“The Joiners say, that among the trees of this country they chiefly use the black walnut-trees, the wild cherry-trees, and the curled maple. Of the black walnut-trees (Juglans nigra) there is yet a sufficient quantity. However careless people take pains enough to destroy them, and some peasants even use them as fewel. The wood of the wild cherry-trees (Prunus virginiana) is very good, and looks exceedingly well; it has a yellow colour, and the older the furniture is, which is made of it, the better it looks. But it is very difficult to get at it, for they cut it every where, and plant it no where. The curled maple (Acer rubrum) is a species of the common red maple, but likewise very difficult to be got. You may cut down many trees without finding the wood you want. The wood of the sweet gum tree (Liquidambar) is merely employed in joiner’s work, such as tables, and other furniture. But it must not be brought near the fire, because it warps. The firs and the white cedars (Cupressus thyoides) are likewise made use of by joiners for different sorts of work.”

As a naturalist, student of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Peter Kalm (1716-1779) made close observation of the uses of local flora during his time spent in the Delaware River Valley, 1748-1749. Based on the furniture that survives, he was correct that black walnut was fashionable and the predominant timber used for furniture making in the region before 1740.

High chest, Philadelphia, ca. 1720. Unknown maker. Black walnut, hard pine, and white cedar.

Frame and panel chest, probably Philadelphia, ca. 1715. Unknown maker. Black walnut. H L Chalfant

Wild, or black, cherry does look exceedingly well and the color of the wood surface begins to deepen and warm as soon as it is exposed to air. Compared to black walnut, very few furniture forms documented or attributed to the Delaware River Valley during the first four decades of the eighteenth century survive.

Dressing table, Philadelphia, ca. 1735. Unknown maker. Black cherry, hard pine, white cedar.

Chest on chest on chest, Philadelphia, ca. 1735. Unknown maker. Black cherry, hard pine, white cedar. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Curled, or curly, maple timber comes from a common tree, but curled wood is found only in select trees with no way of telling if the timber of a tree will be curled or not until the tree is felled. Curled maple furniture made in the Delaware Valley during the first decades of the eighteenth century survives in approximately the same ratio to black walnut as furniture made of black cherry.

Christie’s, New York, October 2001, lot 88. Chest on chest base, Philadelphia, ca. 1735. Attributed to John Head. Maple, hard pine, white cedar.

Christie’s, October 2001, lot 88. Chest on chest base, Philadelphia, ca. 1735. Attributed to John Head.

John Head debited customers for furniture made of black walnut, black cherry, and maple. He also debited for furniture made of cedar and mahogany. Mahogany was a timber imported primarily from Jamaica, so would not have been included in Kalm’s report on Philadelphia’s timbers. But Kalm knew of the use of red cedar in Philadelphia and wrote in his Travels of a room in a house, Fairhill, built by Isaac Norris (1671-1735) in 1712 several miles north of the city, “…saw a parlour in the country seat of Mr. Norris… wainscoted many years ago with boards of red cedar. Mr. Norris assured me that the cedar looked exceedingly well in the beginning, but was quite faded when I saw it…” Furniture attributed to the Delaware River Valley made of red cedar is exceedingly rare. Perhaps too many consumers had Norris’ experience, and the practice of red cedar furniture making had died out by the time of Kalm’s visit.

Tabletop desk, Probably Philadelphia, ca. 1690. Red cedar. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Red cedar remained a staple of Philadelphia cabinetmakers into the third decade of the eighteenth century, however, if only for use underground. On February 16th 1776 Thomas Affleck charged John Cadwalader £17.0.0 for a red cedar coffin covered in “super fine cloth and full trimmed” for his wife who had died the day before.

Invoice from Thomas Affleck to John Cadwalader, 1776. Nicholas B. Wainwright. “Colonial Grandeur in Philadelphia” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964.

Advertisements