Why Is There So Little Southern Furniture?
The South's largely rural population and agrarian economy supported fewer cabinetmakers than the more urbanized North did. Yet research by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts has identified several thousand southern joiners and cabinetmakers who worked before 1820. These artisans produced far more furniture than most people realize.
In spite of such volume, the survival of southern furniture has been hindered by the region's warm, damp climate. Fluctuating temperatures and high humidity levels wreak havoc with organic materials like wood. When Maryland planter Charles Carroll ordered furniture from England in 1768, he admonished his agent to ensure that if [there is] any Carved ornament to the mouldings they are Desired to be solid and not Glued on[,] such work being very apt to Come to pieces here.
The Civil War further reduced the survival rate of cabinet wares made in the South. Untold quantities of furniture were lost in wartime fires like those that destroyed Richmond, Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina, and other cities. Both armies burned hundredsperhaps thousandsof rural houses throughout the region. After the war, Reconstruction-era politics and the devastation of the southern economy led to widespread poverty that persisted into the early twentieth century. As a result, antiques were often used up or sold to raise funds. Boston antiques dealer Israel Sack noted in a 1930 letter to a Colonial Williamsburg official, In my travels through the South, I find that some of the finest old families there are obliged to part with their most valued possessions.
These factors not only reduced the amount of extant southern furniture, but frequently left it in the same condition as the objects shown here.