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Discoveries from the field: MESDA's Barber Family Desk and Bookcase by Rebecca Phillips
by Rebecca Phillips

In June 1960, Frank Horton, founder of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, purchased an elegant desk and bookcase for his growing collection. At first glance this well constructed, high-style piece appeared to be an import from England, but closer inspection revealed that it was most likely made in Maryland — an important discovery, as little is known about the furnishings produced in Maryland during the first half of the eighteenth century.

Desk and bookcase, Maryland, 1730–1750. H. 101-1/4, W. 44, D. 22-1/2 in. Walnut, poplar, yellow pine. Courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Old Salem Museums and Gardens. 950.6. When Frank Horton purchased this piece the original hood was missing. A replacement was commissioned; it ends right below the pediment. Remaining evidence in the top of the interior shows that the center opening is original and featured a stand that may have held a vase or other decorative piece.

Horton purchased the piece from a member of the prominent Barber family, who inhabited Charles County and St Mary’s County, Maryland, from the mid-seventeenth century until the late twentieth century. The piece is said to have descended through eight generations, and evidence of the family’s ownership can be found throughout in the form of scribbling under drawers and in other hidden spots. It is believed to have been purchased by Edward Barber (d. 1769), grandson of family patriarch, Dr. Luke Philip Barber, who immigrated to the colonies in 1654.1

The piece features arched door heads, corbelled, or stepped interior drawers, and a well that is concealed under a sliding cover; stylistic features that place its production between 1730 and 1750. The use of walnut, poplar, and yellow pine is consistent with pieces made in the Chesapeake Region, as the secondary woods are native to the land and were utilized in many different types of woodworking. While the maker of this specific piece remains unknown, newspaper advertisements, probate inventories, and other documents in MESDA’s craftsmen database show the presence of at least fifteen cabinetmakers active in Maryland in the time surrounding the production of this piece. John Anderson, a British cabinetmaker active in Annapolis between 1746 and 1759, advertised himself as a “cabinetmaker and carver, [who] makes desks…. [and] all kinds of furniture which is made of wood, belonging to a house, in the neatest, cheapest, and newest mode.”2 The probate inventory of Alexander Coulter (d. 1742) a Glasgow native active in Chestertown, Maryland, includes a list of hardware for several desks, desks and bookcases, and case furniture in an estate valued at over two hundred pounds.3 Such information shows that in this period there were skilled local artisans capable of providing Marylanders with quality furnishings.

The existence of this piece and others like it in colonial Maryland laid the groundwork for the production of other high styles pieces. Cabinetmakers, like the unknown maker of MESDA’s desk and bookcase, not only influenced furniture design, but also cabinetmaking; opening doors in the latter half of the eighteenth century for well-known cabinetmakers such as John Shaw (1745–1829) in Annapolis and the cabinetmakers who produced the elegant inlay furnishings of federal Baltimore. MESDA’s elaborate desk and bookcase and others like it in museums and private collections speak to a vibrant furniture industry in Maryland in the early eighteenth century. Exciting discoveries of such early Maryland pieces and the cabinetmakers who produced them continue to reveal surprising and valuable insights into American furniture production.

Rebecca Phillips is a 2007 graduate of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. She works for Garth’s Auctions, Inc. in Delaware, Ohio. She wishes to thank the staff of MESDA and the speakers and fellow participants in the 2007 Summer Institute.

1. MESDA Collection, accession 950.6, Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

2. Annapolis Maryland Gazette, 21 Oct., 1746, 4–1, found in craftsman database, MESDA Research Center, Winston-Salem, NC.

3. Alexander Coulter. Maryland Prerogative Court. Inventories, March 1741–1742, vol. 27, p.128, in craftsman database, MESDA Research Center, Winston-Salem, NC.N

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