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Piedmont, North Carolina, Furniture, 1780-1860
by June Lucas

During the last seventy-five years, Piedmont North Carolina factories in towns such as Lexington, Thomasville, and Hickory have produced some of the most recognized fine wood furniture in the United States. Not as well known but equally significant, however, is the Piedmont’s much earlier heritage as a producer of high-quality late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century pieces. Upon arrival in North Carolina’s Piedmont, immigrant settlers took advantage of the abundant native walnut, cherry, poplar, and yellow pine trees to produce well-made, stylish furniture for their homes. This year the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston Salem, North Carolina, is celebrating the Piedmont’s early furniture-making history with a new exhibit that highlights pieces from its unparalleled collection of locally made early furniture.

Settlement in North Carolina’s Piedmont—the hilly region sandwiched between the coastal plain and mountains—did not begin in earnest until the 1740s. During that decade, a slow trickle of settlers, coming mainly down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and western Virginia, headed south, looking for opportunity in the form of cheap but good land, and in some cases for a place to worship unhindered and live in peace. The slow trickle eventually turned into a deluge, and the total population of North Carolina exploded from approximately 35,000 in 1730 to about 350,000 by the end of the Revolutionary War.1 Most of the new inhabitants settled in the Piedmont.

These new Carolinians came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and formed a “cultural patchwork” in the center of the state: they tended to segregate in clusters with people who spoke the same language, observed similar religious practices, and were of the same ethnic background. In the eastern and central Piedmont were many English settlers, including a few Anglicans and numerous Quakers. In the central and western Piedmont were pockets of Germans, including Lutherans, German Reformed, and Moravians. Highland Scots congregated on the southeastern edge of the Piedmont, while the Scotch-Irish, by far the largest group of immigrants, were widely dispersed throughout the region. These latter two groups were most often Presbyterians.2

Regardless of ethnic background, most eighteenth-century settlers in the Piedmont were non-slave-holding farming families who lived in one- or two-room log structures. Some combined farming with the operation of cottage industries such as sawmills, gristmills, potteries, and blacksmith’s shops. Although market towns grew up around county courthouses and major transportation routes, as late as 1790, most were no more than villages of a few hundred people.

By the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the children and grandchildren of the first wave of settlers had intermarried, raised their own children, and embraced English as their common language. Ethnic integration fast became the norm. Although most residents were still small farmers living very simply, a growing number of industrious planters and businessmen accumulated fortunes, becoming part of an emerging backcountry elite. These fortunate few generally lived in frame or possibly even brick houses rather than log ones and may have owned slaves.

Throughout both the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a diverse group of cabinetmakers in the Piedmont combined ethnic designs, national trends, and idiosyncratic preferences to produce regional furniture for this burgeoning North Carolina population. The result was a distinctive and pleasing style that reflects the Piedmont’s cultural heritage and justifies one early journalist’s description of Piedmont-made furniture as “the neat[est] pieces…of any description.”3

“The Neatest Pieces…of Any Description”: Piedmont North Carolina Furniture 1780–1860 is on view through Fall 2011 at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Admission to the exhibit
is free of charge. For more information or to see the exhibit online visit www.mesda.org, or call 336.721.7360.

June Lucas is director of research at Old Salem Museums and Gardens and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and is the author of “Paint-Decorated Furniture from Piedmont North Carolina” in the Chipstone Foundation’s American Furniture 2009.

All photography by Wes Stewart.

1. Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003), 9–10.

2. Ibid. 12–13.

3. Western Carolinian, 25 February, 1823.

4. John Bivins Jr., “A Piedmont North Carolina Cabinetmaker: The Development of Regional Style.” The Magazine Antiques (May 1973): 968–973.

5. Archibald Henderson, Washington’s Southern Tour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923), 289.

6. Luke Beckerdite, “The Development of Regional Style in the Catawba River Valley: A Further Look.” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts (November 1981): 31–48.

7. Frank L. Horton and Carolyn J. Weekley, The Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking (High Point: Hall Printing Company, 1973).

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