Bartram Family Joiner Chest Over Drawers, Part 2


I found the Bartram Family joiner chest over drawers in a corner on the balcony at Pook & Pook, Inc.  It did not rate the main gallery on the ground floor, but then, it is not a complex furniture form, it’s not made of walnut , and while its primary wood species is a softwood, it is not paint decorated.


There is a surprise waiting when you open the lid and drawers – all of the interior surfaces, except for the till, have newspapers affixed to them.  The pages of newsprint are from various papers published in Philadelphia and West Chester (not far the auction house) and range in date from the late 1830s to the mid-1850s.


There is a till is on the right side of the chest compartment (proper left) that is made from riven white oak.   Two small drawers that sit below the till are also made of riven oak but with riven white cedar bottoms. These dovetails are not wedged but the dovetails of the hard pine chest and the drawers below it are.  The front, sides, and back are rebated and the drawers run on their bottoms.


True to this turners design sense, there are multiple score lines on the small knobs of the till drawers.


The dovetails of the chest and the two bottom drawers are wedged, hard pine wedges for the pine chest and oak for the oak drawer sides.


The brass hardware is original, the chest compartment lock is replaced.  The drops are attached with iron cotter pins.


Adam Bowett describes this type of drawer as “second-phase construction”.  The bottom fits in a groove in the front, it is nailed to the sides and back, then runners are added at the sides, raising the bottom so that it doesn’t bind or rub on dustboards, or in this case, the frame supporting the drawers at bottom of the chest.  The drawer side, the bottom, and the runner are visible at the sides of the drawer.


The back board is yellow-poplar, the only use of this species in the chest. This is also the case for the spice box attributed to this joiner.


The oak feet are turned in the idiosyncratic design of other turnings attributed to this shop.  There is local wear to the largest element of the feet but otherwise they are in very crisp condition and turning gouge marks are visible on the more protected areas such as the tall reel or neck.

A chest over drawers was a less expensive option than a four-tier chest of drawers.  It also may have been easier to maneuver up winder stairs – in some cases, cost may not have been the main influence towards purchase.  John Head charged Christopher Topham 1 pound, 5 shillings for a “pin (pine) chest with 2 drawers”, less than half the cost of a many of his four-tier chests of drawers.  As we don’t know what Head’s chest looked like, we cannot directly compare it with the chest at Pook & Pook, Inc.  Did Head provide a till – with the addition of a pair of drawers below?  Were there locks on the lower drawers?

All in all, the Bartram family joiners chest over drawers appears to be the finest and costliest version of the form available at the time. There is the same level of workmanship seen in the more complex and expensive furniture from this shop, good quality, old growth wood is used throughout, all three storage areas are fit with iron locks, brass hardware is present (iron, instead of brass, cotter pins were used, either a slight downgrade or brass cotters were not available at the time the chest was made), and there is a till with additional drawers below.  All standing on those superb, skillfully made feet.


Bartram Family Joiner Chest Over Drawers

screenshot_2019-01-02 pennsylvania william and mary pine blanket chest - $800

Pook & Pook Ink. Americana and International Sale Day Two, January 12, 2019, lot 364.

On January 12, 2019, Pook & Pook Inc. will be auctioning a hard pine chest, 1720-1730, that can be attributed to the Bartram family joiner.  In previous blog posts I highlighted furniture attributed to this shop including an oval table and a dressing table made for James and Elizabeth Maris Bartram who were married in 1725.

The large turned feet from this shop are distinctive.

On the largest spherical shape of the turning, a deeply scored line is flanked by two thin scribed lines.  Pronounced scoring lines are also added to small elements that other turners left unadorned, such as the top element of the feet shown above. The turned feet on the chest at Pook & Pook Inc. share both the design vocabulary and turning details found on the other objects attributed to this shop.


Chest of drawers, attributed to the Bartram Family joiner.

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Spice box, attributed to the Bartram Family joiner.

The base moulding on the Pook & Pook chest is identical to that on the chest of drawers and spice box discussed in previous posts.  The cornice of the spice box is the same profile inverted.


Chest of drawers, attributed to the Bartram Family joiner with wedged dovetails.

The dovetails at the corners of the Pook & Pook Inc. chest appear to be  similarly angled and  spaced to the dovetails of drawers seen in other objects attributed to the Bartram family joiner.  The chest will need to be examined to determine if the dovetails are wedged, as the dovetails in other forms attributed to this shop are.


John Head account book, American Philosophical Society.

The cabinetmaker John Head debited for fourteen chests.  A single chest was described as a “pin (pine) chest with 2 drawers”, debited to “Cristofar Topam,” This description coresponds to the Pook & Pook Inc. chest.  No chests or chests over drawers that can be attributed to John Head have been identified.





Re-framing History, John and Rebecca Head’s Home

John Head left “my House and Lot or piece of ground in Mulberry Street wherein I now dwell, joyning to Mary Pounds Lott” to his daughter Mary Head Lawrence. The house was on the north side of Arch Street (the name of the street was changed from Mulberry to Arch before the end of the eighteenth century), 40 feet east of Third Street, on a lot measuring 20 by 110 feet.  It was demolished before 1874.  The fact that John Head’s house and shop did not survive to the tercentenary of the earliest dated entry in his account book is not surprising.  No shops where joiners, cabinetmakers, or carvers working in the eighteenth century survive in Philadelphia.  Most did not survive into the 1860s when there was at least a chance they might be recorded on film.  So it was a wonderful surprise that during research for The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753, an albumen print made by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870 was uncovered in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia that included Head’s house and shop appearing very much as it would have during the eighteenth century.  The photograph was made to document the newly constructed Union National Bank Building on the northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, but at the right side of the image – 40 feet east of Third Street – is the house that John and Rebecca Head built for use as a home and shop and that Head at his death left to his daughter Martha.


Photograph by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870.  Library Company of Philadelphia.


Detail of photograph by Robert Newell (1822-1897) c. 1870.  Library Company of Philadelphia.  The home of John and Rebecca Head and their family.

Insurance surveys of the property were conducted in 1757 and 1784 for the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (formed in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin and his fellow volunteer firefighters.)  The surveys describe the house as 16 feet wide by 22 feet deep with three stories in the front and two at the back. There were two brick buildings at the back of the property, an 18 feet 2 inches by 9 feet wide kitchen and a 23 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 6 inches back building, both two stories high.  In 1784 the property was described as “old and very plane, the Roofs much worn.”  Head needed space for a shop in which he and apprentices could work, storage for wood, and a place to keep completed furniture while finish was applied and before it was delivered or picked up.  Did Head have his shop on the first story at the front of his house as so many others working at a craft did or did he use that space as a small showroom for completed work and goods for barter and have his shop in the building behind the kitchen?


Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co.  Northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, Philadelphia.

The Union National Bank Building was itself demolished by the turn of the twentieth century.  The Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co. constructed the building currently at the northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets between 1902 and 1907.  The building went through a series of owners over the next century .  In the twenty-first century it became the setting for the fifteenth season of MTV’s reality television show The Real World, with 42 cameras and a disco ball installed for the series.   The building is currently the headquarters of Linode, a company providing cloud hosting services.

While the Old City section of Philadelphia is still a haven for the arts with numerous art galleries, artist studios, and shops, the area is also imagining future possibilities – N3RD is the newly minted designation for the Old City/Northern Liberties tech corridor.


Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co.  Northeast corner of Third and Arch Streets, detail.

Buildings may come and go but property lines tend to stay put.  In the photo above, the bulkhead cellar door in the sidewalk begins exactly 40 feet east of Third Street, approximately where the alley to the west of Head’s home seen in the 1870 photo was located.  It is 18 feet from the right side of the cellar door to the end of the bank building. Head’s plot is mapped out for us almost exactly in the modern streetscape, from the cellar door to the banks east wall.


North side of Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets, Philadelphia.

On the same side of Arch Street that Head’s house once stood, at the middle of the block between Second and Third Streets, there is a group of two and three story houses that were very likely built in the eighteenth century.  The pair of three story houses at the right share several architectural features with Head’s house – belt courses formed of brick between the second and third story windows (there is also a belt course between the first and second stories of Head’s house.  New facades at street level cover this detail on the surviving houses), arched brick headers on the second story windows, and the second and third story windows are placed asymmetrically, an arrangement that disappeared when small row houses no longer needed to accommodate multiple fireplaces and their flues.


217 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

The gable roof was converted to a flat roof and a nineteenth century cornice was added to the building in the above image. The first story fronts of this row of houses have been altered as various businesses have come and gone over the centuries, and the brick has been painted, but these houses, and other like them that survive in the Old City and Society Hill neighborhoods of Philadelphia, assist in our connection with the past, so much of which has been lost, including Head’s home, the other houses he had built in town and a country house he built for himself and his family on Frankford Road in the Northern Liberties. (Head’s dealing in real estate is extensively detailed in his account book and the entries clarified in The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753.)

We can’t fail to mention another eighteenth century house that stands on Arch Street across a courtyard to the east of the Corn Exchange National Bank and Trust Co. building.  Commonly known as the “Betsy Ross House”, the historic maker on site does not make the claim that Betsy Ross ever lived here.  But as a tourist destination open to the public, and with the first story front room set up as an upholstery shop, visitors can walk into the space and feel how a house very similar in plan to Head’s might have been used as a working space.



IMG_6178adjAdam Bowett said in his forward to The Cabinetmaker’s Account, John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718-1753 that “the discovery of the account book and the dissemination of its contents … confirms John Head’s prominence in the history of Philadelphia as well as in the history of American furniture making.”  There may be no plaque on Arch Street, 40 feet east of Third Street today commemorating the Head family, but we have the evidence that there could be.


“To a Walnut Dask”, Part II, The Writing Compartment.


Writing compartment of the desk attributed to John Head. Made in Philadelphia, 1720-1740. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar, brass, iron. Private collection.

For a lack of other surviving desks that can be attributed to John Head’s shop, we have no way of knowing if the writing compartment is typical of his work.  More or less elaborate interiors may account for some part of the range of prices Head charged for desks.

Along the back at the center of the writing compartment are five divided openings over three drawers.  In front of the drawers is a board that slides towards the back revealing another storage space commonly called a well.  Wells were a common device seen on desks in the first decades of the eighteenth century, but by the late 1730s, they were were on their way out of favor, replaced by an additional drawer above the long drawers of the desk that could only be accessed when the fall was closed.  The desk is “winged”, a term found in Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work, Philadelphia, 1772 which refers to the fact the pair of drawers on the sides of the writing compartment have “flown” past the central bank of drawers, creating framing for longer drawers that could fit documents and writing implements that the shorter drawers at the center could not accommodate.


The fronts of the “wing” dividers are double-arch moulded, the other dividers are single-arched.


A filet and cove motif reoccurs everywhere on the desk, as it does in all Head’s designs for furniture. The wings are a large version of this motif and here, on the valences along the top of the writing compartment, Head created a miniature version.

interior drawer.adj

The drawers in the writing compartment utilize Head’s system of drawer part identification.


The drawer fronts have saw kerfs that extend past the gauge lines as we’ve come to expect in drawers made in Head’s shop, but, like the long drawers of the desk, they are not as long as other examples we’ve seen.  We know that Head had apprentices and it’s operations such as this technical example of sawing, which Head had no reason to control or compel an apprentice or journeyman to do differently and which had no effect on the outward appearance of an object, where we can observe the work of different hands.


 Ink spills and ink stains are found in a majority of historic desks.   A large swath of the bottom of this drawer is stained with a dark ink.  Head constructed the small drawers of the writing compartment in a different manner than the large, long drawers.  The bottom board is fit to rebates in the sides and back as well as the fronts.  A user of the desk would work more intimately with these drawers, view them more closely and when working, might remove them and sit them on the writing surface for easy access to their contents.  The rebated bottom makes for a neater appearance, with no edge or end grain of the bottom visible. Notice that the bottom corners where the sides and back meet are mitered.  In this case, it is not decorative or for neatness of appearance – the top corners are not mitered – but an efficient way to deal with dovetailing boards that are rebated.

Owners of desks, their family members, and others conversant with desk construction in general would have been acquainted with the structure and use of wells, even without the presence of a finger pull carved in the well lid that would suggest the board was meant to move.  (To open the well lid you must apply light pressure with you hand on the top surface and begin pushing it towards the back, once open far enough you can push on the edge of the board to open it fully.) But only those with intimate knowledge of this desk would have known of its hidden compartment.  The two sections of double arch moulding framing the sides of the well lid appear to be glued and/or nailed to the framing members of the writing compartment as, indeed, the moulding at the front of the well is.  But they are not fastened, and when they are carefully removed, a narrow drawer below the center row of drawers, its front decoratively moulded, can be slid forward –  a hidden storage space is revealed.


Looking down at the floor of the writing compartment.  Double-arch moulding surrounds the well.


But the mouldings at the sides are loose, held in place by the fact they are notched into the moulding below the center drawers.


When both side mouldings are removed, the hidden drawer can be slid forward.  In this view, the well lid is pushed to the back of the desk.


In this view the well lid and hidden drawer have been removed.  Alas, not gold coins were found!


A front corner of the hidden drawer, dovetailed and nailed.


The nailed on bottom of the hidden drawer.


Scribe lines for nailing the dividing strips in the hidden drawer.  Along with dividing the long, narrow drawer into compartments, the strips add strength to the rather thin bottom board.


No dovetails at the rear corners of the hidden drawer and the back is split into three segments with the dividing strips continuing to the back of the drawer.  Glue and nails hold this drawer together.


The under side of the well lid.  There are rebates at the front and sides and two carved finger pulls at the front.


A chiseled and gouged finger pull.

Next: “To a Walnut Dask”, Part III, Various and Sundry.

John Head his Book of Accounts

In advance of the book launch tonight at the American Philosophical Society, the APS has finalized the John Head’s account book digitization project.  It is now available for all to view online.  We can’t thank the APS enough for their effort.

More news is that the APS will be live streaming the event tonight beginning at 6:00 pm EST.  Scroll down in the link.


To quote Joe Pantoliano playing Perry Parker, “That’s too momentous!”

“To a Walnut Dask” Part I

In the account book of the joiner John Head (1688-1754) there are debit entries for 45 desks, the first entry coming in 1719, two years after Head immigrated from England to Philadelphia, the last in 1742, two years before he ended his production of furniture.

Compared to chests of drawers, there are few extant desks made before 1740 that can be attributed to the Delaware River Valley.  To date, only one desk, in a private collection, has been attributed to the shop of John Head.

For an unsigned or undocumented object to be attributed to a specific maker, the object must conform in multiple and significant ways to signed or otherwise documented objects from that maker.  Some features regarded as characteristic of furniture documented to the shop of John Head have been discussed in previous posts. The desk described and illustrated below follows the construction, design, and idiosyncratic drawer marking system of the Wistar family documented high chest and dressing table while at the same time expanding of our knowledge of Head’s woodworking ability and inventiveness.

three quarters

Three-quarter view of a desk attributed to John Head. Made in Philadelphia, 1720-1740. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar, brass, iron. Private collection.


The fall opens to the writing compartment of the desk.

back d.

The three long drawer that vary in height are all marked in white chalk with a semi-circle and single vertical slash placed at the center of the backs.

back d

The two short drawers of similar height have Head’s unique system of whorls, Vs, and slashes used to identify drawer parts that are the same height. Marks from a bench hook can be seen along the upper edge of the back.


d 2

Sawing past the gauge line on the interior of the drawer fronts to facilitate removal of waste from the recesses for the dovetails cut on the sides.


The drawers of the desk are made in the same manner as the Wistar family chests. The long drawers have deep rebates on the front twice the thickness of the cedar bottoms. Hard pine runners are glued to the bottoms at the sides. The witness from a sprig, used as a clamp while the glue used to attach the runner dried, can be seen two inches back from the front edge of the runner.


This desk has seen considerable use to the extent that the hard pine drawer runners are entirely worn away in places.  The wear offers us a glimpse into Head’s working practice, full size rosehead nails, like used use at the front and back of the drawer bottom, were also used along the sides, concealed under the runners.


As on the Wistar chests, full height, square section drawer stops are nailed and glued to the sides of the desk immediately in front of the backboards.


By their nature, desks require more complex joinery solutions than chests of drawers. This view shows a drawer opening for one of a pair of drawers that, when withdrawn, support the hinged writing surface. No double-arch moulding can be used on the rail the fall is hinged to as it would interfere with the fall when opened. The joinery of the rail to side is thus exposed, revealing that Head used the most elaborate form of a dovetail housing joint.

lip drawer

Head used the absence of moulding around the fall support drawers to create a drawer front unlike any other in furniture documented or attributed to him, he extended the drawer fronts past the sides to act as stops, creating one of the earliest instances of a lipped drawer front made in Philadelphia.  Head used lipped waist doors on some of his clock cases, as those doors could not be stopped with blocks at the back of the case as the drawers of the desk are and clock door hinges were prone to damage if inadvertently pushed past the closed position.  There was a different reason to use a lip on these drawers however, as Head could easily have placed stops at the back of the drawer opening as he did on the all the other drawers of the desk.  Double or single arch moulding on case furniture was decorative but had another important function.  Mouldings surrounding the drawer fronts helped disguise the fact that sides, tops, and bottoms of furniture constructed of dovetailed boards eventually shrank while the front to back length of the drawers did not.  When the sides of the desk ultimately shrunk, drawers without lips would have sat noticeably proud of the sides and rails.

lid top.2

One of the biggest technical surprises of the desk is that Head used a mitered-dovetail to join the top of the desk to the sides.

corner detail

Sometimes called a blind miter-dovetail, the joinery is completely concealed with no end grain visible.  This desk joint is further complicated by the 45 degree slope of the side and the angled edge at the front of the top board that mates with the top edge of the fall.  There is a level of sophistication and neatness in the use of this joint at the corners of a desk the belies the description of Head as solely a joiner to the middling class.  This joint is rarely seen on desks made anywhere in the Colonies throughout the eighteenth century.  The most refined cabinetmakers would typically lap-dovetail the sides of a desk to the top of even their most elaborate creations.

back corner.jpg

The miter-dovetail top-to-side joint seen from the back of the desk.

Next: “To a Walnut Desk” Part II, The Writing Compartment


Jackson in Miami

The Moderne Gallery of Philadelphia is exhibiting at Design Miami and the gallery is including Daniel Jackson’s (October 18, 1938- August 3, 1995) “Rocking Unicorn” in their booth.   I wrote about the rocker a year ago here.  It had recently arrived at the Moderne Gallery, coincidentally, from an estate in Florida.   At the gallery, the rocker appeared to have landed back in Philadelphia, where it was made, as if an apparition from an alternative galaxy, its sensuality and animism so different than the other objects surrounding it.  I expect the effect is the same at DesignMiami/Art Basel.  If you have the space…