Review by Philip D. Zimmerman
The Dunlap Cabinetmakers: A Tradition in Craftsmanship

Philip Zea and Donald Dunlap with measured drawings by John Nelson. The Dunlap Cabinetmakers: A Tradition in Craftsmanship. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1994. 210 pp.; 24 color and 68 bw illustrations, numerous line drawings, index. $49.95.

In the rarefied, often fastidious, and sometimes arcane world of eighteenth-century furniture, the work of John and Samuel Dunlap, and other cabinetmakers they trained and inspired, continues to delight the eye and refresh the spirit. Lively, bold, and unpretentious, this furniture of south-central New Hampshire survives in great numbers and attracts deserving appreciation and study.

Dunlap furniture had been recognized and associated with the Dunlap name long before Charles S. Parsons, a retired textile manufacturer turned decorative arts researcher, authored the seminal exhibition catalogue The Dunlaps and Their Furniture in 1970.[1] That catalogue unlocked the potential for broad and diverse study of Dunlap furniture by illustrating and discussing some one hundred objects and summarizing the Dunlap cabinetmakers’ lives and community. More importantly, Parsons reprinted John Dunlap’s account book (entries dating from 1768 to 1789), his estate inventory, indentures, and plans for pulpits, and he provided information on tools and templates still in the family’s possession along with several tables, tabulations, and graphs. Parsons’s thoroughness, exceeded only by the expanded personal archive he bequeathed to the New Hampshire Historical Society upon his death in 1988, has served subsequent scholars well as they return to the Dunlap material to investigate subject areas that Parsons never developed fully nor perhaps imagined.

The other key publication on the Dunlaps is Donna-Belle Garvin’s “Two High Chests of the Dunlap School.” This careful and systematic documentation of two objects establishes most of the fascinating historical circumstances now associated with the Dunlap school and its furniture: relationships between and among masters, apprentices, and journeymen, including account-book payments to one individual on behalf of another; furniture sales to women; terminology (much of which is based on Parsons’s work); use of mahoganizing stains for maple and of colorful paint and gilding to highlight pediment details; and specific construction details and anomalies and their association with individual makers.[2]

The most recent entrée is a fully illustrated work by two authors of markedly different backgrounds: Philip Zea is a curator, and Donald Dunlap, a descendent of the Dunlap family of woodworkers, is a contemporary furniture maker. Combinations of such different perspectives are too rare in current scholarship. Granted, any collaboration requires nurture and compromise to bring the project to closure, but such efforts offer great promise for creativity and synergy. How much better, for example, are works that balance perspectives of curators and conservators, specialists and populists, inventive and conventional outlooks?

The authors, who speak with a single voice, introduce their work as a study of the Scotch-Irish through their furniture. They emphasize the importance of “place” as “the most telling component of cultural history” (p. 3). Author Donald Dunlap (hereafter called Donald to distinguish him from his several Dunlap forebears) is woven into the study as a modern representative of the region. The book is divided into three parts: a description of Scotch-Irish (whom the authors call “Scots-Irish”) settlers in eighteenth-century New Hampshire, an account of the furniture from that time, and a “catalogue” of fourteen contemporary recreations by Donald, accompanied by brief comments on the history of the form. The first part adequately summarizes secondary works addressing regional Scotch-Irish habitation and more general settlement patterns. The section on the furniture discusses Dunlap products on their own merits and in relation to other groups of furniture from the region. The third section, consuming three-quarters of the book, provides details, instruction, measured drawings, and sprinklings of folksy observations and preferences that personalize Donald and his work for practicing furniture makers and clients. The last section seems to be written for a Fine Woodworking audience, in contrast to the conventional furniture history readership of the first two sections.

To fathom the depths of New Hampshire English-speaking culture, and thereby to gain better understanding of its material culture, it is necessary to look below the surface of apparent uniformity to find a Scotch-Irish subculture. One of the few readily apparent differences between the Scotch-Irish and their Anglican counterparts is that the Scotch-Irish worshipped in Presbyterian rather than Congregational churches. The vitality of their religious community is firmly demonstrated with the First Parish in Londonderry (now East Derry), which regularly attracted 500 to 600 communicants, high numbers indeed in rural New Hampshire, to biannual celebrations of the Lord’s Supper throughout the 1720s and 1730s.[3] To ask whether Scotch-Irish cultural ties and traditions influenced the material culture of this region, a very inviting assumption, is a deserving question and is one that the authors raise, at least implicitly.

Zea and Dunlap track with a broad brush the New Hampshire Scotch-Irish subculture through town names and settlement patterns predating 1740. To extend their subject into the time of the furniture they discuss,they follow Parsons and Garvin in their use of primary references from Dunlap accounts and from the rich Diary of Matthew Patten of Bedford, N.H., 1754–1788. The degree to which the Scotch-Irish assimilated into a broader English-speaking culture is not resolved (p. 14). As this reviewer observed previously with specific reference to Dunlap furniture, definition of any Scotch-Irish subculture may rest almost entirely on material culture analysis.[4]

Zea and Dunlap open their analysis of the Dunlap brothers’ Scotch-Irish origins and resulting implications for furniture study by reaffirming visual relationships already published between Dunlap furniture and the 1695 joined chair by Robert Rhea, a Scotch immigrant to New Jersey. These visual relationships, although separated by two generations of cabinetmaking and representing strikingly different regions, nevertheless suggest that the imaginative Dunlaps may have drawn on design traditions from their Scottish homeland at the time of their parents’ migration.[5] The authors then introduce other examples of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American furniture that has or might have Scotch-Irish origins, one of which is a desk-and-bookcase by John Shearer of Martinsburg, West Virginia. Its heavy pediment, supported by a bold egg-and-dart molding, recalls contemporary Dunlap pediments. Regrettably, visual analysis yields no further linkages, and the authors fall back on the crutch of speculation, noting that these inadequately understood yet fascinating objects “may prove Scottish rather than simply bizarre” (p. 40).

Questions regarding the Scotch-Irish qualities of Dunlap and other furniture remain unanswered. Immigration statistics confirm the formidable presence of the Scotch-Irish throughout the colonies, with New England concentrations in southern New Hampshire and central Massachusetts. Furniture historians continue to catalogue eighteenth-century furniture of Scotland, Ireland, and northern England. Stronger historical ties must be established between these objects and the furniture of the Dunlaps, Shearer, William Sprats, and others before design features such as paired small drawers flanking a central one can be accepted as Scotch-Irish motifs (pp. 24, 154).[6] Discovering who in America trained the Dunlaps would not only help bridge the hiatus between late-seventeenth-century Scottish design sources and late-eighteenth-century Dunlap products but might also reveal some of the motives that sustain cultural identity or inspire assimilation.

The ranging essay on the furniture ends abruptly with the statement that, by 1810, “the visual heritage of the old generation had passed away” (p. 45). What happened in rural New Hampshire that could cast away such strong expressions of tradition and cultural identity? This question becomes all the more problematic in light of the many woodworking Dunlap brothers, cousins, and nephews of John and Samuel that populate historical records during the 1810s and 1820s; moreover, chests bearing flowered ogee molding and cabriole legs might be dated in the mid-1810s (p. 95, n. 165). Furniture historians might thus expect several Dunlap features to remain in use for years to come.

Donald Dunlap finds inspiration for his modern creations by recalling the generations of Dunlap woodworkers who settled in his hometown of Antrim after 1812. He conjures an image of rural craftsmen who, having found a design solution that works, are loath to change, no matter what others might produce. There may be nothing fanciful or romantic about this image. The Maskell Ware family of chairmakers in southern New Jersey, for example, suggests the possibility of an intriguing and instructive parallel. They did little to change their product from the 1790s until well into the twentieth century, although George Sloan Ware (1853–1940) did substitute a motor for foot power to operate his lathe.[7]

Donald’s modern work does not attempt to reproduce exactly Dunlap, or even eighteenth-century, furniture. In addition to using modern tools to rough out the work, which is then finished with hand tools, Donald introduces different internal framing structures, uses different fasteners, cuts mortises differently, and takes whatever other steps he thinks useful to speed his work. He is outspoken about the use of modern tools, saying pointedly that Major John would have plugged in his table saw if he could have (p. 47). He shares freely many technical aspects of construction and design, as well as assorted tips and observations that have come from his furniture-making career.

Unlike the twentieth-century Ware chairmakers, Donald appears not to belong to an unbroken woodworking tradition. He and Zea remain remarkably unaware of, or at least silent on, the subject of Donald’s own sensibilities as a cabinetmaker participating in a recreated tradition of handwork, nor do the authors reflect on Donald’s own aesthetic experiences, reactions, and means of expression. An interview might have disclosed meanings and values that he has discovered by participating in what appears to be a genuine revival. More specific to his craft and his artistic intentions, what does it mean to him to create, through adaptation, forms such as dressing tables and basket-weave china tables that the Dunlap’s never produced? Why does he emphasize further the “exaggeration [that] is the heart and soul of Dunlap furniture” (p. 79)? Readers might recall the new insights into craft processes that came from Michael Owen Jones’s detailed study of contemporary furniture makers in The Hand Made Object and Its Maker (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

The text is heavily footnoted, with all of the notes appearing at the end, making inconvenient the lack of a bibliography or short-title index. The book would also have benefited from better editing for diction and style, especially the propensity for alliteration that is ineffective, intrusive, and irritating. Nonetheless, readers should come away from The Dunlap Cabinetmakers with increased awareness of the Scotch-Irish and their contributions to furniture making as well as a heightened sense of opportunity for further research into a deserving area of study.

Philip D. Zimmerman
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

American Furniture 1995

  • [1]
    Manchester, N.H.: Currier Gallery of Art, 1970.
  • [2]
    Historical New Hampshire 35, no. 2 (summer 1980): 163–85. Another article of note is Ann W. Dibble, “Major John Dunlap: The Craftsman and His Community,” Old-Time New England 68, nos. 3–4 (winter-spring 1978): 50–58.
  • [3]
    Philip D. Zimmerman, “Ecclesiastical Architecture in the Reformed Tradition in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, 1790–1860” (Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1985),p. 86, n. 60. Records of the First Church in Derry, N.H. (1726–1808). Major John Dunlap designed and built a pulpit for one of the Londonderry congregations in 1783 (Parsons, p. 45ff.).
  • [4]
    Published by the town, 1903. Philip D. Zimmerman, “Regionalism in American Furniture Studies,” in Perspectives on American Furniture, edited by Gerald W. R. Ward (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988), p. 36.
  • [5]

    The visual relationships and hypothesis first appear in ibid., pp. 33–38.

  • [6]
    Interestingly, this distinctive drawer configuration, which is common in New Hampshire but appears throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, is rarely encountered in Dunlap furniture.
  • [7]
    Deborah D. Waters, “Wares and Chairs: A Reappraisal of the Documents,” in American Furniture and Its Makers: Winterthur Portfolio 13, edited by Ian M. G. Quimby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 167.