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The story of the Indigenous peoples of Philadelphia begins in the long-ago time with the emergence of Turtle and the earth that formed on its back.
From this first earth, the first tree grew and so too did the first sprouts.
These sprouts grew and grew and became First Man and First Woman and so the People first came to be.
The Lenape (le-nah’-pay) were the original people who lived in the area that became the city of Philadelphia. These hunters and fisher people cultivated the land along the banks of the Delaware and Manaiunk (means “rushing waters where we drink”) rivers. The verdant rolling hills were draped in forests of walnut, maple, cherry, oak and other native trees.
Humans lived on the land for many thousands of years before European exploration began in the 1500s. The British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Russians, and Spanish all competed to colonize the Americas.
In 1638, the Dutch and Swedes were the first to buy a tract of land from the Lenape near what is now Wilmington, Delaware.
The first European who explored the Manaiunk River, a merchant from the Dutch East Indies Company, had trouble finding it. The bulrushes were in bloom and hid the narrow opening where the Manaiunk empties into the Delaware River. The merchant called the waterway Skokihl (“hidden creek”; now spelled Schuylkill and pronounced SKOO’-kəl).
The ships that brought European settlers in the 1600s had very little storage space for furniture and other large possessions.
With the seemingly endless supply of high-quality wood, the settlers built rudimentary cabins.
Furnishings in the earliest American homes consisted of a few benches and a trestle table.
In 1681, English Quaker William Penn received a land grant of 45,000 square miles from cash-poor King Charles II of England, who owed a debt to Penn’s father. They named the province Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). Penn arrived a year later, designed a port city where the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers met, and named it Philadelphia, from the Greek philos (loving) and adelphos (brother). Today, the city is still known as the City of Brotherly Love.
To entice investors and settlers, Thomas Holme, Penn’s cartographer and surveyor, created several maps that were widely printed and distributed in London. One plotted Penn’s city plan, a rectilinear grid of long, broad, intersecting streets that stretched a mile from north to south and two miles between the Schuylkill and Delaware to the west and east. Properties were numbered; the blanks represented room for opportunity. The large civic square at center is echoed in each quadrant by a spacious park with a symmetrical plantings of trees.
The second less-than-accurate map was colorfully decorated with trees to advertise that the land’s commercial viability included an abundance of timber.
Thomas Holme; Map of Pennsylvania’s southern and eastern boundaries, 1681
The port of Philadelphia quickly became a major trading hub between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. By the 1750s, Philadelphia surpassed Boston in size, and by the 1770s, Philadelphia was the second largest city in British Empire, after London.
A large community of coopers (made casks, barrels, vats, buckets, tubs, troughs, rakes, shovels), shipwrights, wheelwrights, and furniture makers, both immigrants and enslaved, specialized in wood-working. Those trained in the latest European fashions created lavish interiors and furnishings for the homes of wealthy Philadelphians.
Built in 1765, this Georgian-style home in Philly’s Society Hill neighborhood was the home of Samuel Powel, the last Mayor of Philadelphia under the British Crown and first Mayor of Philadelphia after the creation of the United States. The Powels frequently entertained notable guests such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. The fabulous dinners and dances held there were so lavish that Adams (the second president of the US) called them sinful.
Within a complex web of language, culture, religious beliefs, family ties, transatlantic styles, politics, and profits, many hundreds of –
cabinetmakers (focus on detailed work),
joiners (specialize in joining wood without the use of nails; many cabinetmakers were also joiners),
chair-makers, carvers, carpenters (unlike cabinetmakers, concentrate on large structural projects), and
turners (shape wood symmetrically around the axis of rotation) in and near the city followed popular European styles, combined them, and made new sculptural designs.
However, the laws and taxes imposed upon the colonists made it less expensive to buy imported furniture from England than to buy locally.
In response, in 1772, local furniture makers secretly published a book that listed the types of furniture they made, the suggested retail prices for variations in design and styling, the price charged for each option in mahogany or walnut as the primary wood, and the wage that should be paid to the journeymen (skilled worker who successfully completed an official apprenticeship).
The secret price book, Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work, 1772
Of the local woods, walnut was the most desirable for furniture, followed by maple and then cherry. Tulip poplar, pine, cedar, and oak were usually used as secondary woods for drawer sides, bottoms, and back boards.
Cherry is a medium density wood with a distinctive fine grain, smooth texture, and natural sheen that reflects light. It’s easy to work with, can be bent for veneer work and inlay, and may be either be light or dark depending on the specific wood and how it was treated. Due to its reddish-brown color, colonists originally mistook it for a type of mahogany.
A year of aging has enriched the color of the cherry log on the right.
Before 1750, most clock-makers in the colonies had been trained in England. Over time, Penn’s promise of toleration and fair treatment of people of diverse religions and cultures attracted tens of thousands of settlers. These included members of the German group known as the Pietists. Because they believed that it was necessary to calculate the exact moment that the millennium, a moment of deep religious significance, would arrive, many were learned mathematicians, astronomers, and phenomenal clock-makers. The intellectual pursuit of clock-making was highly respected career that combined art, mathematical precision and intricacy, and scientific knowledge.
David Rittenhouse, the astronomer, inventor, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, public official, and clock-maker, was as respected as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Rittenhouse Square, one of the four city parks designed by William Penn
The quality and construction of tall case clocks made in Pennsylvania, a collaboration of cabinetmakers, iron founders, engravers, ornamental painters, and mathematicians, became extraordinary. The weight-and-pendulum design housed in a tall case became known as a “grandfather clock” after songwriter Henry Clay Work’s lyrics: “My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf so it stood twenty years on the floor.” Tall case clocks were precious family heirlooms that passed from generation to generation.
Thomas Wildbahn trained under the Hoffs, a Bavarian-trained master clock-making family from Germany, and then opened a thriving business in Reading, about 50 miles NW of Philadelphia.
The inner workings of Hoff-inspired clocks were unique (see the reference below for a description of the ratchet wheel, rack-on-snail striking mechanism, wire pinions, and chain pull-ups). Iron sheets were painted to create the dial-face.
George Hoff, Jr. (son of John George Hoff, Sr., the clock-maker who migrated from Germany), Lancaster, PA; Detail of Grandfather Clock, c. 1815
The inner workings of Thomas Wildbahn’s clock were encased in cherry by cabinetmaker whose name was not recorded.
Case-maker Unknown; Movement by Thomas Wildbahn, Reading, Pennsylvania; Tall Case Clock, 1790-1795; Cherry, white pine, painted tinned sheet iron, iron, glass; Promised gift to Philadelphia Museum of Art
The carved scrolled pediment at the top was carved from a solid block of tightly grained cherry (rather than applied in sections). The intricacy of the surface texture, the branching leaves and flowering vines that emanate from clusters of poufy fleur-de-lis-like feathers, helps disguise the tool marks.
The clock face is flanked by thin, freestanding columns of cherry and has a moon phase dial that features rocking ships and maps of the two hemispheres. Unfortunately, Wildbahn, who painted his name on the dial, died of yellow fever while visiting Philadelphia in 1805.
Note the intricate carved patterns, borders, shapes, and feathers above, beside, and below the long rectangular waist. The feathery pattern that reappears at the top corners of the base was designed to visually unite each section.
There are many types of maple trees in the world; the sugar maple in the US is known for its strength. It’s more durable than cherry, can be steam-bent, and has a variety of wood grains that flow in patterns. Hardwood maple resists scratches and lasts for a long time but is subject to changes in humidity.
Hard maple log with the dark heartwood in the center surrounded by a wide band of white sapwood (soft outer layers of recently formed wood between the heartwood and the bark)
Wealthy Philadelphians who had access to imported pattern and upholstery books and actual pieces of European furniture commissioned pieces in the latest styles. (Although by the time the style arrived and was disseminated, it was often out of style across the pond).
In 1800, Napoléon’s court painter, Jacques-Louis David, painted Parisian Madame Récamier reclining on a couch. The portrait became so legendary that such couches (backless with a high curved headrest and low or absent footrest) were referred to as “récamiers.”
Jacques-Louis David; Portrait of Madame Récamier, 1800; Oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre, Paris
Madame Récamier was the trend-setting socialite and beautiful young French wife of a Persian banker. She’s wearing the epitome of current fashion. Inspired by classical antiquity, her white, very light and loose dress shockingly exposes her nude arms. It rises from the ankle to just below the bodice, where it’s tied with a thin ribbon around her body. Madame rests against cushioned bolsters.
The painting was very avant-garde; horizontal formats were supposed to be reserved for great historical subjects. The unfinished look of the background adds mystery and emphasizes the elegance of her reclined pose – and derrière.
Around 1810, designers began to move beyond being inspired by decorative elements from ancient Greece and Rome to entirely imitating the ancient forms.
Roman; Couch, 2000-200 CE; Wood, bone and glass; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Grecian couch or sofa, with its scrolled arms derived from the tops of Ionic columns, became in vogue.
Parthenon; Mid 400s BCE; Athens
A sofa is an upholstered bench that typically has a full back and two arms of equal height. “Sofa” stems from the Arabic word “suffah,” a wooden bench covered in blankets and cushions.
Attributed to Anthony Quervelle, Philadelphia; American Classical Carved Sofa, c. 1830; Mahogany
“Couch” comes from the French verb “coucher,” which means “to lie down.” Unlike sofas, couches have either no back or have partial backs and ends of different heights. The asymmetrical back of a Grecian sofa extends either one half or three quarters the length of the seat. Cushions, bolsters, and pillows are added for comfortable reclining.
Artist/maker unknown, American; Couch, 1829; Mahogany, mahogany veneer, softwood; secondary woods not examined, brass, replacement upholstery; Philadelphia Museum of Art
A couch’s details and decoration varied according to the client’s tastes and how much they wanted to spend.
Artist/maker unknown, American; Couch, 1820-1830; Mahogany, mahogany veneer, cherry, tulip poplar, white pine; brass, replacement upholstery; Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Grecian couch became must-have for any fashionable parlor or drawing room (one withdrew to the drawing room after dining). It was considered quite elegant for a woman to appear in her parlor, recumbent on a Grecian couch, posed among cushions and bolsters, and outstretched on the seat while resting the upper part of her body against one end.
The ultimate statement was to have a pair of matching Grecian couches that were placed symmetrically at right angles to the fireplace so that they projected into the center the drawing room.
Sir John Soane; Design for a drawing room at Taymouth in Perthshire, Scotland, 1808. Watercolor
on paper; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
This caned Grecian couch made from maple has a set of matching chairs.
Artist/maker unknown, American; Couch and Chair, 1810-1830; Maple, caning; Philadelphia Museum of Art
The opposing scrolls at each end are based on the shape of Apollo’s sacred lyre, here stretched out to form the seat.
Apollo, at the garden of Château de Versailles, France
The hand-made octagon-shaped caning involved a tedious, time-consuming, seven-step hole-to-hole process.
Individual strands of hand-woven cane (the shiny, glossy skin or inner bark from the stem or trunk of the rattan palm) were threaded by hand through holes that had been drilled around the edge of the area by the cabinet maker. The diameter of the cane is determined by the size of the holes.
Undoubtedly, any Madame Récamier want-to-be would have been pleased.
Walnut is quite durable and physically strong yet also has a certain flexibility that is more forgiving than some other hardwoods. With polish, its rich patina improves with age.
North American Black Walnut
Most colonial kitchens had a salt box, which was kept near the fireplace to keep the salt dry. Spices boxes, however, were usually placed in the parlor (a room on the ground floor for receiving guests) on top of a larger piece of furniture. Spices were so rare that they were kept under lock and key. Spice boxes were status symbols that indicated a well-furnished, affluent home.
In 1773, to protest a recent law passed by Parliament that granted the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies, several hundred people, who boorishly disguised themselves as indigenous people, rowed in small boats out to three cargo ships anchored in Boston Harbor, climbed aboard, and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into the water.
W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party”, The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789; Engraving.
After the Boston Tea Party, tea drinking became unpatriotic in Colonial America. Spices and herbs – sassafras bark, chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, lemon balm leaves, raspberry leaves, loosestrife, goldenrod, dittany, blackberry leaves sage, and many others – were used to make beverages. Other spices were converted to usable scents, fragrances, and medicinal items.
In the late 1700s, the United States entered the world spice trade and the cost of spices declined. Spice boxes were then used to store other valuables, such as jewelry, spectacles, gold and silver buttons and shoe buckles, lace, combs, silver spoons, ivory combs, pincushions, lace, and needlework.
Joseph Richardson, Sr., Shoe Buckle, 1760-1770; Gold, iron; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gold shoe buckles were a rare luxury that only the wealthiest men could afford to decorate their soft kidskin shoes or silk pumps. Even though expensive buckles were reserved for special occasions, few survived. This elaborate example, decorated in rococo shells, scrolls, and leaves and cast in gold, is rare. It carries the mark of Joseph Richardson, Sr., one of the leading silversmiths in colonial Philadelphia. Its mate is in Yale University’s art collection.
Construction of a spice box’s intricate interior drawers required considerable skill.
Handmade screws and nails were expensive and could rust, expand, and possibly crack the wood they secured. Glues of the period weakened over time. Therefore, hand-cut dovetail joints held the casework (the assembled collective of structural parts) together like interlocked fingertips.
Dovetails joints can hold pieces of wood in perfect alignment over a long period of time. The name “dovetail” comes from the appearance of the joint, which resembles the triangle shape of a bird’s tail.
Until about 1870, dovetail joints in North America were constructed by hand using chisels and saws. Carefully cut, tiny angles were measured to match and fit together exactly. Each cut was sharpened on both sides to avoid splintering.
When a dovetail joint is expertly executed, it beautifully secures the joining of two boards for centuries. Harp Gallery.com
To safeguard the valuables, some spice cabinets had secret compartment or drawers that were concealed in false bottoms, false backs, or in decorative moldings and accessed in ingenious ways.
Drawers were sometimes fitted with a Quaker lock, a spring-loaded thin splint of wood nailed into the bottom of the drawer. It caught on the drawer divider and prevented the drawer from being pulled open. To release the drawer, the wood splint had to be pushed up from the drawer below through an opening left in the piece of wood that separated one drawer from another.
This spice cabinet has its own stand. If needed, the owner could lift the cabinet off the stand to more easily access the treasures stored inside.
Artist/maker unknown, American; Made in either Philadelphia or Chester County, Pennsylvania; Spice Cabinet on Stand; 1730-1745; Walnut, yellow pine, tulip poplar, brass (replacement); Philadelphia Museum of Art
Its drawers are concealed by a single arch-paneled door that was carefully cut from a walnut tree’s crotch.
A tree crotch is the area where a single trunk has split into two, forming a “Y” shape or an upside-down pair of legs. With each year of growth and the addition of another annual ring of thickness, wood pushes against wood and the grain starts to buckle in different directions. It shimmers in the light and looks like waves of liquid. Wunder Woods
The drawers of spice boxes were frequently organized symmetrically around a square center drawer, a design that was popular in England at the time.
This cabinet maker chose to offset the cabinet’s many right angles with the extreme curvature of the stand’s cabriole (S-curved) legs. The top of the leg curves out and away from the bottom of the stand and then curves inward before flaring out at its square padded feet.
Features like these demonstrated the cabinetmaker’s considerable technical skill and ingenuity. As miniature case pieces, a spice box was a portable example to show potential clients who wanted to commission larger pieces. Designs were a collaboration between the crafts-person and the client.
In the 1700s, spice boxes were rarely made beyond a seventy-five-mile radius of Philadelphia. To purchase an authentic Pennsylvania spice box today, you need an ample wallet.
Despite the bounty of “Penn’s Woods”, the most desirable wood for furniture was not native anywhere in the British North Atlantic colonies. Its acquisition involved the trade of sugar, rum, molasses, fish, iron, fur, and the exploitation on thousands of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean. Please go to In the Depth of Its Grain, Through All Its Polish – Furnishing Mahogany
– Meighan Maley
Header Image: Irving Ramsey Wiles; The Green Cushion, c. 1895; Watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
American Furniture Makers; Kellscraft.com
Clocks and Clockmakers; Philadelphia Encyclopedia.org
Colonial Kitchens; History.com
Dovetails; Canadian Woodworking.com
Early American Furniture History: Colonial Period; Furniture Styles
Fennimore, Donald L. “American Neoclassical Furniture and Its European Antecedents.” American Art Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, 1981, pp. 49–65. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1594273.
Johnston, William R. “Anatomy of the Chair: American Regional Variations in Eighteenth Century Styles.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 3, 1962, pp. 118–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3257896.
Kirtley, Alexandra. American Furniture 1650-1840, Highlights form the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2020. Yale University Press.
Properties of Cherry Wood; Amish Furniture Factory.com
Properties of Maple Wood; Amish Furniture Factory.com
Properties of Walnut Wood; Amish Furniture Factory.com
The Boston Tea Party; Boston Tea Party Ship.com
The Quaker Lock; Woodbloker.blogspot.com
The Schuylkill River; Berks.com