Federal Inlaid and Figured Mahogany Linen Press
Charleston, South Carolina, was a very wealthy and cosmopolitan city throughout the 18th century. The value of the colony’s exports to England in the decade before the Revolution was more per annum than that of all of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined, as many Carolina low-country planters, merchants, and shippers amassed large fortunes from rice and indigo.1Burton, 4. After the Revolution, Charleston slowly recovered from the disruptions and economic chaos of the war and, by the 1790s, was again flourishing. This led to a sharp increase in the number of cabinetmakers working there.2Ibid., 6. Burton states that between 1790 and 1800, the increase was from thirty-five to sixty-three, with the all-time high of eight-five in 1810. Their sophisticated and distinctive furniture is generally less known than the work of their contemporaries in other major American urban centers, in part because fewer Charleston-made pieces survived the hardships caused by natural disasters, climate, economic decline, and wars, and in part because Southern-made furniture has not been thoroughly studied and published until recently.3Burton’s Charleston Furniture was a ground-breaking work, which continues to be the major published source on this topic. More recently, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ (MESDA) researchers have done extensive surveys of Charleston furniture and documentary research on the craftsmen.
As in most of the South, there were considerable quantities of imported furniture used in Charleston homes, coming predominantly from England before the Revolution and from New York and Philadelphia afterward. Correspondingly, locally made furniture was perhaps more English before the Revolution and closer to New York in character afterward.
These varied influences can clearly be seen in this clothespress. The form is an English one, possibly derived from Thomas Chippendale’s Director, and is particularly associated with Charleston, “the manufacturing center of the finest clothes presses in the early Republic.”4Flanigan, 218. The other center for the fine clothespresses or linen presses of this type was New York; see Acc. No. 66.111. The New York influence is also evident in the use of quarter-fan inlays in the corners of the doors and drawers and the oak-leaf inlays in the cornice. Distinctive Charleston elements include the shape of the broken scroll pediment and its fan terminals, the use of pictorial inlays in ovals on the frieze, the wide cross-banding of the doors, the five-drawer appearance of the chest containing a secretary drawer, the bracket feet outlined with chevron stringing, and the multicolored inlay on interior drawers. Similarly, the construction—fielded panels on the hack, two beveled panels with central battens for drawer bottoms, and large quarter-round glue blocks on the cornice—the use of “Sheraton pink,” a red iron wash, on drawer bottoms, and the secondary woods are typical of Charleston work.
Gregory R. Weidman
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.