Review by Ted Landsmark
Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker

Mary E. Lyons.
Master of Mahogany: Tom Day, Free Black Cabinetmaker. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. 42 pp.; color and bw illus., glossary, bibliography, index. $15.95.

Much has been said about the need for finding working-class role models for urban children of color, but little has been written for young readers on the lives and works of African-American artists and artisans who might be such models. As a result, examples of African-American crafts contributions to American history are largely absent from museums, libraries, and curricula. The African-American Artists and Artisans series of juvenile texts published by Charles Scribner’s Sons seeks to nurture new generations through lively, well-illustrated, and thoroughly researched biographies, which also add new data to the general literature on American decorative arts.

The series is authored by Mary E. Lyons, a former school librarian in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award of the National Council for Social Studies. Her research and writing have been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities
and the DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. The series includes works on twentieth-century artists Horace Pippin and Bill Traylor and on nineteenth-century quilter Harriet Powers. Master of Mahogany: Tom Day,Free Black Cabinetmaker is the biography of the best-known, nineteenth-century, African-American cabinetmaker and architectural joiner, Tom Day (1801–ca. 1861).

Day was born a free black at the beginning of the nineteenth century and developed a carpentry and joinery business in rural Milton, North Carolina. By the 1850s, he had become one of the state’s largest cabinetmakers, supplying furnishings to state officials, churches, private homes, and the growing tobacco-based economy of the antebellum upper South. Before dying in 1861, Day was one of a small handful of black slaveholders in piedmont North Carolina. His son Devereaux went on to develop lumber and cabinetmaking interests in South America.

Lyons introduces the young reader to antebellum history, cabinetmaking, and nineteenth-century labor practices as she divides Day’s early life into his indentured, journeyman, and workshop years up to 1830. Strong historical documentation supports the story of his later, highly public life as a master cabinetmaker. By drawing upon this available research, Lyons builds an objectively comprehensive, although somewhat speculative, text describing the complex life of a financially successful, slave-owning free black in the antebellum South. She also points to southern pre–Civil War racial tensions and the national financial panic of 1857 as causes of Day’s economic collapse in 1859. Her focus for Day’s business and documented personal activities frees this text of the cloying romanticism that too often characterizes juvenile text descriptions of nineteenth-century southern black life.

Day’s work combined late Empire case piece, table, and chair forms with innovative and idiosyncratic surface embellishments, which often project distinctly African sculptural characteristics. His best work is easily distinguishable from contemporary carved mahogany and veneered pieces because of its often anthropomorphic and graceful cyma-curve treatments. Works attributed to him bring a premium in the collector market and are included in the Acacia Collection in Savannah, Georgia, and the Center for African-American Decorative Arts collection in Atlanta, Georgia. Strikingly elegant color photographs by Jim Bridges document Day’s church pews, newel posts, and West African mask-like mantel carvings, and ground the text in a graphically rich context of deeply patinated and polished mahogany surfaces and sweeping sculptural forms. The reader yearns to embrace these elegant architectonic embellishments.

An opportunity is lost, however, to link the text more closely to the illustrated objects by showing how the objects were made. Inner-city youths have largely lost touch with the mechanics of crafting handmade objects, and more information could usefully have been provided on tools and techniques associated with woodworking. The absence of even a single image of an African-American actually handcrafting furnishings in a shop could have been corrected by using illustrations drawn from various archival sources. The text, although tantalizing, thus ultimately fails to draw the reader into the magic of actually designing and building such viscerally evocative forms. One sees and senses the textures of the objects without feeling the sensibilities and spirit of their maker.

Similarly, little light is shed on how much Day may have known of, or drawn upon, the Bambara sculptures that today seem so close to his newel-post forms. Nothing is yet known of his understanding of African sculpture, although late 1995 findings suggest that he had a brother who was a missionary to West Africa and with whom he corresponded. Although there was likely a nascent black commerce with former African-American settlements in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the mid-nineteenth century, much research remains to be done to determine how the African diaspora may have tried during this period to trace its roots back into tribal morphologies and symbolic sculptural forms. We learn much here from documented historical records of the life of a free black southern cabinetmaker, but not enough of the spirit of this unique craftsman or of how he might have drawn upon the design components of his African past to develop distinctively African-American decorative references.

Perhaps such questions are beyond the scope of a juvenile text, but Lyons’s synthesizing research raises expectations as it extends our knowledge of Day far beyond previously published scholarly texts, with significantly more striking illustrations of Day’s work than seen before. To tease but not to satisfy the imagination on questions of how African designs may have influenced African-American decorative arts in the half century before Emancipation only inspires greater curiosity about this generally underdocumented aspect of African-American contributions to the American decorative arts. Master of Mahogany transcends its categorization as a juvenile text by introducing us to the life of a unique nineteenth-century cabinetmaking entrepreneur and is a significant contribution to this field of research. Mary E. Lyons’s work also adds to the pedagogy of incorporating a wider range of design influences into the broadly assimilationist melange of appropriated forms and embellishments that we now understand the American decorative arts to be.

Ted Landsmark
Boston University

American Furniture 1996