Jack Lindsey, with essays by Richard S. Dunn, Edward C. Carter II, and Richard Saunders. Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680–1758. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999. xxii +266 pp.; 506 color and bw illus., checklist, appendixes, bibliography, index. $65.00.

On October 10, 1999, the exhibition “Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680–1758” opened to the public at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show immersed visitors in an array of objects made (or sometimes used) in the Philadelphia region through the 1750s. Such striking new discoveries as the claw-and-ball-foot high chest dated 1743 and signed by “Jos. Claypoole,” or the several impressive early secretaries and host of small tables commanded one's attendance and attention. The sheer visual assault of so much concentrated material encouraged repeat visits. Twelve weeks later the exhibition was dismantled and the many privately owned objects returned, leaving only insufficient memories and the catalogue. This review addresses the catalogue with an emphasis on furniture.

Jack Lindsey, the exhibition curator and chief author of the catalogue, states in his preface that “attention on the Philadelphia rococo style has resulted, until very recently, in a gap in scholarship on the earlier period in Pennsylvania” (p. xiv). “Worldly Goods,” he goes on to say, “is the first attempt at a broader and more complete investigation.” Indeed, inadequate attention has been paid this fascinating and important time and place, which (at the very least) needs to be examined in order to understand better the learned and artistic culture and society of Philadelphia in the 1760s and 1770s. Lindsey's purpose, though, is to gather and present a comprehensive cross-section of objects that evoke or document what he characterizes as William Penn's “new social order” (p. 4). The 506 pieces of furniture, silver, base metals, glass, ceramics, textiles, scientific instruments, paintings, works on paper, and printed works he assembled burst the seams of the modest-sized, 266-page catalogue. By comparison, the Philadelphia Museum's own bicentennial exhibition catalogue Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, consumes 665 pages to discuss 546 objects. The 1982 “New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has 504 objects presented in a three-volume catalogue totaling 575 pages; and the catalogue The Great River: Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635–1850 (1985), from the exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum, devotes 525 pages to 354 objects.

The catalogue divides equally into interpretive essays followed by a checklist, a listing of woodworkers, clockmakers, and silversmiths, and a bibliography. All of the objects in the exhibition are illustrated in color or black and white. A select few images are large, occasionally full-size, but the great majority—including all of the ones of interest to this reviewer—are small, typically 3 x 2 1/2 inches or less. Fortunately, they are printed on a coated paper that maximizes available detail.

Five essays, including three by guest authors, interpret the material. Lindsey's introductory chapter characterizes Pennsylvania settlement as chaos receding in the face of evolving social order and growing prosperity. As evidence, he cites an increasingly rich and diverse material world. Philadelphians demonstrated this change through 1) more specific room use, 2) increasingly elaborate domestic and social rituals acted out with objects that were functionally more specific, and 3) greater efforts “to improve the signals sent to their neighbors and peers by their personal appearance and possessions” (pp. 4–5). Development along this path was rapid because of “natural abundance” and the “economic and investment potentials provided by the physical characteristics of the site” (p. 11). Lindsey sets this tranquil, conflict-free image of colonial settlement in stark contrast to long-term turmoil and devastation throughout Europe. Although some readers may object to this characterization, they must keep in mind that Worldly Goods is a celebration of “the richness and ingenuity of the aesthetic traditions and craftsmanship that made their way to the Delaware Valley” (p. 11).

In Richard S. Dunn's chapter, the author sketches a religious, political, and economic history of the region. He describes the circumstances of William Penn's founding of the colony, notes the ethnographic diversity of the region, and traces growth of the city through 1755. By that time, Philadelphia supported several intellectual and civic organizations as well as a level of commercial activity that presaged the leadership role it would play in establishing a new nation.

Edward C. Carter II writes of a similar sense of “foreshadowing,” to use his term, among the scientific community of Philadelphia. Here, Carter stretches the time frame to 1769, the year in which Philadelphians, notably David Rittenhouse, participated in an international effort to observe a transit of Venus. Favorable reaction abroad to Rittenhouse's work—taking both astronomical measurements calculated to determine the distance of the earth to the sun as well as earthly measurements of longitude that were essential for navigation—indicated that scientific pursuits in Philadelphia had come of age on the world stage. Regrettably, the more engaging aspects of this story lay beyond the boundaries of the exhibition, forcing readers to be content with early but tentative contributions of such facile minds as John Logan, John Bartram, and Benjamin Franklin.

To Richard Saunders, the last guest author, early Pennsylvania painting “came of age” from 1700 to 1750, not unlike Carter's scientific community. Saunders sees more ambition than ability in these immigrant painters, noting the unfavorable circumstances of frontier life. By 1735, he suggests, circumstances improved, due both to economics and a decline in Quakerism and its accompanying reluctance to support portraiture. John Smibert's arrival from Scotland heralded a new level of achievement, reinforced by the visit in 1746 of American-born Robert Feke. Philadelphia portraiture matured with painters such as John Hesselius, John Wollaston, and William Williams. That this artistic community nurtured Benjamin West affirms its coming of age on a world stage.

Jack Lindsey's essay entitled “Pondering Balance, the Decorative Arts of the Delaware Valley,” longer than the three guest essays combined, forms the heart of Worldly Goods. Many of the topics he presents spill into six additional decorative arts narratives, three of which introduce furniture, in the checklist section. Extrapolating from a 1751 letter in which a wealthy Philadelphia attorney expresses frustration with fitting out his new country house, Lindsey uses the concept of “balance” to introduce a theme of self-conscious awareness of beauty and refinement in the lives and homes of colonial Philadelphians. More specifically, the author speaks of “a growing worldliness” (p. 72), manifested in broad-based upward mobility, blurring (pp. 73–74) or growing (p. 78) class distinctions, and recession of Quaker leadership. Although these themes recur throughout Lindsey's work, they do not emerge as the basic interpretive message. His essay quickly assumes the shape of a more conventional decorative arts history: a discussion of domestic architecture and interiors yields to inventory studies to suggest the range of objects within these settings, and concludes with lengthy treatments of artisans in general, and furniture craftsmen, woodworking techniques, tools, and woods in particular. Along the way, the author takes special note of European sources.

In tracing Philadelphia's ethnic ties to Europe, visible in its material culture, Lindsey recognizes the Dutch so often that their influence seems second only to the English, with Welsh, German, and Swedish occupying a lower tier. Claims of Dutch influence, typically paired with English, are stated regularly in the furniture checklist narratives. In the absence of specific historical evidence supporting this assertion, the author's footnotes indicate his dependence for this interpretation upon the Dutch- English-American path of design transmission presented in “Courts and Colonies,” an exhibition commemorating the tercentenary of the accession of King William of the Netherlands to the English throne. But what may illuminate on a national level (assuming away the difficulties of translating Dutch and English court styles into American bourgeois styles) does not necessarily apply in Philadelphia. Nor do repeating the assertion and substituting kas, the Dutch term for a wardrobe, for the commonly used German term schrank (cat. no. 44), make it any more reliable. In fact, Lindsey seems to have gotten caught in his own web. In analyzing a particular chair (p. 163, cat. no. 146), he likens the carved crest to “Dutch and Scandinavian vernacular carving traditions,” offering no further explanation but footnoting Benno Forman's American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730: An Interpretive Catalogue. Yet Forman only speculates about possible Scandinavian (or North German) influences in turning and makes no mention of the Dutch.1

In contrast to relatively insignificant numbers of Dutch settlers in Philadelphia, waves of Scots-Irish and German immigrants entered the city in the 1720s and 1730s, respectively. In a study not referenced in the catalogue, Désirée Caldwell researched Philadelphia furniture makers from 1681 to 1755. Using a pool of 441 workers (over 200 more than recorded in the Worldly Goods compilation), she was able to determine some ethnic origins: 60 were German, 4 Dutch, and 1 was Dutch or German. In another study absent from footnotes and bibliography, Benno Forman explored the impact of the largest non-British ethnic group in the city in “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture.” Impact of the Scots-Irish remains largely unexamined. Worldly Goods would have benefited by addressing some of these larger themes. Instead, Lindsey's characterization of wainscot chairs as “the local convergence of stylistically related yet culturally separate English, Welsh, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian traditions of construction and techniques” (p. 158) aptly represents his broader acceptance of a homogenized material world. Following this reasoning, there is no basis to describe the characteristics that distinguish a six-board chest identified as “of Swedish type” (cat. no. 17) or that typify the many Dutch influences Lindsey observes.2

The text displays an acceptance of conventional wisdom in areas that may need to be reexamined. Was all furniture made with line-and-berry inlay of Chester County manufacture only (p. 138)? The elegant and urbane dressing table with the date of 1724 inlaid within line-and-berry decoration in the top (cat. no. 52) is one of several objects likely made in Philadelphia. Local chairs made to compete with “Boston” chairs in the 1740s are once again presented as outmoded William and Mary–styled leather-back chairs, despite preponderant evidence that Philadelphia chairmakers responded with more fashionable Queen Anne–styled splat-back chairs. “Irish” dovetailed leg tenons have German roots and actually may have come to Ireland via late-seventeenth-century German immigrants to England.3

Occasional lapses in a work as far-reaching and complex as Worldly Goods should not discolor the whole, but numerous simple factual errors and questionable interpretations exist. Figure 120, for example, is an ink drawing that purports to show the back of the famous Slate Roof House built by Samuel Carpenter in the late seventeenth century and demolished in 1868. But this “Carpenter Mansion” looks like a different building entirely from William Strickland’s ink wash of the Slate Roof House shown in figure 177 (see cat. nos. 478 and 480). None of the rooflines and chimneys seems to correspond, and no explanation of the differences is provided. The author identifies the two claw-and-ball-foot stools illustrated as figure 158 and catalogue no. 108 as part of a rare set of four documented by a 1756 bill; the two unillustrated stools are listed as owned by Winterthur Museum. However, the wary reader must check other published sources to learn that Winterthur owns a set of four stools that differ in having pad feet and are actually the documented set in question.4

One of the essential functions of a catalogue is to record by words and images the objects assembled for exhibition. The three other catalogues mentioned above are classics in the American furniture canon because of the information they contain. Worldly Goods provides only a checklist and a single, small photograph. A few photographic details are scattered through the essays. About half of the entries have a one- or two-line statement of provenance or significance. Attributions and references to bills or other documentation are not footnoted. There are neither construction notes nor statements of condition, and furniture woods are incomplete. The photograph of the great caned Thomas Lloyd armchair at Winterthur (cat. no. 137) appears to have been one taken in 1976 before restoration of arm-support losses.

The dating of objects is often an acid test of identification and significance (and value in the marketplace). Comparison of dates and date ranges for several Philadelphia Museum objects previously published in museum catalogues reveals that dating has drifted earlier, and in some instances jumped, without explanation. A clockface (cat. no. 422) by Francis Richardson, Jr., published in 1974 as ca. 1735, is re-dated ca. 1715–25, when the maker would have been ten to twenty years old. In the intervening years, this clockface also acquired cast spandrels, but no mention of the change occurs.5

Exhibitions such as “Worldly Goods” are enormous undertakings that consume prodigious quantities of time and money. Their complexities and scale generally limit them to large institutions of national stature, which bring not only the necessary skills and resources but also prestige, excitement, and a sense of moment. The catalogues accompanying these efforts carry weight and influence by association with the institutions and projects, in addition to their own substance and contributions. As permanent records, exhibition catalogues bear an opportunity cost: they must be done well because many years will pass before museum directors and funders agree to revisit the material or themes. Moreover, objects in private ownership will generally not be accessible except through the catalogue. Successful exhibitions and catalogues feed scholarship in the intervening years. Indeed, Worldly Goods brings to view many new objects that must now be worked into the corpus of Philadelphia furniture. It should inspire reexamination of this important time and place in the history and appreciation of American decorative arts.

Philip D. Zimmerman
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

1. For examples, see pp. 129, 130, 132, 134, 136, 150, 158, 160, 163, and 165.

2. Désirée Caldwell, “Germanic Influences on Philadelphia Early Georgian Seating Furniture” (M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1985), appendix I, pp. 88–114. Benno M. Forman, “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture” in Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, edited by Scott T. Swank (New York: W. W. Norton for Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1983), pp. 102–70.

3. William Macpherson Hornor, Jr., cites this dressing table as a paradigm of Philadelphia furniture making and presents evidence of inlay work in Philadelphia in Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture: William Penn to George Washington (Philadelphia: privately printed, 1935), pp. 10, 34. See also Cathryn J. McElroy, “Furniture in Philadelphia: The First Fifty Years,” in American Furniture and Its Makers: Winterthur Portfolio 13, edited by Ian M. G. Quimby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 69–70. See Philip D. Zimmerman, “Philadelphia Queen Anne Chairs in the Collections of Wright's Ferry Mansion,” Antiques 149, no. 5 (May 1996): 742-43. The only statement of Irish origin known to this reviewer is a single chair, identified as Irish without substantiation, in John T. Kirk, American Furniture and the British Tradition to 1830 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), nos. 822–24. See Caldwell, “Germanic Influences,” pp. 28–46; and Zimmerman, “Philadelphia Queen Anne Chairs,” p. 739, n. 23.

4. Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (1952; reprint, New York: Viking Press, 1967), no. 294. Both sets of stools are illustrated and discussed in Hornor, Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture, p. 199, pls. 51 and 309, although the pad-foot example is described as one of a pair.

5. The Pennsylvania German Collection (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982); Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976). Compare cat. nos. 6, 46, 70, 98, 110, 129, and 164. Cat. no. 112 is dated slightly later. Martha Gandy Fales, Joseph Richardson & Family, Philadelphia Silversmiths (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1974), p. 29.