Luke Beckerdite

This volume of American Furniture presents new information on a variety of subjects, ranging from southwestern joined chests, or cajas, to colonial revival furniture made by members of the Potthast family of Baltimore, Maryland. Although the articles are quite diverse, all underscore the importance of patronage in the design, construction, marketing, and use of American furniture.

Martha Willoughby’s essay on the products of the Symonds shops of Salem, Massachusetts, and Luke Beckerdite’s article on the furniture of Job and Christopher Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island, suggest that Quaker communities functioned as conduits for the movement of people, ideas, and styles during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Both groups of joiners clearly profited from the patronage of fellow Quakers as well as from trade associations with other Friends. In Newport, these connections facilitated the formation of cabinetmaking dynasties that challenged Boston’s dominance of the furniture export trade.

The cajas discussed in Elizabeth Fleming’s article reflect the convergence of Hispanic and Pueblo culture in New Mexico. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, marriage and material culture were both vehicles whereby Hispanic patrons sought to preserve their heritage. Some of the chests from this region have carved motifs derived from Spanish heraldry, whereas others have designs rooted in Pueblo cosmology. As Fleming demonstrates, these objects are neither purely Spanish nor purely Native American. They are composite forms produced by a creolized culture.

Leroy Graves and Luke Beckerdite’s essay, “New Insights on John Cadwalader’s Commode-Seat Side Chairs,” examines the carving and upholstery on a renowned set of seating furniture commissioned by that Philadelphia merchant and his wife Elizabeth Lloyd, one of the wealthiest women in colonial America. Soon after their wedding, the couple commissioned the city’s leading artisans to renovate and furnish their townhouse—converting it into what one observer called “a grand and elegant” residence. The extensive documentation surrounding this work illuminates the patterns of interaction between patrons and artisans at the highest level, since many of the tradesmen involved in furnishing Cadwalader’s house were London-trained immigrants.

Few early urban centers benefited from the arrival of European immigrants more than Baltimore—the fastest growing city in America during the last decades of the eighteenth century. In “The Genesis of Neoclassicism in Baltimore Furniture,” Sumpter Priddy, Michael Flanigan, and Gregory Weidman present a convincing argument that the earliest, largest, and most sophisticated group of Baltimore neoclassical furniture can be attributed to Richard Lawson, a London-trained cabinetmaker, and his partner John Bankson. As the authors note, immigrant tradesmen like Lawson “helped shape material culture in the new republic at precisely the point when Americans perceived themselves to be increasingly free of British influence.”

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley’s article on Baltimore cabinetmaker Edward Priestley is a compelling study of the career, patrons, and furniture of one of that city’s most important cabinetmakers. Many of his clients were wealthy, well-educated, cosmopolitan individuals with a taste for the latest European fashions. Priestley’s success, as Ms. Kirtley demonstrates,“lay in his ability to accommodate . . . his patrons and respond to diverse styles and changing economic trends.”

Baltimore’s most prolific furniture-making firm was in business from 1892 to 1975. Established by four German immigrants, Potthast Brothers received national acclaim for their “authentic replicas” as well as for the historic forms they adapted for modern use. As Catherine Arthur’s article reveals, the firm played an important role in the development and longevity of the colonial revival—a style that “satisfied the needs of native-born Americans who wished to maintain and assert their heritage and of immigrants who endeavored to be more like them.”

The field of American furniture is greatly indebted to immigrants like the Potthasts who sought to identify with their new home. Many early dealers
—the people largely responsible for popularizing American antiques—were Jewish emigrés such as Israel Sack. The death of his son Harold in July 2000 was a tremendous loss to the furniture world. Under the direction of Harold and his brothers Albert and Robert, the Sack firm became a leader in furniture research and scholarship. They showed us that furniture was an art form that demands the same level of appreciation and study as paintings, sculpture, and architecture. For that we are immensely grateful.

Another scholar whose keen mind and kind heart will be sorely missed is Zeke Liverant, who passed away in October. Building on his father Nathan’s legacy, Zeke and his son Arthur established one of the country’s most respected antiques firms. Always willing to share his knowledge, Zeke made immeasurable contributions to the field of American furniture.

American Furniture 2000