It wasn’t my intent to start a discussion of the clock cases documented and attributed to John Head’s shop until later this year, but to be topical I must mention this 8-day clock by Peter Stretch (1670-1746) in a black cherry case attributed to Head to be sold as lot 6054 of the E. Newbold and Margaret duPont Smith collection at Sotheby’s on January 21.


Photo Sotheby’s

The substantial pre-sale estimate is based on several factors including the sale of a clock by Peter Stretch in a carved mahogany clock case in 2006 for $1,688,000, now in the collection of Winterthur Museum. In addition, the dial of this clock is arguably the loveliest made by the Stretch’s, versions of it appearing on clocks signed by both Peter and William Stretch, that were most likely made throughout the 1730s. There is herringbone engraving along the edges of the dial plate, the complication in the arch shows both the phases of the moon and the times of high and low tide in Philadelphia, (which is, of course, “tied” to the moon’s apparent motion) and a specially designed pierced and engraved name boss has the makers name and city surrounded by foliate scrolls, a pair of birds in flight (Time flies!), and the motto of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, the City of London livery company established by Royal Charter granted by King Charles I in 1631, “Tempus Rerum Imperator”, or Time is the ruler of (all) things. That the case can be attributed to a specific maker adds to its cachet.


Photo Sotheby’s

The catalogue description references Jay R. Stiefel’s “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner” citing the two cherry clock cases Head debited to Peter Stretch. (Head charged £5.0.0 for arched cases of woods other than walnut, including cedar, cherry, maple and mahogany. The two cherry clock cases were debited to Stretch in 1732 and 1737.) The catalogue doesn’t mention cherry clock cases Head supplied to Edmund Woolley in 1723 and John Morris in 1736, though they are featured in Stiefel’s article. While the Smith/Sotheby’s case is almost certainly too late to be the one Woolley purchased in 1723, Morris may have purchased a Peter Stretch movement for his cherry clock case. In Head’s accounts, there are several other charges of £5.0.0 for clock cases with no wood designation, several of these may have been made of cherry. Adding up the cherry clock cases in Head’s accounts and the other possible cherry clock cases debited at £5.0.0 but with no wood designation, Head’s output of cherry clock cases would total perhaps a half-a-dozen to a dozen at most. We currently attribute no other extant cherry clock cases to the shop of John Head, indeed, no other furniture forms made of cherry have been attributed to Head. The use of “Rare” in the catalogue description is fitting.


Debit to John Morris on 3/14/1736 for a cherry clock case.

With John Head debiting his last cherry clock case in 1737, his ending his furniture production in 1744, and Peter Stretch’s demise in 1746 you wonder why the auction house dates the clock to “circa 1750”. Nit picking? Perhaps, but even auction houses don’t regularly date objects after the death date of the maker. “Circa 1735” would more accurately reflect the style of the dial and the evidence of Head’s accounts.

I worked in the shop that restored this case in the early 1980s. It is in very intact condition as these cases go though perhaps not quite as good as the catalogue description leads on. I’m not exactly sure why we gilded the hood column capitals and bases and picked out some of the mouldings with japanning. It’s not something I would do today. Perhaps the fact that the case has a brass oculus surround in the waist door prompted the gilding. Of the dozens of clock cases we now attribute to the John Head shop, if a brass oculus is present, the hood columns employ cast-brass mounts at their capitals and bases. When the oculus surround is wood, the columns are turned entirely of wood. This case is an anomaly in regard to the materials of the surround and column capitals and bases.


Brass oculus on the waist door and turned wood hood columns. Photo Sotheby’s

Stiefel writes of Head’s phonetic spelling in his supplementary article, “The Head Account Book as Artifact.” What today we know as black cherry (Prunus seotina), Head wrote variously as “Charetre”, Chare Tree”, Chari Tree”, and “Chary Treewood.” Making entries in his ledger in the last hours of daylight of a long summer’s day, or by candlelight in winter, Head spelled it as he spoke it.


A variant spelling of cherry, used in making a “Chest of drawers and Table.”


Head debited a clock case at 5 pounds along with a clock delivered to Peter Stretch to Jonathan Miflin in 1729. The undesignated primary wood could have been, cherry, maple, mahogany, or cedar. An interesting exchange at the bottom of the page – rewritten from another page in the ledger – continues the account of “John Loyd” with debits to his wife for the purchase of her husbands coffin and the exchange of her walnut chest of drawers for a “Charitree” chest.

In May 1999, during research on other material in the George Vaux Papers that in 1992 had been deposited at the American Philosophical Society, Jay R. Stiefel discovered an extraordinary record of the shop production and barter of goods and services of the immigrant joiner John Head (born Suffolk, England 1688 – died Philadelphia 1754.) The vellum-covered volume found by Stiefel contained “231 pages of densely written entries, under hundreds of account names chronicling the daily transactions of an active commercial enterprise over a thirty-five-year period: 1718-1753. They establish John Head as one of Philadelphia’s principal cabinetmakers. The account book is essential reading for anyone interested in early Philadelphia furniture and the activities and identities of those who made it, or who bartered labor and commodities to acquire it.” Essential reading it is – though you would have to live in, or get to, Philadelphia with plenty of time on your hands to do so. Luckily, in 2001, Stiefel produced for the web-based APS Library Bulletin an in-depth interpretation of Head’s book of accounts titled “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner” along with an associated essay “The Account Book as Artifact”, which, as the editors of the bulletin note, “bring a piece of early Philadelphia to life, situating a productive, but little known artisan, John Head, within the larger context of early colonial society and economy.” I printed my own copy of the APS Bulletin and have used it as an important reference over the years. I was also able to print a facsimile of the account book from micro-film though it is not complete and the sides of the pages are clipped off reducing its effectiveness as a research tool.


A page from John Head’s account book showing transactions with Peter Stretch (1670-1746). Along with many debits for clock cases is an order for a maple chest of drawers and table, presumably for Stretch’s personal use, and a coffin for Samuel Stretch. On the credit side of the ledger, Stretch is paying Head in clock movements and clock case hinges among other goods.

In 1717, at the age of 29 or 30, John Head immigrated from Suffolk, England to Philadelphia with his wife Rebecca (m. 1712) and young family. He was then a fully trained joiner who would likely have worked as a journeyman for one or more established joiners in England in the 5 years after his marriage and before his immigration to America. Entries in his account book begin in 1718 and by 1744, at age 56, he was ceasing furniture production. Stiefel tallied numbers of forms made between those years demonstrating Head’s importance in the furniture trade and the building and furnishing of the growing village or town of Philadelphia. 118 chests of drawers, 26 suites of chest of drawers and a table, 55 oval tables, 52 bedsteads, 91 clock cases, 19 cradles, 5 corner cupboards, 11 close-stools, 3 clothes presses, and 73 coffins. Makes me tired just to think of producing that amount of work in just over a quarter century.

An order for a chest of drawers and table debited to Caspar Wistar on June 14, 1726 were the first objects to be documented to Head. In 1999 Stiefel alerted the curators of the exhibition “Worldly Goods” – a celebration of decorative art made in Philadelphia before 1758 that would open later that year – of his discovery of the account book. The high chest and dressing table, long in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had descended from Wistar’s wife Catherine Johnson Wistar and were donated to the PMA in 1928.


High chest and dressing table, made in Philadelphia, 1726, by John Head for the German immigrant Caspar Wistar and his wife Catherine Johnson (or Jansen) Wistar at the time of their marriage. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 2008 Stiefel, Alan Anderson and I wrote about the Wistar high chest and dressing table and a clock case debited to Wistar by John Head on April 30, 1730. We had been working for several years to identify work that could be either attributed or documented to Head’s shop through account book entries, family histories, and distinctive construction techniques employed in the construction of the objects. At that time, we had identified over 40 objects. Today the list has grown to over 60 objects covering many – but not all- of the forms cited in the account book including high chests, dressing tables, chest-on-chests, chests of drawers, clock cases, a desk, and a spice chest. Additionally, “Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers” by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III was published in 2013. In it Head’s work for Peter and William Stretch was discussed and numerous clocks in cases attributed to Head were illustrated.


A clock by William Graham in a case attributed to John Head. Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is a before conservation treatment photograph.


The back of the hood of the William Graham clock case attributed to John Head. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

We wrote our 2008 article in advance of the tercentenary of Head’s arrival in Philadelphia with the idea that we had almost 9 years to continue our research and create interest among local institutions who might consider some small exhibition or event to commemorate the arrival of an immigrant family who, to all appearances, seamlessly integrated themselves into the day-to-day life of a young American colony.

We have made many discoveries and have continued to collect data since then, and now, in January 2017, the tercentenary has arrived. While I know of no commemorative events planned so far to celebrate Head’s arrival, over the following months I will begin examining the shop traditions and products of his shop, placing them in the context of his contemporary craftsmen. It is believed that Head’s account book might soon be scanned and digitized for the web where it may be used as a resource for historians. Let’s hope that event happens in 2017.

The APS Bulletin on the John Head account book can be found here:

Our article on the documented objects can be found here:

An excerpt from Fennimore and Hohmann’s book on the Stretch family can be found here:


A single drawer dressing table attributed to John Head. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Update, the spice box has sold at Freeman’s for $21,250. Well above the $4,000 – 6,000 estimate. No doubt the Freeman’s cataloger was surprised.

I’m sure and “old” door will be promptly found, but what exactly should it look like?

lot 24

lot 24

Tomorrow Freeman’s will be selling the Estate of Andre and Nancy Brewster of Maryland, a small collection of 33 lots. Lot 24 is a rare spice box made in Philadelphia that can be attributed to an anonymous joiner’s shop that produced some of the most opulent furniture made in Philadelphia during the 1720s. The appearance of an object heretofore unknown that we can be reasonably sure was made in Philadelphia in the first three decades of the eighteenth century is a rare occurrence and I was happy to be able to examine and photograph the spice box before it disappears again.


With the drawers removed.

bottom case

The deep base moulding with shaped lower edges was cut to fit around the top element of the turned feet.


A big surprise was the single piece backboard of yellow poplar, an early use of this wood species in Philadelphia County although it is used sparingly on another object from this shop.

bottom drawer

The front of the bottom drawer, probably with the original escutcheon.

Although it is not noted in the catalogue, the original door that swung on pintle hinges is missing. The brass pulls are modern but the escutcheon on the bottom drawer is likely original. Otherwise the spice box is in good condition for an object that is almost three hundred years old.


One side of the middle drawer. Riven oak drawer sides and backs are seen on a number of the other tables made in this shop.


Rear dovetails on the middle drawer. This shop consistently saws steep angled dovetail joints and wedges the tails.


Another construction practice of this shop seen on both large and small drawers is fitting the Atlantic white cedar drawer bottoms to rabbets on all four sides.


Sides of the small drawers. Steep, wedged dovetails and rabbeted bottoms.


There is little to no kerfing of the lap dovetails at the front corners.


Another refinement seen on all drawers attributed to this shop are mitered rear drawer corners.

A note taped to the bottom of a drawer, probably written by the Brewster’s, describes it as a “Diminutive size Georgian Burl Walnut spice chest, England circa late 18th century, Gift of N. B. White 1974″. But we know better, although it is unclear if Freeman’s does as the spice box is catalogued as a “William and Mary Spice Chest 18th century with no location of manufacture.



Base moulding and feet.


The bottom and cleats supporting the base moulding which the feet are attached to are made of sawn oak.

Two other objects that can be attributed to this shop are the large oval table made for James and Elizabeth Bartram inlaid with the date of their marriage, 1725, and a dressing table in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made for Elizabeth Maris Bartram before her marriage to James inlaid with her initials EM and the date 1724.


The James and Elizabeth Bartram Oval table, inlaid with the date 1724.


Elizabeth Maris Bartram’s dressing table, inlaid with the date 1724. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28. The stretchers along with the center foot and finial are replaced.


The dressing table’s inlaid top. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28


Comparison of a foot from the dressing table, left, and the spice box, right.


The green cast of the un-oxidized yellow poplar backboard.

The auction begins tomorrow at 10 am. I am not bidding and have not been contacted by anyone with an interest in the box. It remains to be seen how collectors and dealers will react to the loss of the door, certainly there will be those will can’t abide it. But it is a rare thing. Plain, but I like it. If the spirit of N. B. White moves any of you, I’d be happy to receive it as a gift in this holiday season. I’d even paste a note with your name on it inside.

You can’t say you never got a scoop here.


Waiting for a new home after 42 years in the Brewster’s collection.

Thomas Nevell’s copy of the Carpenters’ Company Articles and Rules for Measuring and Valuing House-Carpenters Work, published in 1786, is an anomaly. As printed on the book plate, copies were loaned to members and were required to be returned to the Company at the time of their death. Indeed, the minutes of the Company record the actions of Company members visiting widows of deceased Carpenters’ Company members to retrieve copies of the Articles and Rules so they would not fall into the hands of non-members.  Nevell’s personal copy is annotated with prices that would have been copied from a master book of prices at Carpenters’ Hall making it an invaluable research tool for historians. But was Nevell’s copy returned to the Carpenters’ Company before at the time of his death? We don’t know the answer because the copy of the Articles and Rules lent to Nevell cannot be located, all we have is the lucky circumstance of it being photographed by the Historic American Buildings Survey for the Library of Congress sometime in the mid-20th century. When Erin Kuykendall Thomas was working on her thesis on the working world of Thomas Nevell in 2010 we assumed it would be found at one of three locations: The Carpenters’ Company library at Carpenters’ Hall, the American Philosophical Society where many of the records of the Carpenters’ Company are on deposit, or the Library of Congress.  But Ms. Thomas’s extensive research at the APS and Carpenters’ Hall and communication with librarians at the Library of Congress failed to turn up Nevell’s copy. Charles Peterson, F.A.I.A.. who wrote about finding an old packing crate containing some copies of the Articles and Rules while rummaging in the attic of Carpenters’ Hall, and would write the introduction and annotate the modern reprint of the Articles and Rules that is still in print, does not mention Nevell’s copy and it is unclear if he knew of its existence. So, we don’t know if Nevell’s copy was returned as per the by-laws of the Company. While it cannot be located today for examination or display we at least have the photographic plates made from it and with the digital world upon us, they are now available to the public for all to examine. You can find it here.





Plan of Carpenters’ Hall




This urn and flowers cartouche from a chest on chest was carved in Philadelphia c.1775. The chest was sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. These photos were made during the auction preview. I’ve recently been teaching classes on carving a basket and flowers cartouche. The flowers, carved from a separate block of wood, were identical in both versions. The nicely carved flower in excellent condition on this cartouche provides additional information for carving the flower for the basket cartouche.


Urn and flower cartouche, Philadelphia, c. 1775.


Back of the cartouche. the hole left from the carvers screw can be seen just above the white adhesive label.


Side view of the cartouche. The base of the cartouche is a vertically grained 2 inch block. The flower is a horizontally grained 2 inch block glued to the base.


Detail of the urn with a nail punch used on the background at the center.


Flower detail.


Top view.

side flower

Side detail of the flower.


An urn and flowers cartouche I made over 15 years ago for a Philadelphia chest c. 1770 missing its original. Before finish was applied.