“The trees of most note are the black walnut, cedar, cypress, chestnut, poplar, gumwood, hickory, sassafras, ash, beech; and oak of divers sorts, as red, white, and black, Spanish, chestnut, and swamp, the most durable of all; of all which there is plenty for the use of man.”
Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London, (London, 1683).
Even though an indigenous population had inhabited the area for thousands of years and a small number of Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and English immigrant traders began settling small plots along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers beginning in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, Penn wrote his letter to encourage and promote the settlement and development of his Pennsylvania. Ultimately his promotional material was highly effective and successful in attracting a great immigration of settlers from Britain and Europe to his colony, Pennsylvania.
It is easier to list what trees and the timber and wood harvested from them were not used for than for what they were in the pre-industrial age. Wood provided heat, housing materials, and transportation on land and sea. With trees and timber a skilled woodworker could build a house and everything in it. Products of trees other than lumber could be just as valuable. The bark of oak trees was indispensable for tanning leather and acorns were a livestock feed staple.
Which trees listed by Penn would make their way into the furniture-making trade, particularly furniture made by and attributed to the shop of John Head, in the decades after Philadelphia was established?
It is no coincidence the first tree Penn catalogues is black walnut, Juglans nigra. The immigrant joiners and their customers who would furnish their households with chests, tables, chairs, and tall clock cases of native black walnut, were in luck. This species was on its way to becoming the most successful furniture wood of North America and, along with mahogany, one of the two most successful furniture woods of the Western world. Its physical properties include ease of working, dimensional stability, strength, and insect resistance. In color, it ranges from light to a dark chocolate brown with cool purple tones. It oxidizes over time to an appealing warm orange/brown. It can be found with a variety of curly and mottled patterning with more dramatic figure in boards cut from stumps and crotches where branches and trunks meet. The “essence of wood” in many peoples minds, even if they couldn’t name the species. And as any successful furniture-making wood must, it takes a high polish that accentuates the grain patterns and figure. According to the orders recorded in his account book along with the evidence of the surviving documented and attributed objects, the majority of John Head’s customers requested furniture made from black walnut.
A detail of two highly figured, flitch-cut drawer fronts from the Wistar family high chest. Made by John Head. Philadelphia, 1726
One of two doors with intensely figured book-matched panels from a black walnut cabinet-over-chest of drawers. Philadelphia, ca. 1715. Older, degraded surface-coatings with craquelure often disguise the grain and figure of wood. The intact varnish on the interior surface of the doors shows the figure to brilliant effect.
Detail of one of the panels from the pulpit. The figure pattern on the panel comes solely from the pore distribution in the annual rings.
Didactic label for the chest.
By cedar Penn, most likely was referring to Red cedar, Juniperus virginiana; though another cedar native to West or South New Jersey, Atlantic white cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, also played a large roll in the furniture and carpentry trades. In Philadelphia, red cedar was used as both a primary and, more rarely, a secondary furniture wood. John Head provided red cedar chests of drawers and clock-cases for his clients. Today his red cedar furniture is known by a single surviving high chest.
Atlantic white cedar was used as a secondary wood, principally in riven form for drawer bottoms, but also sawn for use as dust-boards and backboards of carcase work. All of the chests and tables with drawers documented and attributed to John Head have white cedar drawer bottoms and a majority of those forms have white cedar dust-boards and backboards.
A red cedar high chest attributed to John Head. Philadelphia, ca. 1730
Several species of red cedar grow in the tropics including Juniperus burmudian and Juniperus barbadensis. These species are indistinguishable microscopically from Juniperus virginiana and the timber of the various species is visually undifferentiated. These planks were sawn in 2007 from a Bermuda cedar tree planted in the early 20th century on the grounds of the Blacker House designed by Green and Green, Pasadena, California, 1907.
A riven Atlantic white cedar drawer bottom from a high chest attributed to John Head. Philadelphia, ca. 1725.
A sawn Atlantic white cedar drawer bottom from a black walnut chest over drawer, Philadelphia, possibly Germantown, ca. 1725.
The majority, if not all, of the Atlantic white cedar used in Delaware River Valley furniture was logged in New Jersey. In the Pygmy Pine Plains of the Pine Barrens it is easy to spot an Atlantic white cedar swamp in the distance. The scrub pine and oak in the foreground comes no higher than your knees, the white cedar trees are 50 – 60 feet tall.
Curiously, in his list of “trees of most note” Penn does not mention pines. The valuable stands of hard pines found in Pennsylvania and West Jersey supplied gum resin, rosin, pitch, tar, and turpentine before the trees were logged and cut into cord wood to fuel iron foundries and glass furnaces or sawn into boards and scantling for use in furniture-making and carpentry. The various species of hard pines – Longleaf Pine Pinus palustris, Shortleaf Pine Pinus echinata, Loblolly Pine Pinus taeda, Pitch Pine Pinus rigida, Red Pine Pinus resinosa, and others, were used as both primary and secondary woods. Ten chests debited by John Head were described as “pine” or “pin” and Head debited for a “Larg pine Chest” at £1-0-0 on 6/9/26. In his documented and attributed furniture, Head used hard pine for drawer sides and backs, clock case backboards, interior glue blocks and other elements where strength was essential.
Hard pine drawer sides and back from a black walnut spice box attributed to John Head. Philadelphia, ca. 1735.
First story floorboards, Stenton. Germantown, Philadelphia, 1730. Delaware River Valley carpenters used hard pine for flooring and paneling extensively throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The hard pine flooring was cut into boards at a water powered saw mill. The oak joists were pit-sawn.
A pine grove in the middle of the Pinelands, New Jersey. Except for Red pine, the various species of hard pine cannot be differentiated microscopically. In the field, with bark and needle samples, the different species can most often be identified though some are so similar physically that botanists may sometimes disagree about an identification.
Of the eleven wood species listed by Penn, only two figure prominently in the furniture made in John Head’s shop, black walnut and cedar. The hard pines that were used by Head and the majority of other Delaware River Valley joiners in the first three decades of the eighteenth century for drawer linings and forms of more utilitarian use, are not mentioned.
More than sixty years after Philadelphia was established, and soon after John Head had left the joiners trade, the Swedish-Finnish naturalist Peter Kalm (1716-1779) wrote an account of his travels in the North American colonies. (En Resa til Norra America (Stockholm, 1753–1761, Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America: The English Version of 1770 (Wilson-Erickson Inc., 1937). Kalm arrived in Pennsylvania in 1748 and spent over six months in the Delaware River Valley. He found the joiners “…of this country they chiefly use the black walnut-trees, the wild cherry-trees, and the curled maple.” Black walnut again takes first position as it had in William Penn’s list and examples of John Head’s work in all three species in Kalm’s report survive. But Kalm’s further descriptions of the woodlands and how they were being sustained – or not – by the populace resonates with changes that were occurring in the joiner’s trade that, upon close inspection, can be read in the surviving furniture from the second quarter of the eighteenth century. To tell that story, we will need to examine the work of local joiners who preceded Head and those who were his contemporaries and his competition.