Review by Ted Landsmark
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color

Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll. Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. The Richard Jenrette Series in Architecture and the Decorative Arts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, in association with the North Carolina Museum of History, 2010. xii + 289 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., 2 appendixes, bibliography, index. $40.00.

It is now hard to remember that in the middle of the twentieth century it was still believed that the American Southeast had produced little in the way of distinctive early American furniture. Charleston Museum director E. Milby Burton’s Charleston Furniture, 1700–1825 (Charleston Museum, 1955) finally brought attention to the emergence of individualized styles of such master craftsmen as Thomas Elfe and to the high-style furniture designed and made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Southern craftsmen for clients who, owing to a slavery-based agrarian economy, made the region the richest in the colonies.

We have learned much about Southern material culture and decorative arts during the past half century, thanks largely to research and collecting engendered by Winston-Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Jonathan Prown and Ronald L. Hurst’s Southern Furniture, 1680–1830 (Colonial Williamsburg, 1997) classifies the objects into the Chesapeake/Low Country/Back Country regional categories popularized by MESDA and documents the Colonial Williamsburg collection in ways that focused on a large group of relatively unknown furniture artisans. Brad Rauschenberg and John Bivins’s towering achievement, The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820 (MESDA, 2003), extended Burton’s work by bringing together a thorough examination of styles and forms along with the microscopic analysis of woods and descriptions of regional commercial patterns to cast light on the furniture produced in what was then the wealthiest community in America. Other regional styles across the South have now been explored, in such works as Wallace Gusler’s Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia (Virginia Museum, 1979), Gregory Weidman’s Maryland Furniture (Maryland Historical Society, 1984), Derita Coleman Williams and Nathan Harsh’s Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture (Tennessee Historical Society, 1988), Pamela Wagner’s Hidden Heritage: Recent Discoveries in Georgia Decorative Art, 1735–1915 (High Museum, 1990), and Jack Holden, H. Parrott Bacot, and Cybele Gontar’s Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1835 (Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010).

Bivins and Rauschenberg worked together on a number of projects and employed MESDA’s research resources as a base for their deep analyses of furniture styles and traditions across the South. Bivins’s The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina (MESDA, 1988) set a standard for the assessment of regional, largely rural, work that by the middle of the eighteenth century had combined conservative British tastes with vernacular influences. Many of the small planters and farmers in this area were artisans themselves, and they combined idiosyncratic ethnic tastes, and often isolated commercial relationships with urban centers, to create an “industry” of small-scale furniture makers and architectural artisans that ultimately became the largest area of furniture manufacturing in the United States today. Bivins and Rauschenberg’s work at MESDA drew together scores of students researching Southern decorative arts, including Patricia Phillips Marshall, whose Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, written with architectural historian Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, sets a new standard for the treatment of a single artisan and marks an extraordinary achievement for research into the life and commercial activities of a free man of color in the antebellum South.

Thomas Day is one of a small handful of antebellum free people of color to have left behind enough documentary material to enable scholars to interpret his life, work, and business relationships. His father, John Day, was born in North Carolina in 1779 as the illegitimate mulatto grandson of a South Carolina family that supported his rearing in a white Quaker family whose beliefs ran counter to those of South Carolinian slaveholders. John learned cabinetmaking from a western piedmont craftsman and set up shop in a Southside Virginia community of free people of color. He married the daughter of a well-respected free mulatto doctor and landowner and had two sons, John Jr. (b. 1797) and Thomas (b. 1801). His financial circumstances enabled him to purchase, and subsequently lose, a plantation early in the nineteenth century and to begin to educate his sons outside their home, while teaching them the “art and mystery” of cabinetmaking at home.

The Day family became peripatetic during the sons’ teens and by 1820 had relocated to Warren County in North Carolina to improve its business circumstances and to avoid Virginia’s more repressive race laws. In 1821 John Jr. and Thomas moved to the vicinity of Milton, North Carolina, in Caswell County on the Virginia border. The area’s residents were descendants of European, African, and Native American forebears, and mixed-race interactions were not uncommon. Light-skinned with wavy dark hair, the Days were able to avoid some of the stigmas attached to darker-skinned mulattos then living in North Carolina.

John Jr. had experienced a religious conversion that could be better pursued in Milton, while Thomas likely moved to be closer to the commercial transportation for manufactured goods that was readily accessible down the nearby Dan River. Both opened furniture-making shops. John Jr. left his furniture making in 1825 to become a Baptist missionary, while Thomas continued to produce furniture made of stylish walnut and imported Santo Domingo mahogany. The brothers continued to communicate by mail, even as John Jr. did missionary work in Africa. By 1827, through the cultivation of local business connections and clients, Thomas had become the leading supplier of custom-made cabinetry and case furniture in Milton. His popularity among his artisan and commercial peers was so great that by the time he married in 1830, more than sixty local white citizens and the attorney general successfully petitioned the General Assembly for the passage of a special act permitting the entry of his mulatto wife into North Carolina, contravening an 1826 law banning the migration of free people of color into the state.

Thomas Day’s maternal grandparents had owned up to nineteen slaves, one of whom had been bequeathed to Thomas’s older brother, John Jr. In 1830, the year of Thomas’s marriage, he owned two slaves, a man aged between twenty-four and thirty-six, and a woman between thirty-six and fifty-five. A decade later, he owned eight slaves; by 1850 he owned fourteen. These slaves were not, as some would hope, members of his immediate family whom he had benevolently purchased in order to set free. Ten were identified as black, four as mulatto, and none bore names indicating kinship with Day. He employed these enslaved workers within his furniture-making business as craftspeople and porters, and in his home as domestic help for his wife and three children. By 1850 26.8 percent of North Carolina’s population was enslaved, and Day’s workforce remarkably included black slaves, free people of color, and whites, working as journeymen, apprentices, and day laborers. Slavery and complex class relations based on skin color were commonplace, yet it will remain a mystery as to how Thomas Day, as a mulatto, could have owned so many human beings who shared his African origins.

Day was an expansive and pragmatic entrepreneur. He built custom domestic furniture, coffins, furnishings for churches and public buildings, and designed and produced distinctive curvilinear architectural embellishments for local homes, the state capitol, and North Carolina University interiors. He purchased extensive real estate holdings, including the local Union Tavern. He utilized technically advanced steam-powered mechanized tools, sought to vertically integrate his production to control his costs, and subcontracted portions of the work to specialists. His clients included some of the wealthiest white patrons in the region, and by 1850 he had become the largest furniture-maker in North Carolina. Day sent his children to a private boarding school in Massachusetts, violating North Carolina restrictions while exposing them to strong Northern abolitionist sentiments. Yet his prominent economic position and investments in capital and people in North Carolina apparently precluded him from relocating his business away from the slave-holding South, and, by 1857, as the national economy trended sharply downward, he began to experience economic difficulties. Creditors closed in on his assets. A North Carolina petition requested that the entire free black population be sent to Liberia. Day’s health declined, and his property began to be transferred to his son Thomas Jr., who by 1860 had assumed full financial responsibility for the cabinetmaking shop, architectural woodwork, and burial services. Thomas Day died in 1861 as the Confederacy was being formed.

Day’s work, while emerging from the empire period of American furniture-making, has many distinctive curvilinear elements that some have attributed to an inclination on Day’s part to include Africanisms among his improvisational design motifs. Many of the extensive black-and-white photographs in this volume certainly raise questions about the origins of Day’s unique motifs. His bold fireplace surrounds and staircase embellishments were dramatically more expressive than was typical for the unprepossessing rural North Carolina homes of that era. (See, for example, those illustrated in Catherine Bishir, North Carolina Architecture [University of North Caro­lina Press, 1990].) The asymmetrical S-curved muntins on his glazed secretary doors were thought by collectors such as Derrick Joshua Beard to be references to West African “Sankofa” signs for well-being. Hopes were expressed that lost correspondence between Thomas and his brother John Jr., who became a missionary in Liberia, might have contained sketches of West African motifs. Both Days were trained as cabinetmakers, and such graphic image exchanges cannot be ruled out. But Patricia Phillips Marshall, following the lead of Jonathan Prown, indicates that there is no hard evidence of Day’s having sought to incorporate references to African decorative embellishments in his work. Unlike the functional design transmissions Dale Rosengarten found in the evolution of Low Country baskets (see Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art [Museum of African Art, 2008]) or the functional references John Michael Vlach attributes to connections between West African building forms and Southern American plantation vernacular architecture in Back of the Big House (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Marshall sees no clearly identifiable Africanisms in Day’s work.

At the beginning of Marshall’s research, a number of articles had been written about Day, but most of his work was privately held by owners who cherished the pieces as family heirlooms. Knowledgeable Southern antiques pickers alerted collectors of individual pieces that came to the market through estate sales. By the early 1990s the North Carolina Museum of History had begun to document and collect his work, and when Marshall joined that staff as curator of furnishings and decorative arts and expanded her work with MESDA, the collecting activity accelerated. Jo Ramsey Leimenstoll joined the documentation project as a preservation architect at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was working to restore the fire-damaged Union Tavern. Grants to expand the research were provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and a number of private donors.

A comprehensive exhibition of Day’s work, “Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker,” has been installed at the North Carolina Museum of History. The exhibition includes about eighty varied pieces of his furniture and displays examples of the tools he would have used. The semipermanent exhibition also raises useful educational questions about Day’s role as an entrepreneur of color in the antebellum South. Other museums, such as the Telfair Museum in Savannah and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are also collecting and displaying Day’s work.

This is a spectacular piece of research into an individual artisan. It provides insights into the narrative history of the man’s life and family, details his business and public dealings, analyzes his stylistic distinctiveness within the larger furniture-making and architectural trends of his time, raises social and ethical questions about how the work came into being and was supported by clients, addresses the racial complexities of being a free entrepreneur of color in a highly restrictive antebellum South, and is accompanied by a lasting catalogue of the artisan’s work that came into being concurrently with the development of the research. It is a towering achievement, as it explores both the life and work of a free man of color and what many artisans would have experienced in the antebellum South. It is an insightful corollary to other recent researches into early Southern artisanry. MESDA supported cabinetmaking research for Thomas Newbern and Jack Melchor’s WH Cabinetmaker: A Southern Mystery Solved (Legacy Ink, 2009) and Elizabeth A. Davison’s The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790–1820 (Altamira, 2011), also reviewed in this volume. Leonard Todd’s Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (Norton, 2008) explores the enigma of Dave Drake, the exact contemporary of Thomas Day who was producing equally eloquent poetic pottery only three hundred miles farther south, in Edgefield, South Carolina. One might hope for a similarly thorough exploration into the life of the African American freed slave tool-maker Cesar Chelor, who in mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts made the hand tools that produced some of America’s greatest New England cabinetry masterpieces.

Tragically, Patricia Phillips Marshall passed away just as this book was published and as her magnum opus exhibition was opening at the North Carolina Museum of History. Raleigh’s News and Observer quoted her on the interconnected artistic, social, and historical impacts of her research into Day’s legacy. “In order to understand the one you have to know the other. . . . As a curator, I recognize that people learn in different ways. Some will come through and read all the plaques and everything; some will come just to look at the furniture. Some people react better to visual information, and some better to tactile things. . . . This is why I got into museum work. I’m fascinated with objects and how they tell a story.”

Patricia Phillips Marshall and I were fellows together at MESDA. As an African American researcher into the early roots of black material culture, I had heard of Thomas Day and the slave potter Dave, and it was Marshall’s passion for the subject and the thorough research she undertook that inspired me to complete my doctorate. She and Liemenstoll dedicated Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color to the great North Carolina African American historian John Hope Franklin and, in fact, to all of us who would have wished to have contributed to such a brilliant and insightful study of African American artisanry in the antebellum South. We now have this beautiful and comprehensive text as a testament to distinctive artisanry and to outstanding scholarship.

Ted Landsmark
Boston Architectural College

American Furniture 2011