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Fig. 1: A plan of the city of Philadelphia, from an actual survey by Benjamin Easburn, surveyor general; 1776 (detail). Courtesy of Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, no. 76x128.

On April 20, 1777, Philadelphia cabinetmaker David Evans (1748–1819) recorded in his daybook that his apprentice, Zachariah Brant, “inlisted [sic] in Capt. Hendersons Company in 9th Batilion…without my consent.”1 For at least half a year, Brant had boarded with Evans and Evans’s wife, Sarah, in the cabinetmaker’s rented house on Arch Street between Third and Fourth streets [Fig. 1]. As stipulated in the apprenticeship contract, Evans had devoted time to training the boy in the “art and mystery” of cabinetmaking in exchange for his labor. But the temptation of war adventures lured Brant out of Evans’s shop and onto the battlefield.

Evans again vented his frustration in his daybook when a second apprentice, John Justice, followed his compatriot’s lead a month later. The cabinetmaker wrote that “John Justice Absconded from my Shop & entered in the army with an Ensigns Commision [sic] without my approbation in the 11th Battallion.”2 Obviously feeling betrayed by the actions of these two boys, Evans was also likely concerned about the continuing effects the disruption of the war would have on his business.

Fig. 2: Dressing Table, attributed to David Evans, Philadelphia, 1774. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; bequest of Lydia Thompson Morris. Photography courtesy of Gavin Ashworth.

These incidents were only the beginning of the many challenges that the war for American independence posed to Evans. Work force shortages were accompanied by changes in his methods of income and access to materials. The cabinetmaker proved to be very resourceful, however, in adapting to the circumstances he encountered. Evans’s flexibility in his business ventures proved to be his most valuable asset—more valuable, in fact, than his skill as a cabinetmaker.

Before the war, Evans ran a thriving workshop. In October of 1774 the 26-year-old cabinetmaker had twelve skilled craftsmen and one apprentice connected with his business, as well as a wealth of patrons. He supplied his clients with a wide range of products, from standard forms including dining tables and chests to specialty items such as mahogany “Gothic back” chairs and a “Beaureau Table with prospect Door.”3

A dressing table ordered by merchant Joseph Paschall on July 16, 1774, is an example of Evans’s work from this period (Fig. 2).4 Made of finely figured mahogany, the dressing table is embellished with a molded top, four cabriole legs with claw-and-ball feet, fluted quarter columns, and an elaborately shaped front skirt. The table lacks the ornate carving seen on the most high-style Philadelphia rococo examples, but this is not because Evans was unskilled; Paschall merely chose the less elaborate style. The question remains as to whether he did so based on his Quaker belief in restraint or, as is more likely, his pocketbook.

In a four-month period in 1774, Evans’s shop made at least thirty-nine pieces of furniture. In a similar four-month period in 1777, the effects of the war had reduced Evans’s furniture orders to fourteen pieces. Due to the decreasing demand for furniture, Evans was forced to look for ways to supplement his income.

Fig. 3: Dressing Table, attributed to David Evans, Philadelphia, 1773–1795. Courtesy of Philip H. Bradley Company, Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Photography courtesy of Gavin Ashworth.

By 1777, Evans’s work force had decreased to only two journeymen and two apprentices. Many cabinetmakers and journeymen had answered the call to arms, while others left for new opportunities presented by the war, such as supplying provisions to the Army or entering trade or retail ventures. Despite his troubles finding skilled labor, Evans earned a steady income and even increased his profits by taking advantage of every personal asset and every opportunity that arose.

Evans was a devout Quaker, and his pacifist beliefs prevented him from actively participating in the war; they did not stop him, however, from working for the war effort. In the second half of 1776, Evans made camp chairs, cot bedsteads, tent poles, and other military items for the U. S. government. From December 1776 through February 1777, Evans relied on the wages that he and his two apprentices earned packing arms at the gunlock factory for Gustavus Reesbergh, the U. S. Quartermaster General. Evans had worked for the wartime inflated wages of £0.10.0 per day while each apprentice received £0.7.6 per day, the same price he paid his skilled journeyman and the price he could demand in the scarce labor market.5

Evans also provided the Quartermaster with various supplies including nails, boards, paper, and candles, as well as finished products such as a “Wrighting Desk for Clerk,” “Boxes to Pack Swords & Boots in,” and “a Box for Genl Washington.”6 Evans even charged the U. S. government seven shillings and six pence for the use of his horse in hauling boards to the gunlock factory.

Evans’s business relationship with the U. S. Quartermaster General provided him with a steady income in the early stages of the war, when the American Army was based in Philadelphia. Business was business, however, and when the British army occupied the city starting in the fall of 1777, Evans hauled wood for “His Majesty” for at least thirty-seven days.7 Given the unpredictable economy, Evans probably made more money hauling wood than he would have earned in new commissions from his shop during the same time period.

Throughout the war years, Evans continued to supplement his income with a variety of activities. He bought and sold walnut and poplar boards, screws, and other supplies to fellow craftsmen for a profit. He also regularly hired out his horse for cash to various people, including his journeyman Isaac Barnet.8 In short, furniture making was a much smaller part of Evans’s income than it had been directly before the war. He continued to fill orders as best he could, but most requests were for coffins or repairs to locks or hinges. Some clients commissioned new pieces, but these were mostly less expensive chests or pine tables.

As the war continued, top-quality materials undoubtedly became more difficult for Evans to procure. The British navy blockaded American ports, particularly Philadelphia, the largest and wealthiest city in the Colonies. Daring importers took risks running the blockade for necessities or more lucrative manufactured goods, but not for large logs of mahogany or brass hardware. Craftsmen had to scramble for imported materials or get by with what they could find locally.

The dressing table in Figure 3 may have been made by Evans’s shop during these years.9 The table is attributed to Evans based on its striking similarities in overall proportion and decorative motifs to the dressing table Evans made in 1774. The tables share the same decorative and construction details, yet, due to the scarcity of materials, the quality of some of the wood used does not meet the same standards as that used for the earlier dressing table.10

Evans continued to make furniture, despite the difficulties presented by the war. In September of 1778, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson commissioned Evans for “a table,” possibly the Pembroke table attributed to Evans in Hornor’s Blue Book.11 As the active fighting moved away from Philadelphia to the south, Evans’s furniture orders increased. Merchants, such as Owen Jones and John Nancrow, who had profited from the war began to spend their new earnings. With the increase in orders and income, Evans was able to hire more men to help in his shop. By the end of 1780, the daybooks suggest that five journeymen were closely associated with his cabinetmaking business.

After struggling to survive the early years of the war, Evans prospered. He entered the 1780s with a revived cabinet shop, a productive work force, and a loyal patronage. His opportunism and flexibility had enabled him to overcome the disruptions posed by the war, and he would rely on these traits again later in life.

Despite his success, three subsequent events forced the cabinetmaker to abandon full-time furniture making: a general postwar depression caused by a flooded market; an ill-timed real estate investment that left Evans in debt just as the depression started; and a dispute over furniture with prominent merchant Tench Coxe that not only increased the cabinetmaker’s debt, but also sullied his reputation. By returning to the make-do strategies he had cultivated during the war, Evans survived and indeed prospered from these experiences. He left furniture behind and instead embarked upon a profitable business in the mass production of Venetian blinds and coffins. Thanks to his savvy, he was able to retire to a country home in Delaware County. As the case of David Evans shows, adaptability is sometimes more important than craftsmanship.

Eleanore Gadsden is Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This article was based on her master’s thesis for the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture.

  1. David Evans Daybook, 1774–1812, 3 vols., April 20, 1777, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; photocopy owned by the author.
  2. Ibid. May 12, 1777.
  3. Ibid. Front of vol. 1.
  4. This dressing table and its mate were made for Paschall’s sister, Beaulah, in 1774, as recorded in David Evans’s daybook on July 16, 1774; he paid £5.0.0 for each. Beaulah Paschall had two homes, the family townhouse on Market Street, which she shared with her brother, Joseph, and her countryseat, Cedar Grove in Frankford, which she had inherited from her mother, Elizabeth Coates Paschall. The table descended in the family to Lydia Thompson Morris, who gave it to the Philadelphia (then Pennsylvania) Museum of Art in 1932. The table has returned to the Paschall countryseat, Cedar Grove, now located in Fairmount Park and owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Accession number 32-45-105.
  5. Ibid. December 10, 1776, January and February 1777.
  6. Ibid. January and February 1777, April 11 and 12, 1777.
  7. Ibid. Back of vol. 1.
  8. Ibid.
  9. This dressing table sold at Christie’s, Inc., in January 1999. The author inspected it in August 1999 in the shop of antiques dealer Philip H. Bradley in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
  10. This dressing table has been listed as both walnut and mahogany. In fact, it is a walnut object that had a later piece of mahogany veneer on the central drawer, probably added to hide holes left by former brass hardware. The mahogany veneer is now removed.
  11. David Evans Daybook, 1774–1812, 3 vols., September 1, 1778, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; photocopy owned by the author. The location of this table is not known. The attribution is based on Thomson family tradition, which correlates with Evans’s daybook records. Evans charged Thomson the wartime inflated price of £11 for “a table,” a similar price to the £10.10.0 he had charged Kitty Hopkins for a “Pembroke table” two months earlier.

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