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by Gary J. Albert

While most books published in the decorative arts field consist of catalogues raisonnés of exhibitions or collections, The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820, constitutes the most in-depth study of the cabinetmaking trade of one American city that has ever been undertaken. Made possible by years of field and documentary research overseen by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), the institution will publish this three-volume set in March 2003. The volumes—Colonial Furniture, Neoclassical Furniture, and The Cabinetmakers—were spearheaded and authored by decorative arts scholars Bradford L. Rauschenberg and the late John Bivins, Jr.

The Furniture of Charleston is intended to serve a dual purpose: First, to provide the most comprehensive, authoritative tool for identifying Charleston furniture and understanding the city’s early furniture trade. And second, to inspire future scholars to continue to raise the level of research into Low-country material culture.

Fig. 1: Library bookcase, Charleston, S.C., 1770–1775. MRF 8000. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, inlay of ivory and various unidentified woods; mahogany, cypress, and white pine. H. 128-3/4, W. 99, D. 20-1/2 in. Courtesy of the Charleston Museum.

These volumes would not have been possible without the research of early Charleston decorative arts collectors, scholars, and connoisseurs such as E. Milby Burton, Jennie Haskell Rose, Homer Eaton Keyes, Frank Horton, and others. Beginning nearly a century ago, they first sparked an interest in Low-country material culture, which began the movement of preservation and appreciation that has made Charleston, South Carolina, one of the most dynamic historical cities in America.

To this date, the primary source for the study of Charleston furniture has been E. Milby Burton’s Charleston Furniture, 1700–1825, published in 1955. A noteworthy pioneering work that explored craftsmen, construction, and regionalism, Burton himself acknowledged that it was merely an introduction to the subject. The current project is the result of work that involved three decades of examining over 600 objects—over 450 of which are illustrated, many for the first time—and compiling data from numerous primary sources, which, among other things, led to biographical profiles of 679 craftsmen.

The methodology in these new volumes has crossed the lines of various disciplines of study, approaching furniture of the baroque, rococo, and neoclassical periods in terms of social history, historiography, the roots of style, and technology. Taking every opportunity to show the reader how furniture can be examined, the authors have expanded on Burton’s pioneering use of photographs detailing interior construction methods as a tool for regional identification, and have incorporated microscopic wood analysis in their research.

The Furniture of Charleston was written for the decorative arts historian, student, and curator, as well as for collectors and purveyors of Charleston furniture. The identification of a unique regional style dictated the authors’ decision about whether an item was included in the two furniture volumes, and became the theme that presided throughout their discussions. It is hoped that one of the primary merits readers find in this publication is that Rauschenberg and Bivins have taken the understanding and appreciation of Charleston furniture to a plateau glimpsed but never before achieved.

The Furniture of Charleston demonstrates that prior to the Revolution, Charleston was the most thoroughly British city outside the British Isles. As the wealthiest city in the country through the end of the eighteenth century, the decorative arts of this cosmopolitan hub reflect the affluence enjoyed by its residents. Home to a thriving cabinetmaking trade, the pre-Revolutionary furniture reflected London design sources, then broadened in scope during the neoclassical period to include influences from abroad—particularly from Germany—as well as New England and middle-Atlantic cabinetmaking centers. It is through the identification and elucidation of these international aspects of Charleston’s furniture and its cabinetmakers that many readers will extract the most exciting conclusions. The following descriptions offer a brief preview of what The Furniture of Charleston has to offer.

Edwards Library Bookcase
The Edwards library bookcase is considered by many to be the finest example of American furniture (Fig. 1). It was first illustrated and di scussed in Homer Eaton Keyes’s 1936 article “The Present State of Early Furniture in Charleston, South Carolina.”1 He wrote of the piece that “Probability favors an English ascription” as “few cabinetmakers anywhere or in any time have been capable of designing and building so majestic a piece of furniture with such subtly intricate contour and elaborate yet exquisitely appropriate detail.”

Keyes’s assessment of this bookcase is reinforced by the current authors who provide insight into the enormous amount of work expended in producing this object. The pediment, for example, is intricately embellished with polychrome marquetry rendered with a combination of woods and incised to provide details and shading. The frieze alone is composed of sixteen pieces of mahogany veneer and forty separate pieces of light-colored hardwood inlay stringing. Ivory inlays are both engraved and incised, and three patterns of bellflower husks are employed.

Many of the construction details and decorative schemes employed on this bookcase are seen on urban German case furniture, specifically from the northwestern regions of the country. Charleston boasted a considerable pool of talented European cabinetmakers by the end of the colonial period and through the Revolution, and based on circumstantial evidence it appears that the craftsman who was most likely responsible for this object was Martin Pfeninger (first working in Charleston in 1772, died 1782), the only German cabinetmaker who advertised in Charleston before and after the war. The carved elements such as the basket, show the hand of German craftsman Henry Hainsdorff (first working in Charleston in 1773, died 1796), who was involved with all the carved elements found on Charleston’s “German school” furniture during that period. While German artisans probably made this bookcase, the influence of British and New England furniture is evident in the shape of the feet, the canted corners, broken-scrolled pediment, dentil course, and the bookcase doors in the Chinese taste.

Fig. 2: Armchair, Charleston, S.C., ca. 1756. MRF 8817. Mahogany; sweet gum. H. 53-3/8, W. 37-5/8 in. Courtesy of the McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina.
Royal Governor’s Chair
The earliest known publication to illustrate an example of Charleston furniture was N. Hudson Moore’s The Old Furniture Book of 1903,2 which contains an image of the royal governors’ chair (Fig. 2). Moore’s book shows this stylistically and historically important chair with its original upholstery (since removed), documentation that would have been lost if not for his publication.

Located in the governor’s chamber of the South Carolina State House, the chair’s intended use by the British regent’s governor3 is indicated by its extraordinary high seat of twenty-five inches, which would have required an accompanying footstool, part of the ensemble for furniture made for such high royal offices. The chair may have formed part of the “Furniture for the Council Chamber,” for which a bill was submitted in 1758 by Elf & Hutchinson of Charleston, though since there are no specific descriptions of the items in the bill other than “chairs and tables,” this chair’s craftsmanship cannot be solidly ascribed. The carving, however, has been associated with New York carver Henry Hardcastle, who worked very briefly in Charleston before his death in 1756, or to someone who trained under him. No other carving attributable to Charleston displays the same stylistic vocabulary and certain elements, such as the intricate veining of the ivy leaves below the knees, which is associated with the urban British realism in which Hardcastle was schooled.

This chair speaks to the English influence evident in Charleston. The eagle-head scrolls of the arms have strong stylistic parallels both to Britain and to New York, which also had strong affinities with the motherland. A particularly British statement is made with the full cabriole back legs. The simple crest and lobate piercings of the splat are typical of the George II style. Compared to the rest of the chair, the back and crest rail seem rather simple in design, though evidence suggests the crest rail originally may have been surmounted with a crest, likely a carved and gilt coat of arms, which would have served as the central focus of this chair.

Fig. 3: Desk and bookcase signed and dated by Jacob Sass, 1794, Charleston, S.C. MRF 21,103. Mahogany, mahogany veneer; yellow pine, cypress, white pine. H. 108, W. 61-1/4, D. 26 in. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.
Desk and Bookcase
With a height of nine feet and a width of over five feet, this desk and bookcase (Fig. 3) is surely one of the most gargantuan pieces of writing furniture ever devised in America. Whether impressed by the overwhelming scale of his creation, the vast expenditure of timber, or its handsome price, we do not know, but for some reason its maker saw fit to sign one of the drawers, “Made by Jacob Sass—Charleston/Octr. 1794—£25—.”

Though this form was still being made, and advertisements still placed, as late as the 1790s, the form was somewhat outmoded for its time, with secretaries largely supplanting the earlier slant-front desk design in Charleston after the Revolution.

The details of the desk interior are adapted from British design, but their arrangement reveals Germanic influences in the placement of pigeonholes below rather than above the interior drawers. Though overwhelmingly British in form, several other features indicate Sass’s German training, including the squarish nature of the prospect door, and the practice of paneling the entire back. This latter method was also prudent, given the opportunity for the boards to warp in such a large piece of furniture. Although this piece documents construction details used by Sass and, concurrently, by his German peers in the cabinetmaking community, the bookcase is not fully represented, as it appears to have originally been surmounted with a scrolled pediment.

Fig. 4: Stand, Charleston, S.C., 1755–1775. MRF 14,643. Mahogany. H. 241/2, Diam. 161/2 in. Private collection.
It was Charleston decorative arts scholar Homer Eaton Keyes who first concluded that “a rounding up throughout the city of small dish-top tables with tripod supports would reveal a sufficient number with the same quite specific form of turned post to sustain the assumption of their common Charleston origin.”4 But while their basic similarities suggest that these tables were all made in the same shop, there were in fact at least three shops in Charleston producing tea tables, pole screens, and candlestands. These shops employed at least four turners of varying skill levels and design sense. The turned elements of this table (Fig. 4) are recognized as the work of one of these unidentified craftsmen. Specific to this turner is the heavy turned ring above the squat vase of the pedestal, and the torus and scotia turnings that are separated by a cove rather than an ogee. His craft signature is linked with the turning sequence and leg pattern that was the norm for one of the three shops.

Most stands of this sort are identified as candlestands, and indeed many of them were used to hold candles or other lighting devices, but the term does not appear on Charleston inventories until after 1800. When small pedestal tables are mentioned during the colonial period, they are most often simply noted as stands. The diameter of the top and height of this table qualify it as a candlestand rather than a kettle stand, which would have had a smaller top.

Fig. 5: Double chest of drawers, Charleston, S.C., 1750–1760. MRF 28,776. Mahogany; cypress. H. 74-1/8, W. 44-1/8, D. 23-1/4 in. Private collection.

Double Chest of Drawers
The double chest of drawers, or chest-on-chest, was a British form favored in Charleston. Though made in New England and the middle Atlantic regions as well, the form is less commonly seen in the northern colonies where the high chest of drawers was preferred. This double chest (Fig. 5) features several details characteristic of other double chests apparently made in the same shop or group of shops. These include the manner in which the dentil molding is attained. Rather than sawn and applied separately, the molding is chiseled directly into the cornice. The bottom of the chamfered pilasters end in a cyma shaping. Surprisingly the slide above the top drawer in the lower case is the only example found to date on a Charleston double chest, although the feature is common on British double chests.

For more information on The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820, or to purchase copies, visit www.medsa.org, or call 800.822.5151.

Gary J. Albert compiled this article and images from
The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820 by Bradford L. Rauschenberg and John Bivins, Jr. He is director of publications at Old Salem/MESDA and editor of The Furniture of Charleston.

1 Homer Eaton Keyes, “The Present State of Early Furniture in Charleston, South Carolina.” The Magazine Antiques 29, no. 1 (January 1936): 17–21.

2 N. Hudson Moore, The Old Furniture Book (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1903), Figure 20, p. 53.

3 James Glen (served 1743–1756), was probably the first Royal Governor
to use the chair.

4 Keyes, 18.

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