Until its gift to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, this imposing piece had never been considered in a published work of furniture scholarship.1Subsequently it has been treated in several published articles. See the citations in Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 13 (Acc. No. 70.94). An icon of Boston furniture of any period, it is the first documented piece of bombé-shaped furniture made in America.2The object is documented through numerous inscriptions, including, all in pencil in the same hand, “Do Sprage Benj. Frothingham” on the rear surface of the back of the upper drawer of the lower case (“Do” is an archaic form of “Dr.;” see Randall 1974, 248); “Benj. Frothingham” on the bottoms of two upper left desk interior drawers; “Do Sprage 1753” on the side of the inner left secret document drawer; “BF 1753” on the bottom of the upper left letter drawer; “TN jr” on the back of the upper left letter drawer. For additional and later inscriptions, see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 13 (Acc. No. 70.94). Only a documented desk attributed to James McMillian, undated, might have been made earlier. See Vincent, 148. It is perhaps one of the first examples of Chippendale-style furniture made in the colonies, predating the publication of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director by one year.3See Chippendale, pl. cxxxv, illustrating a tall-case clock with bombé lower case and identically shaped feet. The desk and bookcase is also the earliest piece documented to Benjamin Frothingham of Charlestown, Massachusetts. It is the only known piece of American furniture of any form with molded architectural feet of this pattern.
The bombé form derived from a shape commonly used for ancient Roman sarcophagi. The form was adopted in the sixteenth century by Italian craftsmen and in succession by Dutch, French, and then English workers, each in characteristic fashion to suit national taste. Boston craftsmen, with their strong loyalty to English design sources, in turn embraced the form as suitable for merchants and citizens of wealth and importance. Judging from the list of Boston owners, display of this costly form must have been almost de rigueur. The style enjoyed popularity well into the 1780s, thirty years after being superseded in England by newer fashions.4Only two bombé objects made in early-nineteenth-century Boston are known: a desk and bookcase owned by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, Boston, and a tall-case clock in a private collection.
Frothingham was twenty years old when he made this piece. His liberal use of engraved labels later in his career has led to voluminous research by furniture historians. But little is known about the owner, Dr. Sprague. He and Frothingham were members of the First Church of Charlestown and were also founding members of the Ancient Fire Society, a private fire-protection group.5Hunnewell, 65. Both sustained considerable losses when the British burned Charlestown.6Ibid., 164. At his death in 1766, Frothingham’s father owed Sprague more than £58, a debt later settled by Benjamin, Jr., as estate administrator.7Suffolk County Probate Records, docket 8671, 134, October 15, 1765.
The desk and bookcase shares a number of characteristics with high-style block-front furniture made in Boston in the late 1740s and 1750s. The waist molding surrounding the midsection of the lower case follows common English practice of the day, a holdover from earlier methods of constructing the desk portion in two separate pieces.8Two other Boston bombé desk and bookcases with waist moldings are known: one in Bayou Bend, the other in an advertisement, Antiques 50, no. 5 (November 1971): 650, 651. The molding of the Collection’s example was restored by William Young; the shape was based on the related example at Bayou Bend (acc. no. B69.363); Michael Brown assisted in the research. The finials and their plinths are also restored; they are based on a blockfront bookcase at Winterthur (acc. no. 60.1134), after a recommendation from Brock Jobe and with assistance from Greg Landrey and Michael Podmaniczky. The Collection is also indebted to Nancy Richards, Philip Zimmerman, Robert Trent, and Charles Hummel for their help in this project.
Although Frothingham primarily used a standard Boston design vocabulary, his innovative, unique use of molded architectural feet displays adoption of the latest English details. The exact model he followed is unknown, but another American desk and bookcase, nearly identical in all respects, including molded feet, may have inspired Frothingham’s masterpiece.9Pictured in Morse 1902,134–36 (location unknown).
Robert D. Mussey, Jr.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.