The 1997 volume of American Furniture is comprised of papers presented at “A Region of Regions: Cultural Diversity and the Furniture Trade in the Early South,” a symposium cosponsored by the Chipstone Foundation and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In many respects, these essays continue a dialogue that began five years earlier at a symposium titled “Diversity and Innovation in American Regional Furniture,” which examined furniture produced in the northern and middle Atlantic regions during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Both symposiums explored a variety of topics central to the study of American material life, including the relationship between artisanry and ethnic identity; the cultural, economic, stylistic, and technological factors influencing diversity and choice; the effect of social relationships, expectations, and aspirations on patronage; and the development and diffusion of transatlantic and American regional styles.
By the 1920s, a handful of scholars—primarily dealers such as Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Brockwell of Petersburg, Virginia, J. K. Beard of Richmond, Virginia, and Joe Kindig, Jr., of York, Pennsylvania—began to realize that southern decorative arts were regionally distinctive and different from those produced elsewhere in America. In the October 1923 issue of Antiques, Beard advertised “Virginia Gate-legged Tables” for $3,000 per dozen, a remarkable offering considering the scarcity of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century examples today. Many of these early attributions were based more on family or recovery histories than on stylistic or structural details; however, early antiquarians understood that certain woods used in furniture making were indigenous to the South.
Esther Singleton’s The Furniture of Our Forefathers (1901) was the first book to discuss furniture used in the South during the colonial and early Federal periods. Although most of her research was based on period correspondence, inventories, and other documentary sources, she illustrated several pieces of southern furniture and discussed the social and domestic contexts of similar forms. Paul H. Burroughs’s Southern Antiques (1931) was the first monograph devoted solely to southern furniture and one of the earliest regional studies. Since the publication of Irving W. Lyon’s Colonial Furniture of New England (1891), most of the books on American furniture had been large pictorial compendiums of objects from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Burroughs sought to dispel the myth that southerners imported virtually all of their furnishings from Britain and to prove that “many craftsmen came to the southern colonies and produced work . . . comparable with the best made in [other areas of] America.”
Despite the work of the aforementioned scholars and a newer generation of antiquarians such as E. Milby Burton, Henry Green, and Frank Horton, myths and prejudices toward southern decorative arts persisted. During his lecture on regional characteristics in American furniture at the first Antiques Forum in Williamsburg in 1949, Joseph Downs, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked that “little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore.” During the question and answer session that followed, an irate southern lady asked Downs if his statement had been made “out of prejudice or ignorance.”
The 1949 Antiques Forum served as a catalyst for new research on southern decorative arts. Three years later, “Furniture of the Old South 1640–1820” was the subject of the Antiques Forum, a landmark exhibition at the Virginia Museum, and a special issue of Antiques. More importantly, the events emanating from the first forum inspired Frank Horton and his mother, Theo. L. Taliferro, to begin laying the groundwork for the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), which opened in January 1965. A visionary from the outset, Horton intended the museum to be a resource for other scholars and students of southern history and material culture. With support from the National Endowment of the Humanities, MESDA launched an unprecedented field and documentary research program in 1972. To date, the museum has recorded detailed information on over 75,000 artisans working in 127 different trades, entered the information on a computerized database, and assembled photographic files on approximately 25,000 objects made in the South. To disseminate this information, MESDA began publishing the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts in 1975 and the Horton series of monographs in 1988. The first publication in the series, John Bivins’s The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, 1700–1820, set a standard for regional furniture studies that has yet to be surpassed. All of the articles presented in this volume of American Furniture and virtually every recent publication in the field of southern decorative arts owe a deep debt of gratitude to Frank Horton and MESDA’s dedicated staff.
Just as MESDA has led the way in documenting southern artisans and their work, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has led the way in interpreting American material culture. Prior to the 1970s, the buildings at Colonial Williamsburg were essentially “architectural settings for ‘tasteful’ assemblages of great collections.” Since then, the foundation’s curators, conservators, archaeologists, and historians have used inventories, pictorial sources, objects with local histories of use, and other forms of documentation to recreate the regional context of the town’s buildings and furnishings. The redecoration and refurnishing of the Governor’s Palace in 1980 revolutionized the way museums exhibit and interpret historic houses and their contents. It is a great credit to the foundation and its staff that this process of re-evaluation and refinement continues today. Colonial Williamsburg staff members have also made numerous contributions to southern furniture scholarship. Wallace Gusler’s Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710–1790 (1979), Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown’s Southern Furniture, 1680–1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection (1997), and articles by other members of the foundation’s curatorial, conservation, and historic trades divisions are among the most significant works in the field.
The Charleston Museum and Historic Charleston Foundation have been equally instrumental in focusing attention on the Low Country’s history, architecture, and material culture. The Charleston Museum’s extraordinary furniture collection, currently displayed in the museum and its historic houses, received national attention following the publication of E. Milby Burton’s “The Furniture of Charleston” in the 1952 issue of Antiques and Charleston Furniture, 1700–1825 in 1955. Subsequent scholars such as Chris Loeblein of the Charleston Museum and J. Thomas Savage, Robert Leath, and Jonathan Poston of the Historic Charleston Foundation are largely responsible for the recent renaissance of interest in the city and its culture. The Historic Charleston Foundation’s staff deserves special credit for aggressively preserving important properties, for accurately restoring, furnishing, and interpreting the Nathaniel Russell House, Aiken-Rhett House, and Powder Magazine, and for publishing books and articles on Low Country material culture.
The Baltimore Museum of Art and Maryland Historical Society’s impact on southern furniture scholarship are revealed by a host of landmark exhibitions and publications including Baltimore Furniture: The Work of Baltimore and Annapolis Cabinetmakers (1947), William Voss Elder, III’s Maryland Queen Anne and Chippendale Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (1968), Baltimore Painted Furniture, 1800–1840 (1972), Elder and Lou Bartlett’s John Shaw, Cabinetmaker of Annapolis (1983), Gregory R. Weidman’s Furniture in Maryland, 1740–1940: The Collection of the Maryland Historical Society (1984), and Classical Maryland, 1815–1845 (1993). Also contributing to the study of Maryland history and decorative arts are a number of historical commissions and trusts and county and town historical societies.
Historical societies and house museums such as Homewood, Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, Kenmore, Monticello, and Hope Plantation have traditionally collected, preserved, and published objects with local and often site-specific histories. Because of their documentation, such objects serve as benchmarks for identifying the work of individual shops and schools and for understanding regional cultures, economies, and tastes. Much of the work on specific shop traditions is due to the efforts of independent scholars such as Sumpter Priddy, III, J. Roderick Moore, and Jim and Marilyn Melchor, whose research has appeared in catalogues, books, and articles in Antiques, the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and American Furniture.
Crediting all of the individuals and institutions responsible for the current state of southern furniture studies is beyond the scope of this introduction. As the aforementioned exhibitions and publications suggest, interest in the field is growing at an astonishing pace. If the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s current exhibition Furniture of the American South: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown’s Southern Furniture, 1680–1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, and John Bivins and Bradford Rauschenberg’s forthcoming monograph Charleston Furniture, 1680-1820, are any indication, an exciting future awaits us.
Colonial Williamsburg Today 3, no. 2 (spring 1981). William N. Hosely, “Regional Furniture/Regional Life,” in Beckerdite and Hosley, eds., American Furniture, p. 6.