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by Anne S. McPherson

Fig. 1: Double chest of drawers with desk drawer, Charleston, S.C., 1765–1775. Mahogany and mahogany veneer primary, cypress and tulip poplar secondary. H. 87 (w/o finial), W. 44-1/2 , D. 24 -3/8 in. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Acc. 1974–166.
The form that best epitomizes colonial Charleston, South Carolina furniture is the double chest (Fig. 1). The primary piece of case furniture in the homes of affluent Charlestonians, it was used for the storage and safekeeping of clothing, textiles, and valuables. It was not, however, unique to Charleston; the double chest was common in Britain and was found throughout most of British North America in the late colonial period. More often referred to as a chest-on-chest in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New York, it co-existed with the high chest, a form rarely made south of Maryland.

The close associations between Charleston and England no doubt influenced the preference for the double chest form in this American colonial center. Merchants responded to this demand by importing double chests from Britain for local customers, as evidenced by a 1753 advertisement placed by William Lloyd in the South Carolina Gazette, offering double chests “recently arrived from Liverpool.”1

Charleston cabinetmakers also began to produce double chests by the 1750s. The other large form they made was the clothes press, or wardrobe, though few were produced in pre-Revolutionary Charleston. This later case piece was most popular in the city after the war, a fact illustrated in the surviving accounts, among other places, of local cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe, who sold twenty double chests and only nine clothes presses during the period from 1768 to 1775.2 Among the other pre-Revolutionary cabinetmakers who produced the double chest was Richard Magrath. He advertised in the South Carolina Gazette on August 8, 1771, that he had for sale “…double Chests of Drawers; Half Chests Ditto….” In Charleston parlance, a half chest is what in other parts of the country was known simply as a chest of drawers. In terms of survival rate, if not also production, the double chest was even more common than the half chest or its more elaborate counterpart, a ladies dressing drawers.

Fig. 2: Double chest of drawers, Charleston, S.C., 1765– 1775. Mahogany; cypress. H. 6’ 4-1/2 in., W. 44 in., D. 23-3/4 in. Courtesy of Chipstone Foundation. 1997.14
In research undertaken over the last thirty years, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) has recorded the existence of twenty surviving double chests that represent the work of at least eight and possibly ten local shops.3 Though made by numerous craftsmen, a few characteristics are common to all Charleston double chests: all but one have upper cases with a broad chamfer at the front edge; all have dustboards; the bottoms of all the large drawers have center muntins or battens; all have ogee feet; most have cypress as the secondary wood; and all feature mahogany as the primary wood.

The addition of decorative details was a separate expense beyond the basic charge for the object, and a selection of ornament and elaboration is present on several known double chests. Perhaps the best way to study the variations is to look at them from the standpoint of the price categories in the Elfe account book. Thomas Elfe (d. 1775) is perhaps the best known of Charleston cabinetmakers—due in large part to the survival of an account book he kept, the only such document known to exist for a colonial Charleston cabinetmaker. Ironically, despite his fame, no piece of furniture can be definitely attributed to his shop.

Fig. 3: Double chest of drawers, Charleston, S.C., 1765–1775. Mahogany and mahogany veneer primary; cypress, tulip poplar, and mahogany secondary. H. 76, W. 45-1/4, D. 24 in. MESDA MRF 8018. Acc. HF 368.
During the eight years represented in his accounts, Elfe sold double chests at prices ranging from £75 to £100. Some of the entries contain enough information to allow for a loose formulation of this pricing structure, the application of which can be extended to other craftsmen. Fourteen entries simply describe the sale of a double chest of drawers for £75. Since this is the low end of the price spectrum and no additional information is provided, these chests would have been the standard model, which, based on surviving examples, would have featured ionic dentil moldings and heavy stop-fluted chamfers at the edges of the upper case. The earlier chests of this group, an example of which, dating from 1750 to 1760, is illustrated elsewhere in this issue (Albert, p. 241), feature a relatively flat cove in the cornice molding and robust denticulation. The distinctions in the molding between the early and later examples, such as the double chest in figure 2, dating from 1765 to 1775, are subtle; the denticulation, when present, is more delicate, but the survival of original hardware provides the most apparent distinction between the earlier and later double chests.

Fig. 4: Chimneypiece, ca. 1772–1773, second floor east parlor of the Heyward-Washington House, 87 Church Street, Charleston, S.C. Courtesy of the Charleston Museum. MESDA MRF 12,119.
In May 1773, Elfe sold a double chest “with a fret round” to Humphrey Summers for the sum of £80. Since the figure-eight fret is the onlyfretwork pattern used on the friezes of late colonial Charleston double chests, it likely describes the kind of fret that wraps around the upper cases shown in figures 1, 3, 5, and 6. The fret on the canted corners of figure 3, however, is different from the figure-eight fret. In fact, this particular fret is known only on the canted corners of the chest seen in figure 3 and on one other double chest; coincidentally, these are also the only two double chests with quarter columns in the lower cases.4

The figure-eight fret which appears in the cornice is not unique to Charleston; the same fret is found on British double chests. Its prevalence in Charleston, in combination with the mention of fretwork in the Elfe account book, has led many to the conclusion that all pieces with this fret pattern are by Thomas Elfe. While Elfe apparently cut fret for other local cabinetmakers—the account book documents that he sold “a set [of] common frets for a tray” to his former partner, the cabinetmaker John Fisher—the furniture with this fret is the product of multiple shops. Elfe’s use of the fret extended beyond furniture, however, as his accounts document that he sold fret to be used for architectural purposes. The chimneypiece at the Heyward-Washington House (Fig. 4) features the same figure-eight fret found on furniture. Thomas Heyward began construction of this house in 1771; the source of the fretwork is unknown. Though the possibility that Elfe supplied the chimneypiece fret is slim, one wonders whether the double chest purchased from Elfe by Daniel Heyward for his son Thomas’s new home, had fret that matched the chimneypiece.

Fig. 5: Double chest of drawers with desk drawer, Charleston, S.C., 1765–1775; Mahogany and mahogany veneer, primary; cypress and mahogany secondary. H. 75-7/8, W. 44-3/4, D. 25-1/4 in. Privately owned. MESDA, MRF 21,605.
A double chest owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Fig. 1) is one of the most elaborate known, and is the only surviving Charleston chest with a pediment. Based on Elfe’s account book, which records the option for a pierced pediment—at an additional cost of £5—it did not exist in isolation. Presumably the “Double Chest of Draw’s with a pediment head cut through” purchased by Rawlings Lowndes for £85 also had “a fret round” like that seen in figure 1, accounting for the additional charge of £5.5

According to the account book, a double chest with a secretary drawer cost £95; one with “a desk draw top and bottom” was sold for £100. Customarily, the secretary drawer is found in the upper drawer of the lower case as illustrated in figure 5. Only four double chests with desk drawers are known to survive;6 and two of these are missing the original drawer fittings. In the terminology of the Elfe account book, the chest in figure 1 would be listed as a double chest of drawers with a pediment head cut through, with a desk drawer, and with fret round. It surely must have originally sold for at least £95.

Fig. 6: Double chest of drawers with desk drawer, Charleston, S.C., 1765–1775. Mahogany and mahogany veneer primary; cypress and mahogany secondary. H. 78, W. 46-1/2, D. 25-1/8 in. Courtesy of MESDA. Acc. 946.

The chest illustrated in figure 6 is from the MESDA collection, and is attributed to the sameshop as that seen in figure 1. While it has the same doric dentil molding and figure-eight fret found on numerous Charleston double chests, it is strikingly different from the others. There are four rather than five tiers of drawers in the upper case; it has no canted corners; and the engaged stop-fluted pilasters that project at the front and sides, in combination with the double foot facings, create a highly architectural statement. The style of elaboration on this double chest suggests it could have been made as late as 1775.7

After the Revolution, fashion-conscious Charlestonians appear to have adopted the wardrobe as their principal piece of furniture in which to store textiles. While there are neoclassical double chests from other areas of the country, there are no extant double chests from post-Revolutionary Charleston. However, at least one triple chest was made in Charleston in the 1780s.8 This rare form is unknown in documentary records and apparently is otherwise found only in Philadelphia.9

Anne S. McPherson is a consultant and private dealer in American decorative arts working under the trade name John Bivins Associates, LLC, and is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the College of William and Mary.

1 South Carolina Gazette (October 15, 1753).

2 The Thomas Elfe account book, 1768–1775, is held in the collections of the Charleston Library Society. It was published serially in The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vols. 35–42 (1934–1941).

3 Bradford L. Rauschenburg and John Bivins, The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820 (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 2003).

4 The other double chest is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and is recorded by MESDA in MRF 8787.

5 For a more complete discussion of this double chest, see Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown, Southern Furniture, 1680–1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997), 382–86.

6 The four extant double chests with desk drawers are those illustrated in figures 1, 5, and 6, and recorded by MESDA in MRF 28,750; two, including figure 1, have replaced interiors.

7 This double chest is discussed in John Bivins and Forsyth Alexander, The Regional Arts of the Early South (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991), 90.

8 See Rauschenberg and Bivins, fig. NC-2, MRF 27,079.

9 Two other triple chests from Charleston are known. One in the collection of the Charleston Museum has three double tiers of drawers. The other consists simply of three stackable tiers with no feet or moldings. The triple chest from Philadelphia is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is catalog number 33 in Jack L. Lindsey, Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1760–1758 (Philadelphia,PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999).

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