In the previous post I characterized and illustrated the species that comprise the majority of the secondary woods encountered in Delaware River Valley furniture made before 1740 – white oak, Atlantic white cedar, and the hard pines. Another hardwood can be found used as a secondary wood in eighteenth century Delaware River Valley furniture more often than most realize – sweetgum or redgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  Sweetgum was used for drawer sides and backs, glue blocks, and other interior elements of furniture. Widely used as a primary wood in East Jersey, New York, and Long Island, no furniture with sweetgum as a primary wood has yet been attributed to the Delaware River Valley. (I’d be happy to hear of any you know of or I’ve forgotten.)

Sweetgum is regularly misidentified, which has lead to a misunderstanding of the percentage of this species used in the region. It is most often mistaken for yellow or tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).  Both are diffuse-porous hardwoods of similar density and the green cast of yellow poplar and red cast of sweetgum tend to oxidize to a similar brownish color. There are technical differences between the species, off course, and it is easy to identify the species microscopically. Experience over time handling countless examples of each species in historic furniture as well as working with newly sawn boards aids in visually distinguishing the species. Even in oxidized wood, sweetgum has an orange/reddish tinge that is different than the consistently brown tones of yellow poplar.

Chest on stand. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1715. Black walnut, sweetgum, Atlantic white cedar, hard pine, light and dark wood inlay. (Before restoration.) When this chest was advertised for auction the drawer linings were said to be yellow poplar.

Chest on stand. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1715. Black walnut, sweetgum, Atlantic white cedar, hard pine, light and dark wood inlay. Rear corner of a drawer. The sweetgum drawer side has oxidized to a brown color but also a reddish tinge that is not not seen in yellow poplar.

Chest on stand. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1715. Black walnut, sweetgum, Atlantic white cedar, hard pine, light and dark wood inlay. The Atlantic white cedar drawer bottoms are nailed to the front, back, and sides and there are no runners.

Dressing table. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1725. Attributed to John Head. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, sweetgum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The glue blocks in the corners of the frame are sweetgum.

Desk and bookcase. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1745. Black walnut, black cherry, hard pine, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, sweetgum. All but one of the drawers of the desk interior have white oak sides and backs. The bottom drawer of the three behind the prospect door, seen in this image, is made with sweetgum sides, the only pieces of sweetgum used in the entire desk.

Desk and bookcase. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1745. Black walnut, black cherry, hard pine, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, sweetgum. The interior surfaces of the sides of the drawer have scribe lines for dadoes with wood starting to be removed from one. These appear to have been prepared for another project and later adapted for the sides of this drawer.

Chest on chest. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1770. Mahogany, sweetgum, Atlantic white cedar, hard pine. Sweetgum continued to be used through the Revolution by several shops in Philadelphia for drawer sides and backs. The sweetgum side and back at the rear corner of a drawer from the chest on chest has a reddish tinge with no trace of the green or greenish/brown heartwood of oxidized yellow poplar.

Joiner’s inventories bear out the use of the species found in the surviving furniture. One of the most extensive is that of the Philadelphia joiner Charles Plumley’s from 1708. Plumley was born in England, immigrated with his family in 1674 at age 6, and settled along the Neshaminy Creek in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1682. He would have apprenticed with a joiner, probably in Philadelphia, during the 1680s and likely began working as a journeyman in the last years of seventeenth century. (An alternate version of Plumley’s life dates has him born in 1766. This would put him in Philadelphia at age 15 or 16, he would still have served his apprenticeship in America.) He had likely become master of his own shop by the time he married the mellifluously named Rose Budd shortly before 1704. The inventory taken in his home and shop shows a joiner at the height of his career with a vast array of tools, a great wheel and lathe, copious brass hardware, 3 best and 2 ordinary benches, 2 apprentices with time left to serve, and over 7,000 feet of wood in stock including:

2859 feet Pine and oak boards @ 8s

311 Large Walnutt scantling @ 12s

457 foot small Walnutt Scantling @ 8s 4p

2738 foot Walnutt boards @ 15s per hundred

734 foot Walnut Plank @ 17s per 100

2 Mohogany Planks 36 ½ feet @ 16d

3 inch board Ditto 48 feet @ 6d

1 Walnut table frame

1 pine table

7 sett Gum bedstead pillows @ 2s 4d

15 Sett Sydes and Ends @ 2s 4d

160 foot pine scantling

8 parcels of Walnutt and Pine Ends*

There is no cedar mentioned as such but cedar may have been included in the large amount of pine and oak boards lumped together in the first line by the inventory takers. For Plumley, sweetgum seems to have been the wood of choice for making beds, having 7 sets of pillars and 15 sets of sides and ends prepared in his shop at the time of his death. Only one non-native wood is listed in the inventory – Plumley had a relatively small amount of mahogany on hand.

Plumley’s contemporary, William Till, trained as a joiner in England and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1700. At his death in 1711, two years after Plumley, an inventory was taken of his shop contents. Here, cedar has its own line item – “16 Seder Bou @  15p.” Till had bolts of cedar on hand to be riven for drawer bottoms. While the total board feet in Till’s inventory is substantially smaller than Plumley’s, Till had a more diverse selection of wood species for use as primary wood including “Red sedar,” “Cherry Tree Board,” and “Pear Tree Board.”

The Chester County joiner Joseph Hibberd’s inventory of 1737 unambiguously describes how white cedar was processed and used, “Some split cedar for drayor bottomes @ 8p.”

For anyone who has a basic working knowledge of furniture making in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century one wood species is notably absent from the discussion so far – yellow or tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).  It is perhaps not widely known that it is rare to find yellow poplar used in furniture attributed to the Delaware River Valley that can be reasonably dated before 1740. It also unusual for it to appear in inventories of Delaware River joiners before that time and it does not appear in John Heads account book before 1743. After 1740, yellow poplar increasingly becomes the dominant species used for drawer linings and the use of hard pine declines to the point of it being just as rare to find it used in the Philadelphia area by the 1760s as it was to find yellow poplar used before 1740. Why should this be and what was happening in the timber trade 60 years after the British settlement of Philadelphia?

*The inventory of Charles Plumley in its entirety can be found in Benno M. Forman.  American Seating Furniture 1630-1730, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 1988, Appendix 1, pp. 371-372

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