Elizabeth A. Fleming
Staples for Genteel Living: The Importation of London Household Furnishings into Charleston During
the 1780s

In 1802, John Drayton of Charleston candidly characterized his late eighteenth-century contemporaries: “Charlestonians sought in every possible way to emulate the life of London society. They were too much enamoured of British customs, manners and education to imagine that elsewhere anything of advantage could be obtained.” The Charleston home was a significant arena in which this parroting of London trends took place. Customs records, commercial account books, correspondence, newspapers, and journals reveal that relatively expensive and fashionable household furnishings were imported into Charleston in considerable quantities throughout the eighteenth century (fig. 1). These goods, neither necessities nor unique manufactures unobtainable from other sources, allowed Charlestonians to enjoy more cultivated, visibly genteel, and leisure-filled lives.1

By examining the quality and type of household goods imported into Charleston from London during the decade following the Revolutionary War, this article will show how Charlestonians furnished their interiors and how their imported purchases related to local production and to the London luxury-goods market. The value, appearance, function, and in some cases supplier of these imported goods shed light on the Anglicized nature of late eighteenth-century Charleston, its citizens’ preferences and values, and their position within the British Empire.

The household goods and the English-style interior spaces they filled served as instruments of self-identification for Charlestonians. The supply of and demand for British household goods sprang from Charleston’s long-standing economic and cultural connection with London. Since the first yield of export staples—particularly rice and indigo—in the early eighteenth century, Charleston’s livelihood had been linked to England’s capital city. Charlestonians identified more closely with London than with the Puritan culture of New England or the rural planter society of the Chesapeake Bay region. By the 1780s, the Charleston community was dependent upon international trade and attuned to stylish design. Its citizens’ strong interest in material possessions and fashionable interior space encouraged their creation of stylish, London-derived interiors.

This article is separated into two sections according to the means by which Charlestonians created English-style interiors. The first focuses on personal contact, considering individual requests for various household items and orders customized to meet a particular household’s needs. The second part examines bulk shipments sold by Charleston merchants. Both sections concentrate on commodities handled by the eighteenth-century upholder, a term used interchangeably with “upholsterer” during the period. Robert Campbell’s The London Tradesman (1747) describes an upholsterer as the supplier of fashionable furniture for the home. The upholsterers’ profession entailed fitting beds, window curtains, and wall hangings, covering chairs with stuffed seats, as well as coordinating a complete domestic environment for a client. Of primary focus within this study are upholstered and unupholstered seating furniture, beds and related equipment, looking glasses, and carpets. Objects such as decorative accessories, wall hangings, and brass accouterments for fireplaces will be examined to a lesser degree. The emphasis on upholsterers’ goods offers a window into Charlestonians’ living environments, domestic pastimes, and patterns of consumption.2

Previous scholarly work on household commodities imported into the North American colonies from Britain has focused principally on ceramics and tea wares. These investigations have shown how imported ceramics and the genteel customs they served bridged social divisions and how colonists used such goods to express political and cultural beliefs. How do more physically imposing household goods—those items that demonstrate a greater degree of sophistication in the execution of genteel customs—augment these assertions? As noted by historian Richard Bushman, many American colonials owned one tea cup and/or one silver spoon. Logic, however, suggests that where there was a mahogany tea table, there was a tea service of relative portent, and, where there was a card table, there was an environment in which leisure activity took place. Examining imported household furnishings will broaden the scope of preceding research and outfit a picture of Charleston in the 1780s as a community invigorated by London interior fashions.3

Personal Contact
In 1793, Joseph Lewis of London sued the estate of Thomas Hutchinson of Charleston for failing to pay for household furnishings shipped to Hutchinson in October 1783. The goods included:

  On board the Charleston Packet: Sterling
  2 pier Glasses—gold & varnished
Japan borders

  2 Girrandoles with dolphins 6.6.6
  12 carved mahogany oval back chairs 19.16.0
  2 Inlaid card tables, banded, strung
& thurm feet

  1 2 foot 6 inch inlaid pembroke table 5.10.0
  A Sattin Wood Liquor Case 5.3.6
  A Lady’s dressing table of mahogany, taper feet 4.12.0
  1 6 foot Wainscot double screw’d
bedstead, sattin wood posts . . .
fine white fring’d lace petticoats
vallance and bases

  On board the Emperor:  
  12 Rich Carved Cabriole Mahogany
chairs stuffed backs and seats

  2 6 foot Cabriole Sopha’s 44.0.0

The 1790 Charleston city directory includes two men named Thomas Hutchinson. The first, Thomas Hutchinson, Sr., is listed as a planter living on East Bay. His son, Thomas Hutchinson, Jr., is described as a planter residing at 21 South Bay. Whether to furnish the home of father or son, this order reveals that Charleston planters were eager to acquire fashionable, and often quite expensive, London-made household goods. The furniture in the order also documents leisure entertainments, such as card playing, and the pursuit of such activities within a sophisticated setting featuring gilded pier glasses, dolphin-carved girandoles, richly carved and stuffed chairs and sofas, a pembroke table, and a satinwood liquor case.4

According to The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices (1788, 1793)—a piece-rate price guide published for masters and artisans—size, materials, structural options, and decorative features determined the price of a piece of furniture. In terms of documented price and quality, several of the items purchased by Hutchinson were comparable to similar objects made by London cabinetmakers such as Gillow and Company and George Seddon, who primarily served an upper middle–class clientele. The girandoles, valued at £3.3.3 individually, cost approximately the same as the very expensive girandoles made by Gillow and Company. In that firm’s Estimate Sketchbook, 1784–1787, a girandole with gilding cost £3.1, whereas one “in the plainest way” cost £1.10. The pembroke tables listed in the same book range in value from £1.5.6 to £5.18.8. The latter valuation was for a satinwood pembroke table with a round top and classical inlay. Since this price exceeds that of Hutchinson’s pembroke table by a mere eight shillings, it is likely that his example had inlay of similar quantity and quality and can thus be associated with the more costly objects produced by Gillow and Company.5

The £4.12 price of the lady’s mahogany dressing table included in the Hutchinson shipment similarly compares with that of dressing tables made by furniture workshops like Gillow and Company. Such firms were esteemed more for their fine workmanship than for their stylistic originality. A veneered dressing table with a lift top, a concealed mirror, and tulipwood cross-banding was priced at £3.0.4 in Gillow and Company’s Estimate Sketchbook. A 1778 bill from London cabinetmaker George Seddon listed a “Veneer’d Dressing table wth glass in ye slides” at £5. An inlaid dressing table produced by Anglo-Swedish cabinetmaker Christopher Furhlogh was priced at £4.6 on a 1786 receipt. Although on par with pieces from these second-tier London workshops, the Hutchinson dressing table cost at least several pounds less than those produced by the city’s premier firms. Thomas Chippendale, for example, charged Sir Rowland Winn £7.7 for a japanned dressing table. A more expensive, mahogany-veneered dressing table made in 1763 for Queen Charlotte’s apartments cost £9.15. With these comparisons in mind, the Hutchinson dressing table seems to have been a piece of substantial quality, although not of the highest attainable.6

When contrasted with similar objects produced by Gillow and Company, the Hutchinson goods with extravagant prices are the card tables, seating furniture, and bedstead. In 1786, Gillow and Company sold Edward Standish a pair of satinwood card tables with broadcloth playing surfaces and tulipwood banding for £3.17.6—a price almost four times less than Hutchinson’s two card tables. Although expensive in the second-tier London cabinetmaking market, the value of the tables and some of the seating furniture purchased by Hutchinson corresponds to the price of similarly described objects in the Order Book for the James Brown Upholstery and Cabinet Warehouse, a London firm located near the St. Paul’s Churchyard (fig. 2). The January 8, 1784, order for Captain Farley of Antigua includes two oval card tables valued at £12.7, seven shillings less than the Hutchinson pair. On November 4, 1786, James Latouche of Jamaica ordered twelve vase-back mahogany chairs priced at £19.16, exactly the same price as Hutchinson’s oval-back chairs.7

By comparison, the stuffed mahogany chairs and cabriole sofas sent to Hutchinson cost considerably more than their equivalents in the James Brown Order Book. For her Pall Mall townhouse, a Mrs. Kepple ordered twenty cabriole chairs with stuffed seats and backs, each costing approximately £4—less than half the price of the Hutchinson chairs. Reverend Daniel Williams placed a similar order with Brown’s firm for his Hanover Square residence in London on October 26, 1784. It included “14 Vase back Drawing Room Arm Chairs stuft backs, seats & Arms made of good Mahy & finished in mixt Damask, bass naild, price not to exceed four Guineas each . . . Stripe Cases to do of Yellow Cotton at 16/ . . . 2 Cabriole 5 ft. 3 Sophas to match do . . . 2 Cases to do.” The order totaled £104.4, expensive but almost twenty pounds less than the twelve chairs and two sofas shipped to Hutchinson. The cost of Hutchinson’s suite pales, however, in comparison to a comparable gilded set made by Chippendale for the State Dressing Room of Harewood House in 1773. Perhaps Hutchinson’s upholstered chairs and sofas were difficult to package and handle on a transatlantic voyage, and their price reflects extensive shipping costs.8

Unlike other furnishings purchased by Hutchinson, the wainscot bedstead valued at £69.12 was comparable in price to several bedsteads produced by Chippendale and William and John Linnell. In 1766, John Linnell made several five-foot wainscot bedsteads complete with upholstery for William Drake, Esq., charging between £25 and £40 each. A mahogany bedstead from Chippendale’s shop cost Sir Rowland Winn £64.4.9 in June 1766. His firm also produced two completely outfitted mahogany bedsteads, costing approximately £78 and £90, for the Earl of Egremont in 1777 and 1778. These bedsteads, although expensive when compared with those produced by Gillow and Company, were far less costly than the grandest of Chippendale’s manufactures, such as the state bedstead with a dome canopy made for Harewood House in 1772 and priced at £250. Although Hutchinson’s bedstead corresponds in price with comparable examples produced by London’s premier cabinetmaking firms, its cost appears high when compared with other furniture in his order. Unlike affluent nobility, who outfitted entire homes with furnishings by tradesmen of Chippendale’s stature, Carolina planters like Hutchinson only purchased a few very expensive pieces.9

Generally speaking, the prices of Hutchinson’s furniture are consistent with those of similarly described objects made by first- and second-tier cabinetmakers in London and by the leading cabinetmakers in smaller British cities. His furnishings likewise relate very closely to those sold by the James Brown Cabinet and Upholstery Warehouse. This firm had a few noble patrons, such as the Countess Dowager of Glasgow, Sir John Trevelyan, and Lord Saltoun Fraserburgh, but the majority of its clientele were from gentry, mercantile, and professional families in London, provincial Britain, and her foreign territories. The purchasers of Gillow and Company’s higher-priced products were of corresponding social and economic standing. Hutchinson’s purchases are compatible with these consumption patterns. He was able to acquire expensive household objects and enjoy leisurely activities; however, he remained outside the uppermost echelons of British society.10

The aforementioned eighteenth-century receipts, account books, and estimate sketchbooks suggest the importance of furnishing a home with objects readily identifiable as expensive and London made. For prominent Charlestonians such as Hutchinson, imported household furnishings represented a material link with genteel British society. Hutchinson’s order validates historian Timothy H. Breen’s notion of American Anglicization. Breen asserts that, prior to developing a common cultural identity, American colonists first had to integrate themselves fully into the British Empire. Conversely, Hutchinson’s order complicates Breen’s claim that consumer behavior became increasingly standardized during the second half of the eighteenth century. Hutchinson’s purchases suggest a desire to distinguish himself and his home by displaying furnishings different from the majority of those imported or made locally. As historian Cary Carson has observed, “the consumer revolution would make comrades of ladies and gentlemen half a world away while leaving near but unequal neighbors worlds apart.”11

Additional Charleston evidence substantiates this notion that the desire to diverge from common consumer experiences, to indulge in customized furnishings for a home, was a prevalent practice among prosperous Charlestonians during the late eighteenth century. In October and November of 1786, a Mrs. Robinson of Charleston purchased from James Brown’s firm a mahogany commode priced at £16.16, several carpets at £27.7.3, plain pea-green paper at £4.4, and a tea tray at £2.2. The price of the mahogany commode, with its round top, drawers, and plated hardware, exceeded that of a neat satinwood commode with handles and locks made by John Linnell for Sir John Griffin, Baronet, in 1779 by £6.6. Although the cost difference undoubtedly reflects the use of different materials and carriage expenses, the price of Mrs. Robinson’s commode is also remarkable when compared with two relatively expensive mahogany commodes, estimated at £7.10.9 and £6.4.71/4 by Gillow and Company.12

According to advertisements in the South Carolina Gazette, all of Mrs. Robinson’s goods could have been acquired from Charleston sources. These sources included either merchants who had recently imported commodes, tea trays, carpets, and other household furnishings or local cabinetmakers who were capable of filling orders for London-style furniture. Even fashionable wallpaper had been imported by Charleston paper-hanger and upholsterer John Blott since the mid-1760s. Under these circumstances, Mrs. Robinson probably purchased London goods in order to individualize her domestic environment and distinguish it as one furnished with commissioned, London-made objects instead of standard imports or locally made pieces. This attempt to differentiate her home from those of her contemporaries demonstrates the role appearances played in maintaining social status. Mrs. Robinson’s order suggests that she and her fellow Charlestonians put a premium on authentic, as opposed to imitation, London goods and on personal contact with the London luxury-goods market.13

The demand in Charleston society for authentic and customized London household furnishings is further confirmed by a September 5, 1789, receipt for furniture shipped to Nathaniel Heyward of Charleston. The name of the London supplier and the cost of many of the goods are missing; nevertheless, the receipt describes furnishings exported by one London firm and intended for a single room in Heyward’s house (fig. 3): £32.2 worth of glass, ten chairs with caned seats at 31 shillings each, a matching suite of two armchairs and one sofa, cushions lined with calico for the seating furniture, and an assortment of textiles including “fine ell wide chintz Cotton for Curtains & Sopha cases . . . Best Cotton lace . . . deep brown silk fringe . . . brown silk Line . . . [and] silk vellum ornamented.” Also listed are items for hanging the window curtains, including “20 wrought brass Cloakpins . . . 1 Sett of Pulley laths and brackets . . . [and] 1 Set of Vallen leaf Cornices for do Japanned & ornamented to match the Cotton.” Unupholstered household goods comprise the last part of the receipt, which includes two japanned firescreens, one thread Wilton carpet of sixty-seven yards, a satinwood pembroke table, two satinwood circular card tables, a satinwood card box, two satinwood tea caddies (one double and the other single), and a set of steel firedogs, tongs, and shovel.14

The items described in the bill were probably for Heyward’s drawing room or parlor. Judging from the prices and descriptions of the objects, his furniture was of very high quality. The chairs and sofa cost considerably less than the set shipped to Thomas Hutchinson six years earlier, but their price is still comparable to that of similarly described goods in the James Brown Order Book. Similarly, the satinwood tables and japanned firescreens were undoubtedly costly and in keeping with the latest London neoclassical fashion.

More notable than the style and expense of these pieces, however, is their method of purchase. Heyward acquired the furnishings for an entire room at one time at considerable expense rather than assembling the contents piecemeal. His order was larger than either Hutchinson’s or Mrs. Robinson’s. Although Hutchinson purchased an assortment of fine, expensive goods, his furnishings were probably used throughout his house. Like their counterparts throughout the British Empire, Charlestonians such as Heyward could and did have entire rooms outfitted with fashionable, coordinated London goods. Such spaces epitomized the desire among some Charlestonians to imitate the London style exactly.

Bulk Importation
Direct personal contact was not the only way to acquire London-made household furnishings during the 1780s. Goods for general consumers were exported in bulk from London to Charleston and then sold by general store merchants. How did the price and quality of such goods compare with the items imported by individuals for a particular home or room? To generalize, the furnishings arriving in bulk served Charlestonians who lacked contacts in the London furniture market, the ability to visit London, or the interest in customized work but who still wanted authentic English furnishings.

The household goods listed in the account book of London merchant James Douglas reveal a great deal about the general consumption of London-made furnishings exported to Charleston (fig. 4). Between August 1784 and August 1786, twenty-one different London firms supplied Douglas with household goods for these shipments: eight firms furnished cabinetwares and upholstered goods; two supplied looking glasses; two provided musical instruments, sheet music, and storage cases; two supplied only floor coverings; one furnished ceramic tableware and decorative objects; and six provided small household furnishings as well as other semidurables and durables. Three of the latter firms supplied ironware and brassware for the fireplace; one also equipped Douglas with dressing boxes, lanterns, and candlesticks; and another provided tea chests.15

The London suppliers of typical upholsterers’ wares, including cabinetwares, upholstered goods, looking glasses, and small household accessories, operated their businesses in close proximity to one another and generally provided relatively inexpensive goods of similar quality for genteel consumers. Five of these firms—Nicholas Phene, Pitt & Chessey, William Rawlins, William and Thomas Wilkinson, and Wilson & Dawes—were located in Broker’s Row, Moorfields, during the 1780s (fig. 5). This district was a primary location for furniture warehouses, auctioneers, and secondhand dealers. Nicholas Phene, an upholsterer and auctioneer who used the sign of the “Golden Plough” on his trade card, worked at 18–19 Broker’s Row after 1780. Pitt & Chessey began trading in London in 1769 and were located at 13 Broker’s Row during their business dealings with James Douglas. Their trade card (fig. 6) advertised “Houshold Goods both New & Old at the most Reasonable Rates . . . in the Genteelest Taste” and upholsterer’s work in “as Good and Cheap a manner as at any Shop In Town.” William Rawlins, another Broker’s Row cabinetmaker, upholsterer, appraiser, and undertaker, also sold new and used household goods. All of these Broker’s Row firms offered a variety of upholstery services. Their clientele, as inferred by trade card terminology and the all-encompassing nature of their businesses, consisted of individuals for whom gentility and economy were concerns.16

The same can be said about the two other suppliers with Broker’s Row addresses, William and Thomas Wilkinson and Wilson & Dawes. These firms were warehouses, able to deal with wholesale, bulk, and customized orders. The former advertised as a “Cabinet, Upholstery, Carpet & Looking Glass Warehouse,” the latter as an upholsterer, undertaker, and furniture warehouse. The two suppliers of looking glasses, although located away from Broker’s Row, were similar, volume-oriented businesses. According to Kent’s London Directory of 1787, William Ford was a looking glass warehouseman at 58 Lombard Street. The partnership of Walker & Beck ran a looking glass manufactory, located at 46 Fish Street Hill, London.17

In contrast, the William Fleming who provided twenty-six cabinet and upholstery items for Douglas’s October 19, 1784, shipment was a relatively upscale cabinetmaker and upholsterer. He is most likely the William Fleming who worked at 4 Chandos Street in Covent Garden from 1775 to 1808 and who supplied two mahogany medicine chests to Hopetoun House, Lothian, in 1775. A William Fleming also subscribed to Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book in 1793.18

Other identifiable London suppliers to James Douglas were those offering fireplace accouterments such as firedogs, shovels, and tongs. John Horsley & Son were “Brass Founders” at Haberdashers Walk, Hoxton, in northeast London from 1783 to 1790, and Taylor & Bailey were “Ironmongerers” on Little Tower Street in 1785.19

Table 1 presents the quantity and value of the household goods provided by fifteen different suppliers to James Douglas. The warehouse firms, William and Thomas Wilkinson, William Ford, and Walker & Beck, provided greater quantities of goods than any of the other suppliers. In general, the more goods of a particular type that a firm supplied, the lower the average cost per item. For example, William Fleming and William Rawlins exported a smaller number of goods but at a higher average cost per item than did the other firms in their category. Rawlins’s high average cost per item related to the type of object supplied—bureaus and tables, but no chairs. Of the suppliers of both cabinetware and upholstery, William and Thomas Wilkinson provided the greatest quantity of goods at the lowest average cost per item.

Several of Douglas’s suppliers, including Pitt & Chessey, Nicholas Phene, and Wilson & Dawes, provided goods that ranged in cost from a couple of shillings to six and eight pounds a piece. Cost variances within the same categories of goods probably reflected Douglas’s or his suppliers’ attempts to satisfy a wide range of customers. As savvy entrepreneurs, they almost certainly made provisions for varying tastes, needs, and economic concerns.

Table 2 delineates the variety of household goods exported by Douglas to Charleston merchants during the years 1784 to 1786. Large, expensive items such as bedsteads, various cabinetwares, organs, and sofas were exported in small numbers, whereas looking glasses, glassware, inexpensive carpets, chairs, and fireplace utensils were shipped in greater quantities. The three categories of goods exported in the greatest quantity were looking glasses and glasswares (197 items), seating furniture (157 items), and fireplace accouterments (103 items). The two classes of goods exported in the lowest quantities were cabinetwares (21 items) and dining accouterments (19 items). Six different types of cabinetwares were supplied, but only three types of dining accessories—knife cases, rum cases, and wine coolers—appear in the shipments destined for Charleston.

The goods exported by Douglas were described in simple, straightforward terms in his account book. The most common adjectives were “mahogany,” “neat,” “gilt,” “fine,” “inlaid,” and “plain.” “Mahogany” differentiated 173 tables, chairs, dressing glasses, and tea chests. “Neat” characterized eighty different items. Sixty-three objects were gilded, including sconces, looking glasses, dressing boxes, guitars, and organs. Only eight swing glasses, commodes, and card tables were described as having inlay or inlaid parts. Fifteen objects, from swing glasses to pembroke tables and commodes, were described as “plain.” The frequency with which the terms “mahogany,” “gilt,” and “neat” were used suggests the fashionable nature of the exported goods. During the eighteenth century, the term “neat” was often used to describe furniture that was simply adorned but well-made and classically correct in proportion and detail.

The most expensive objects exported by Douglas were a fifteen-key organ with four stops, two barrels, a gilded front, and a stand priced at £16.16; a Wilton carpet measuring five feet by seven feet priced at £12.5; and two mahogany spinets priced at £10 each. Only seven other objects in all of the nine shipments to Charleston were valued at over £6. They included a bedstead with curtains at £8.8, two chests of drawers with serpentine fronts at £6.6 each, a sideboard with an inlaid front at £7.12, a Scotch carpet measuring six feet by seven and one-quarter feet at £7.7.2, and two elegant guitars of the “newest construction” with cases and strings, each at £8.18.6. The cheapest objects were twenty-three mahogany dressing glasses with an average value of two shillings six pence. Hardly a necessity, dressing glasses appealed to consumers interested in acquiring London-made amenities at minimal expense.

Of all the household objects included in the Douglas shipments, bedsteads had the greatest range in minimum and maximum price, a difference of £7.3. The most expensive bedstead was supplied by Wilson & Dawes, but its £8.8 price included curtains. As indicated in the account book, the other beds had yet to be dressed. Two field beds with canopy tops and mahogany posts were priced at £2.8 each (fig. 7). This price seems low when compared with Gillow and Company’s mahogany beds, which ranged in price from £3 to £6. The Douglas beds are, in fact, more comparable in price to beech beds by Gillow and Company. The value of the Douglas beds is also less than that of examples made in Charleston during the 1770s. In 1771, cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe charged £40 South Carolina (approximately £5.13.3 sterling) for a mahogany bedstead with “Eagles, Claws & plane knees with castors” and £20 (approximately £2.17.2 sterling) for a poplar bedstead with mahogany posts and castors. The different prices for the Elfe beds undoubtedly relate to their form, size, materials, and workmanship; however, the lower prices for Douglas’s mahogany beds may be the result of their having been made in a large shop with a specialized workforce. Such shops could produce standard furniture forms much faster and cheaper than their smaller competitors.20

Bed “furniture” was also included in Douglas’s shipments. The firm Livesey & Preston supplied five different types of mattresses and/or mattress and pillow combinations. In ascending value, these included common mattresses, linen mattresses, “crankey” mattresses of varying sizes, checked mattresses, and “tick” mattresses with hair stuffing. The presence of mattresses and other bed furniture, which could easily have been made in Charleston, indicates that even the most basic manufactured goods were shipped to the colonies during the 1780s.

High-quality case furniture represented the other end of the export spectrum. Five firms—Longman & Broderip, Nicholas Phene, Pitt & Chessey, William Rawlins, and John Russell—furnished Douglas with six different forms. The Pitt & Chessey bookcase, priced at £5, was comparable to relatively elaborate case pieces produced in London during the late eighteenth century. The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices illustrates a library bookcase six-feet long and eight-feet high priced at £5.15 (fig. 8). A satinwood bureau and bookcase made by Gillow and Company cost £5.4. The prices and descriptions of the bureaus and chests in the Douglas shipments suggest that they were more than simple, functional pieces but of lesser value than similar forms by Gillow and Company.21

The five commodes exported by Douglas included two mahogany examples valued at £4.4 each and one dressing commode with drawers priced at £5.15.6. The latter piece, although over two pounds more expensive than a dressing commode with a serpentine front pictured in The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices (fig. 9), was less expensive than all but one of the commodes listed in the Gillow and Company Estimate Sketchbook. The lesser-priced Gillow and Company commode, estimated at £3.17.5, had French feet. The three sideboards shipped by Douglas follow a similar pattern. The most expensive Douglas sideboard, one with a fine inlaid front, cost four pounds more than the most expensive sideboard described in The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices, “a celleret sideboard, with an eliptic middle, and ogee on each side.” Sideboards produced by Gillow and Company ranged in cost from £4 to £8.22

The furniture forms exported by Douglas were apparently more expensive than their standard-priced counterparts in London but less costly than comparable pieces made by Gillow and Company. Likewise, Douglas’s furniture was less expensive than London work commissioned by wealthy Charlestonians. This latter difference suggests a distinction of price and possibly of form and ornament between interiors outfitted through custom orders and those outfitted with general imports.

The values of looking glasses in the Douglas shipments depended upon the size and the amount of carving or gilding on the frame. Brass-burnished glass was the only type of mirror exported without a frame, and it had the lowest average price per unit. The most expensive looking glasses were two large, square, carved and gilded glasses supplied by Walker & Beck. The two “handsome” pier glasses, valued at £3.3 each, also had carved and gilded decoration. The remaining mirrors and glass varied greatly in both embellishment and size. The forty-eight swing glasses, for example, were described as “plain,” “stringed,” “gilt-edged with shells,” “oval-shaped with bent pillars,” “neat oval-shaped,” and “mahogany.” As decorative arts scholar Elisabeth Garrett asserts, looking glasses were an essential domestic ornament, providing supplemental light and evidence of familial wealth through size, abundance, and ornament.23

Most of the seating furniture in Douglas’s shipments consisted of bulk consignments, often including side chairs and arm or elbow chairs. The quantity of side chairs was generally six times greater than that of corresponding arm or elbow chairs, which may reflect the presence of sets in his shipments. Consumers undoubtedly had the option of purchasing these chairs in almost any combination, from single examples to large sets with multiple side chairs and arm or elbow chairs. Pitt & Chessey supplied two identifiable sets comprised of twelve side chairs and two armchairs. In both sets, the side chairs were valued at 16 shillings each, and the armchairs, at £1.5 each. By comparison, Thomas Elfe’s shop produced sets of twelve mahogany scrollback chairs in 1771 and 1772; the chairs in both sets cost just over £7 South Carolina (or just over £1 sterling) a piece—a value midway between the Pitt & Chessey prices for side and armchairs. At 12 shillings each, the thirty mahogany side chairs furnished by Wilson & Dawes were comparable in price to mahogany fan-back chairs produced by Gillow and Company during the 1780s.24

The seating furniture in Douglas’s shipments incorporated a variety of materials and decorative features. While sixty-four of the chairs were not described, fifty were listed as made of mahogany. William and Thomas Wilkinson supplied twenty-four elbow chairs with double brass nails, and William Fleming provided two mahogany corner night chairs with elbows and stone pans valued at £1.13 a piece. Douglas’s shipments also included a small number of settees and sofas, such as the one furnished by Pitt & Chessey and priced at £5.5. By comparison, a Gillow and Company sofa with a mahogany top cost £3.10. For just over £5.15.6, Thomas Chippendale provided Sir William Robinson with “a large mahogany sofa stuff’d in linen & Quilted wt Castors on the feet &c.”25

The suppliers of the fifty-four tables exported by Douglas included William Fleming, Pitt & Chessey, Nicholas Phene, William Rawlins, John Russell, William and Thomas Wilkinson, and Wilson & Dawes. Card and dining tables were exported in sets and individually. Douglas’s shipments included three pairs of card tables and three sets of mahogany dining tables. The dining table sets, the cheapest of which cost £6.6, were more expensive than the most costly individual dining tables. This value exceeded by approximately two pounds the most expensive single dining table supplied by Pitt & Chessey and a mahogany dining table set produced by Thomas Elfe in November 1771. William Fleming provided the two most expensive dining table sets: one was secondhand, and the other, measuring ten feet by four feet six inches, had moveable round ends and spring hinges that permitted the tables to be joined. With the exception of these sets of card and dining tables, all other table forms were individual units.26

William Fleming evidently supplied the most ornate tables. He provided four neat, circular mahogany card tables, with inlay, brass borders, and green cloth lining priced at £2.18 a piece; six neat, mahogany pembroke tables, two square in shape and four oval-shaped and inlaid; and a mahogany night table with drawers, a folding top, a stone pan, and flint-glass water bottles. Oddly enough, Fleming supplied goods for only one early shipment, that of October 19, 1784. A lack of general demand for these very fine objects or a change in Douglas’s business after 1784 are possible explanations for the termination of the Fleming-Douglas business relationship.

The pattern of table values is consistent with that of other categories of goods. The price of the least expensive card tables, supplied by Wilson & Dawes, equaled that of the most costly card table in The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices. The more expensive inlaid card tables exported by Douglas were comparable in price to a Gillow and Company circular card table with banding and stringing estimated at slightly over £2. This price was also comparable with that of card tables made for Eliza Pinckney by Thomas Elfe in March 1768. The price of Fleming’s neat, oval, inlaid mahogany pembroke tables at £2.18, however, appears cheap compared to a Gillow and Company inlaid pembroke table with a round top costing over £5.18. Pricing clearly reflected the materials, ornament, and quality of workmanship in each object. As such, these comparisons generally situate the Douglas goods and hence the furnishings in Charleston’s Anglo interiors within the fashionable and relatively expensive realm of the London furniture market.27

The Douglas furnishings categorized as accouterments offer a final picture of how frequently and in what manner English goods could be sprinkled throughout the Charleston home. Many of these objects were made of wood and used for dining and dressing. The mahogany knife cases, wine coolers, and rum cases were undoubtedly used in dining rooms. Equipped with partitions and glass bottles, the rum cases not only offered elegant storage for spirits but also were portable enough to be carried to secondary residences or on trips. The multitude of commode and dressing boxes with differing sizes, glass shapes, and decorative details suggests that variety was important to Charlestonians interested in setting themselves apart with London-made furnishings. Such goods could be found in all corners of the home.

The mass export of these household accessories to Charleston necessitates a clarification of the relationship between the quantity of goods shipped and their cost. The goods that were generally inexpensive and exported in large numbers can be separated into two categories: objects that were not manufactured in the colonies (plate glass for mirrors and carpets), and objects that were generally less expensive than their locally made counterparts (looking glasses, dressing glasses, glassware, dining and tea accessories, and certain types of ironware). All of these goods enabled consumers to distinguish their homes through the purchase of relatively inexpensive and inconsequential luxuries from London.

Table 3 examines the quantity of minimum- and maximum-priced goods shipped by James Douglas. This summary demonstrates that the least expensive goods in a category were not necessarily exported in substantial quantities nor in larger quantities than the most expensive goods within the same category. What seems more significant, however, was the offering of a wide variety of goods from which a consumer could pick and choose. Walker & Beck exported only twelve of the cheapest looking glasses, which had oval metal frames and were identical in size and shape. The firm also provided thirty-six additional glasses with oval metal frames in different sizes. The suppliers of dining and dressing accessories and firedogs, shovels, and tongs also refrained from exporting large numbers of identical objects. As such, they gave consumers with different tastes, personal requirements, and interiors a wider selection of goods. The objects with low unit prices exported in the largest numbers were chairs. This finding suggests a significant demand for inexpensive London-made seating. Such objects, most likely used in multiple numbers, could be customized for individual households by means of upholstery.

Goods exported from London to Charleston for the general consumer were certainly less expensive than those custom-ordered by individuals; however, the household furnishings listed in Douglas’s account book were still of reasonable quality. They were more expensive than their standard counterparts in The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices but cheaper than similar goods produced by Gillow and Company, presumably because they were less elaborate, made of less expensive materials, or required less labor. The household furnishings exported by Douglas appealed to clients interested in acquiring fashionable London items but incapable of or uninterested in placing custom orders. Although these consumers may have been from a lower socioeconomic level than those who custom-ordered London goods, wealthy Charlestonians may also have purchased generic imports for secondary locations in their homes or to fill out sets or replace damaged objects. These imports allowed Charlestonians to follow London fashion and to exercise some degree of personal choice. They resembled genteel consumers in Britain, some of whom no doubt patronized the same firms that supplied Douglas.

The household goods, both custom and speculative, imported for Charleston consumers during the 1780s were typically those that made everyday life more commodious and pleasurable: looking glasses to adorn and illuminate living spaces; tables and accessories for gaming, dining, and serving tea (fig. 10); specialized case forms for dressing, writing, and storing clothing and books; and musical instruments. This pattern, which relates to what J. H. Plumb has called the “commercialization of leisure,” corresponds to an increased interest by affluent, genteel residents of colonial British America in pursuing private, leisurely activities. According to Plumb, culture and leisure in the public sphere ceased to be elitist in the eighteenth century. The goods serving private leisure activities thus became the means by which individuals of a certain social and economic class could distinguish themselves from others and articulate their status within the genteel society of the British Empire.28

If the importance of material possessions lies in what they say about an owner and his position within a complex social system, then what exactly do these imported household furnishings say about residents of Charleston in the 1780s? By furnishing their homes with London imports, Charlestonians were driven neither by low cost, necessity, nor inability to acquire similar, locally made objects. There must have been some intrinsic, singular value to owning these London goods. If “to have is to be,” then Charlestonians’ demand for imported, London-made luxuries was ultimately an act of conspicuous consumption with the end result being self-definition. Charleston citizens used such furnishings as a means of visually establishing their place in genteel British society as well as achieving more subtle distinctions within their own community.29