Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

United States of America flag

Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Elijah Sanderson (American, 1751-1825) or Jacob Sanderson (American, 1757-1810)
ca. 1795-1810
United States: Massachusetts: Salem
North American
wood; mahogany; red cedar; eastern white pine
Overall: 97 5/8 in x 43 3/8 in x 24 3/4 in; 247.9675 cm x 110.1725 cm x 62.865 cm
Clarence Rich Diffenderffer until 1976; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Label reads, "MADE BY/ E. & [J.] Sanderson./ CABINET AND CHAIR-MAKERS,/ In Federal Street./SALEM./ MASSACHUSETTS"
Credit Line
Funds donated by Miss Louise Ines Doyle
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

The makers of this handsome secretary, the brothers Elijah and Jacob Sanderson, operated Salem’s largest furnituremaking establishment during the Federal era, employing numerous apprentices and paying specialized craftsmen for piecework.1This secretary and bookcase appears in an advertisement, Antiques 108, no. 4 (October 1975), 694; Clunie 1977, 1010. See also Page Sanderson, “Edward Sanderson of Watertown,” New England Historic Genealogical Register 128, nos. 1 and 2 (January and April 1974), 46–47; 119–121. Born in Watertown, they had moved to Salem by 1779 and formed a partnership primarily serving a burgeoning export trade. They assembled cargoes of their own furniture and consignments from others, goods that reached seaports around the globe. A typical invoice of 1803 identifies “Fifty Cases Mehogany Furniture shipped by Elijah Sanderson on board Brig Wellcome Return Jeremiah Briggs Master Bound to the Coast of Brazil on his own account and risk consigned to the said Master for Sales and Return.”2Quoted in Swan 1934, 8. This shipment alone was valued at more than $5,000 and represented the contributions of ten Salem cabinetmakers.3Ibid., 8. Other vessels carried furniture to southern ports, the West Indies, Africa, and even Calcutta.

Elijah Sanderson sometimes traveled as supercargo, overseeing the sale of Sanderson goods in distant communities. Jacob remained behind to supervise workmen in their shop, purchase materials, and acquire furniture from other craftsmen. Evidently he guided the business well. After Jacob’s death in 1810, Elijah took on new partners, but failed to continue making a profit. Bankruptcy and lawsuits followed, prompting Salem’s pious diarist William Bentley to criticize what he perceived to be the overly ambitious goals of upstart craftsmen who lacked roots in the town:

None of these have been natives of Salem, or well informed men, but thrusting themselves from mechanic employments into mercantile affairs & venturing largely upon credit, breaking embargo laws, & making promises they have plunged themselves into the greatest evils.4The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., 4 vols. (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1905–1914), 4: 51–52.

Despite these misfortunes, Elijah Sanderson remained in business until his death in 1825. His estate inventory refers to a shop on Federal Street with five workbenches, a lathe, a stove, and an assortment of tools, lumber, and brass ornaments, as well as seventy-four pieces of unfinished furniture.5Elijah Sanderson, Inventory, recorded April 5, 1825, Docket 24567, Essex County Probate Records, Essex County Courthouse, Salem Massachusetts. Jacob left an equally complete record of his business. His shop inventory notes fifteen pieces of unfinished furniture, “20 doz Beauroe fronts,” and numerous tools and materials. In addition, his list of household goods includes four copies of George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, published in London in 1788 and available in Salem by 1791.6Jacob Sanderson, Inventory, taken May 22, 1810, Docket 24568, Essex County Probate Records, loc. cit. John Jenks, a Salem bookseller, imported copies of Hepplewhite’s Guide in 1791, 1792, and 1794; see John Jenks, Account Book, 1783–1816, unpaginated entries for September 3, 1791, August 4, 1792, and February 20, 1794, Joseph Downs Manuscript Collections (JDMC). The volume was undoubtedly an important resource for the Sandersons.

The secretary and bookcase remained a staple of the Sandersons’ export trade, but today the Collection’s secretary is the only known example with their label.7Swan 1934, 12. In all likelihood, both terms describe a form similar to this one, in contrast to the smaller “ladies secretaries” that the firm also offered. Salem craftsmen also produced a breakfront desk and bookcase that is frequently identified as a gentleman’s secretary because of its similarity to a form by that name in Sheraton’s Drawing Book (see Sheraton 1793, 107). The Sandersons use the term so frequently that it must refer to more than just the breakfront form. Furthermore, they also record the sale of “gentleman’s desks without bookcases” (Swan 1934, 12), which undoubtedly resembled the straight-front desk labeled by Mark Pitman (Fales 1965, cat. no. 33). A related secretary and bookcase branded “ES” on the back probably represents the work of Elijah Sanderson alone (see DAPC). It has flamboyant figured veneer on the drawer fronts and a prospect door in the desk interior, but otherwise is plainer than most of its Salem counterparts. The pediment never had a finial, inlaid stringing, or an ornamental tablet. Only a single band of stringing outlines each bookcase door, and the stringing in the frieze lacks the refinement frequently found on related secretaries. Nevertheless, it serves as a key document of the standard Salem pattern and illustrates the widespread popularity of a form that reached the world’s most distant ports.

Brock Jobe

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.