This grand object, with its projecting breakfront facade, closely resembles London designs of the late 18th century. In The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices of 1788, Thomas Shearer presents a “Library Book-Case” with many of the elements seen here, including the shaped cornice with a central tablet, the Gothic-arched doors, the veneered panels of various shapes, and the solid plinth at the base.1Acc. No. 66.21 is published in Sack Collection, 1:22; Fitzgerald 1982, 90; Sack and Wilk, 229; Cabinet-Maker’ London Book of Prices, pl. 1. The Gothic-arched doors are almost identical to a door no. 6 in pl. 15. Like the English design, this example also has a secretary drawer in the center of the lower section with two doors below, concealing “sliding shelves for clothes, &c. like a wardrobe.”2Hepplewhite, 9.
Demand for the form was limited because of its cost. Listed at £16.10.9 in a New York price book of 1796, a library case exceeded all other pieces of cabinet furniture in price except for a “Wing’d Wardrobe.”3Montgomery 1966, 226. Only the most affluent could afford the bookcase, and today just a small number of examples survive, principally from Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.4Ibid.; Ward 1988, nos. 186–188; Weidman 1984, no. 97. In Salem, a narrower version of the breakfront form, called a “gentleman’s secretary,” achieved modest popularity.5Kimball 1933, 162, 168–170; see also Randall 1965, no. 67.
No exact counterparts of this library bookcase are known. Its secondary woods suggest a New England origin and its ambitious design narrows the location to an urban setting. The technique of outlining the geometric panels on the doors and drawers with alternating light and dark inlay is associated with Salem furniture, yet few other details on the bookcase relate to examples documented to Salem. It is probably best to broaden the attribution to coastal Massachusetts.
The bookcase is in excellent condition, except for one unusual feature: the central section rises above the end sections. Apparently, the maker conceived the entire upper case as the same height, but later added boards to the top edge of the partitions to extend the height of the central section. Curtains on the doors originally hid the alteration from view. This massive library bookcase separates into only two units, whereas many bookcases divide into five sections and an example from Charleston separates into nine.6Ward 1988, no. 188.
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.