherry, maple, and walnut with yellow pine and tulip poplar; HOA: 50”, WOA: 43-1/4”, DOA: 18”. Collection of the Tennessee State Museum, photograph courtesy of Case Auction, Knoxville, TN.

The 144-page ledger book of cabinetmaker John C. Burgner (1797–1863) provides a remarkably complete picture of a furniture making shop during the first half of the nineteenth century in the rural American South. The ledger reveals the wide range of activities undertaken by Burgner’s shop over four decades of operation in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. He recorded transactions with eighty individuals, both customers and employees, and the creation and repair of more than a thousand objects between 1818 and 1844. Burgner’s ledger is an invaluable document for the study of South’s early material culture. In many ways it is of even greater significance than even the oft-cited account book of the eighteenth-century South Carolina cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe because of its level of detail and chronological scope.[1] John C. Burgner used his ledger book for two purposes: as an account book and as a waste book. Beginning in 1818, working from … Continued

The Nine Lives of Robert Deans: A Cabinetmaker and Master Builder in Edinburgh, Charleston, and London, 1740–1780

Stephen Jackson and Robert Leath
Fig. 26: Lady’s closet by Robert Deans and carved by Henry Burnett, 1750–1755, Charleston, SC. Mahogany with cypress; HOA: 53-1/4”, WOA: 35-1/4”, DOA: 18-3/4”. Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), Acc. 3522, Given in memory of Polly and Frank Myers by Mr. and Mrs. George Kaufman.

On 5 April 1778, a fifty-seven year old, Scottish-born cabinetmaker and master builder named Robert Deans sat down to complete his last will and testament. Three members of the London building trade, a stonemason named Andrew Ramsey and carpenters John Stephen and Hugh Martin, gathered in Deans’s townhouse at 48 Chandos Street to witness his signature. Two of Deans’s colleagues in the London furniture trade, upholsterer David Watson and carver and glass grinder Alexander Murray, were appointed to serve as his executors. Deans bequeathed his “worldly estate” to the children of a deceased brother, Alexander, who had been a farmer in Tranent, Scotland, a parish located just sixteen miles east of Edinburgh. He added that if his sister Mary was still alive at the time of his death, she was to receive an annual stipend of five pounds sterling.[1] Five days later, Deans added a codicil to his will that was more … Continued

Research Note: The Scottish Cabinetmaking School of Colonial Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia

April Strader Bullin
Fig. 1. Sideboard table attributed to George Donald, 1760–1770, Henrico, Chesterfield, or Prince George counties, VA. Walnut; HOA: 31-1/4”, WOA: 47-3/4”, DOA: 24-1/4”. MESDA Acc. 2023.8; Anonymous Gift.

The influx of nearly five thousand immigrants annually from Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England between 1700 and 1775 significantly altered the cultural landscape of America’s Chesapeake region.[1] A sideboard table (Figure 1) probably made between 1760 and 1770 is an excellent example of the material influence brought by these immigrants, specifically Scottish cabinetmakers who settled in the central Virginia cities of Richmond and Petersburg. Although the sideboard table is not signed, it provides a starting point from which to build and attribute the first identified grouping of colonial furniture made in this region of Virginia. The sideboard table was discovered in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond and northwest of Petersburg (Figure 2) and is derived directly from Plate XXXV in Thomas Chippendale’s 1754 The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (Figure 3).[2] Working solely in walnut, the sideboard table’s maker followed Chippendale’s pattern with precision, including the cyma molding underneath the top, the small … Continued

Probability & Provenance: Jacob Sass and Charleston’s Post-Revolution German School of Cabinetmakers

Gary Albert
Fig. 12: Secretary bookcase attributed to the Jacob Sass Shop, 1790-1800, Charleston, SC. Mahogany and mahogany veneer with red cedar and white pine; HOA: 104”, WOA: 55-3/8”, DOA: 24-3/8”. MESDA Acc. 5775. MESDA Object Database file S-15325.

German-born cabinetmaker Jacob Sass arrived in Charleston in 1773, the same year that Thomas Leitch put the final touches to his panoramic 1774 “View of Charles-Town” (Figure 1).[1] Leitch’s painting provides a unique view of the South Carolina city as 23-year-old Jacob Sass would have experienced it coming into the Charleston harbor for the first time. Sass died in 1836—only a few years after Samuel Barnard completed his 1831 painting of bustling East Bay Street (Figure 2)—and Charleston was a dramatically different city from the colonial port painted by Thomas Leitch sixty years earlier.[2] Charleston’s cabinetmaking trade witnessed several seismic changes over the six decades that Jacob Sass lived and worked in the city. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, much of the furniture purchased by Charlestonians was no longer made locally. Instead, venture shipments of bureaus, beds, chairs, and other furniture forms frequently sailed down the coast … Continued

Piedmont North Carolina’s Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking: Expanding the Narrative, 1770–1858

June Lucas
Fig. 4: Corner cupboard attributed to Jacob Clodfelter, ca. 1790, Davidson Co., NC. Walnut with walnut and yellow pine; HOA: 94", WOA: 35-1/2", DOA: 15-1/8”. MESDA Collection, Acc. 3576, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Douglas.

In the fall of 1973 MESDA’s founder Frank Horton and curator Carolyn J. Weekley organized the museum’s first major exhibition with an accompanying catalog, The Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking (Figure 1). MESDA had opened to the public only eight years prior, in 1965, the same year that a neoclassical desk signed by the cabinetmaker John Swisegood came to the museum’s attention. Horton and MESDA curators researched the desk and by the time of the exhibition had discovered approximately forty examples of Swisegood-related furniture made in northern Davidson County, North Carolina (Figure 2), twenty of which were exhibited in the show (Figure 3).[1] By 1973, MESDA had also identified four cabinetmakers in the group: Mordecai Collins (1785–1864), his apprentice John Swisegood (1796–1874), Swisegood’s apprentice Jonathan Long (1803–1858), and lastly Jesse Clodfelter (1804–1870).[2] No signed examples of Mordecai Collins’s work were known in 1973. Because “the construction of some [pieces in the … Continued

Southern Furniture Studies: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Ronald L. Hurst
Fig. 19. Desk and bookcase attributed to Peter Scott, 1740-1755, Williamsburg, VA. Walnut with oak and yellow pine; HOA: 84”, WOA: 42-1/8”, DOA: 24-1/2”. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Acc. 1990-219, Museum Purchase.

Southern furniture is one of the most dynamic subjects in American decorative arts research today. Institutions and private scholars alike are actively investigating a wide array of the region’s cabinetmaking traditions, and their compelling discoveries are regularly revealed in new publications and exhibitions. Yet interest in the topic is comparatively recent. Antiquarians began collecting furniture from the North as early as the 1820s, but there was almost no awareness of its southern counterparts before the 1930s. Even then, study of the material would remain sporadic for another thirty years. Although a small core of early-twentieth-century southern dealers and collectors was aware of the South’s cabinetmaking heritage, the rest of the American decorative arts community was convinced that southern furniture makers fashioned nothing more complex than ladder-back chairs and utility tables. On those rare occasions when exceptional southern goods came to light, furniture historians almost invariably attributed them to other locales. … Continued

2015 Editor’s Welcome

Most institutions look backward at their 50th anniversary. The temptation of sifting through early records is magnetic—to laud accomplishments and gently snicker at earnest-yet-misguided visions of the future to come. Nostalgia has its uses and place. From the perspective of half a century, many museums contentedly acknowledge and commemorate five decades of their triumphs and milestones. MESDA is not like many other museums. For its 50th anniversary, MESDA is celebrating by looking forward. Our anniversary events and programs this fall are fundraisers to establish an endowment that ensures MESDA’s Summer Institute meets the highest educational standards in perpetuity. The program, like the museum, is thinking of tomorrow, not yesterday, by training future curators, preservationists, and historians in the practice of material culture study through a unique combination of hands-on object exploration, primary source research, and intensive fieldwork. The articles of the 2015 MESDA Journal also mark the museum’s 50th anniversary … Continued

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