I want to thank my colleagues at The Magazine Antiques for highlighting this blog when featuring the spice box sold at Freeman’s last December in their #antiqueoftheday Instagram feed!

I also want to make one correction – I am not the one treating the spice box, that project is being carried out by another, very experienced, conservator. The tantalizing questions concerning the form of the original door, given the questions raised by the construction evidence presented by the box, got the furniture sleuth in me going and I was fascinated by the unusual twist that the door might have been panel-less.

To be clear, this image is a composite image produced in Photoshop where a door frame from another spice box was selected, manipulated in size and color, and layered over an image of the Freeman’s box, made to illustrate I believe the original door may have appeared. This is not, to my knowledge, what the spice box sold at Freeman’s last December looks like today.

Nice to see this spice box being appreciated. It makes a wonderful antique for any day.


The Brewster Collection spice box. Freeman’s, 15 December 2016, lot 24.

I noted the spice box that sold at Freeman’s last December was missing its door. The contents of most spice boxes were protected by doors having iron locks that could only be opened by someone in possession of the key. (Two surviving spice boxes are made in the form of a chest of drawers on stand but with the drawers arranged in typical spice box fashion. Though lacking doors, metal locks in the central drawers, spring locks on the drawers above, and hidden drawers, protect the contents of five of the eleven drawers of these boxes.)

There is no way to know exactly what the lost door looked like. Witness marks from the missing hinges show that the door was hung on the right (proper left) side and was flush to the outside of the case – the door closed on top of both sides, it did not fit into rabbets created on the front edges of either side.  But the construction and design of the spice box offers several clues that support a theory that the original door was something out of the ordinary.

First, the single arch drawer dividers are flush with the double arch moulding worked on the front edges of the sides. The drawer fronts sit just slightly behind the plane of the front of the single arch moulding. As a result, there is a clearance problem for the brass pulls and their cotter pin attachment on the drawer fronts.

The Brewster Collection spice box with the drawers removed. The drawer dividers are flush with front edges of the sides.

Next, a spring lock secures the central square drawer, accessed through the long drawer below. The long drawer has a large, stamped brass escutcheon but there is not now, nor ever has been, an iron lock present. Once the door was opened, the spring lock would be superfluous. It would not protect the contents of the drawer as the long drawer would be easily accessible. Additionally, the expensive stamped brass escutcheon is pointless, especially if hidden from view much of the time.

Bottom board of the central square drawer with the cavity that contained the wood spring lock. The thin, wood lock is missing.

Finally, the boring for the pulls on the bottom drawer appears inexplicably high.

Two extant spice boxes suggest the plan of the missing door. The doors of both these boxes lack panels in their mortise and tenoned frames. The drawers of the boxes are secured by the stiles and rails of the frames and cannot be accessed without first unlocking the door.

Lee Ellen Griffith. The Pennsylvania Spice Box, Paneled Doors and Secret Drawers, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1986, p. 63, no. 15.

Sotheby’s. New York, New York, The Highly Important Americana Collection of George S. Parker II from the Caxambas Foundation, 19 January 2017, lot 2019.

A panel-less door for the Brewster collection spice box clarifies all the construction and design features described above. The box would not need to be designed with clearance for the brass pulls when there is no panel to get in their way. The central drawer would not be secured by a frame without a panel, so a spring lock would necessary on that drawer. Access from the drawer below was prohibited by the door frame and its showy brass escutcheon would be permanently on display, never hidden behind the panel of a door. The high boring placement for the pulls on the bottom drawer would be necessary for the frame to clear the drops.

With liberties taken in Photoshop, perhaps this composite image gives some clue to how the Brewster Collection spice box may have appeared originally.

A composite image of the Brewster Collection spice box with a panel-less door frame and brass pulls manipulated in Photoshop.

Humor can be hard to detect in furniture from this time and place. It is not the first characteristic attributed to members of the Religious Society of Friends – Quakers – during the first decades of the eighteenth century. But it’s not hard to imagine the original owners of the spice box enjoying watching and waiting for others to discover all may not be what it seems.

Lightening has struck twice. At least it has at Freeman’s in Philadelphia. Another object that can be attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner is scheduled to be sold in their auction American Furniture, Folk, and Decorative Arts, 15 November 2017. In December 2016, less than a year ago, Freeman’s sold a spice box attributed to this same anonymous shop, the first of that form to be recorded. Freeman’s now has the privilege of presenting a second previously unrecorded form from this shop, a chest of drawers. It is somewhat of a surprise that a chest of drawers from a shop that may have been an important competitor of John Head’s (Suffolk, England 1688-Philadelphia 1754) has not been seen before as it is a form that was a sought out by Head’s customers and is commonly present in contemporary household inventories. Without the benefit of a surviving account book for this shop, we have no insight into the type and number of objects it produced. There is not presently documentation as to where this shop was located or whether the principal joiner was an immigrant who received his training in Britain as John Head was, or had either been born or immigrated to America at an early age and received his training here. There has been speculation that James Bartram (October 6, 1701-August 5, 1771) made two objects attributed to this joiner, a dressing table, inlaid with the initials of his future wife, Elizabeth Maris (1704-April 23, 1771) and the date 1724, and an oval table, which is inlaid with both James and Elizabeth’s initials and the year of their marriage, 1725. But much is known and has been written about James Bartram, the younger brother of the famous botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) whose first wife, Mary Maris (about 1703-1727), was the sister of Elizabeth. To date there is no indication that James apprenticed with a joiner or pursued a trade other than farming, an occupation he, like his brother, prepared for. An attribution of these objects to James Bartram would beg the question who would he have apprenticed with during the years 1716-1723 and what would the objects from that shop look like? And how, a year after the end of his apprenticeship, he could have produced the most opulent object made in the Delaware River Valley that survives from the first quarter of the eighteenth century? The sophisticated joinery and inlay techniques and the imaginative and individual turning of this group of objects, which include the two Bartram family objects, oval (gate-leg) tables, square tables with and without drawers, a spice box, and now a chest of drawers, suggests that the master of the shop immigrated to Philadelphia fully trained, perhaps after also having spent time working as a journeyman in Britain after his apprenticeship. If this is the case, his career would have closely resembled John Head’s though for unknown reasons, fewer surviving objects can be attributed to this presently anonymous shop. There are numerous points of interest to be found during an examination of the chest of drawers that I have not covered here. It will be on view on the third story of Freeman’s through 5 o’clock Tuesday, November 14. While you’re there, you might imagine the spice box sold last December perched on top of the chest. I know I did.

Chest of drawers. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar, sweet-gum, iron.

The tops of the dovetailed backs and sides are mitered on all the drawers of objects attributed to this shop.

The two short drawers run on their bottom boards and the bottoms are fit to rabbets on the front, back and sides. Runners were later added to compensate for wear. Spring-locks prevented access to the two short drawers without unlocking the iron lock of the drawer below.

In this shop dovetails are routinely wedged.

The brass on the drawers is replaced. Evidence for original single drop pulls can be seen of the exterior and interior surfaces of the drawer fronts.

Various chalk shop marks, including numbers, squiggles and here, “X”‘s can be seen at the interior corners of the drawers.

There are currently no dust-boards in the case but grooves plowed in the back edge the drawer blades indicate they were present originally.

Several of the long drawers have dramatic grain. The base moulding is identical to that on the spice box sold at Freeman’s last December.

Dowels fit to holes bored in the turned feet secure the feet to the bottom of the chest.

The distinctive turning style produced in this shop can be seen in the idiosyncratic design of the feet. The turner employed flattened ball shapes that are closer to discs than spheres and pronounced scoring lines are added to small rings that other turners left unadorned. On the largest spherical shape of every turning from this shop, a deep score line is flanked by two thin scored lines.

The strip of wood supporting the front base moulding is oak and the bottom is made of two boards of yellow poplar.

There is a clear witness mark from the original escutcheons on the drawer fronts.


The original escutcheon from a square table with drawer attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner confirms the appearance of the missing escutcheons on the chest of drawers.

The original locks are present on the three long drawers.

The wood species red-gum is used for the vertical divider between the two drawers in the top tier.

The two board sides of the case are flitch-cut. The boards on the other side of the chest are identical and in the same orientation.




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

The joiners who immigrated to the Delaware River Valley in the last quarter of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth centuries, and the American-born joiners they trained, had a choice of timbers to use for secondary elements in their furniture. In Britain, the hardwood white oak (Quercus alba) and two softwoods, Red or Scots Pine, (Pinus sylvestris), and Norway spruce, (Picea abies), both referred to in the trade as deal, were the principal wood species used as secondary woods.

The slow-growing, finest grain oak, known as wainscot, and the two softwoods had to be imported into Britain. In the Delaware River Valley, there was an abundant supply of old-growth, slow-growing white oak, which was used primarily as drawer linings in the earliest joiner’s shops.

Table with drawer. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar. (photo shows the back of the table.) This table is attributed to the Bartram Family joiner. The drawer has riven white oak sides and back and is constructed similarly to the drawers in Brewster Spice box.

Table with drawer. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar. Attributed to the Bartram Family joiner. Rear corner of the drawer showing the mitered top and wedged dovetails.

Chest on chest. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1738. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. Split grain is sometimes seen on outer surfaces of riven white oak drawer sides and backs. In this case, the riven board weathered to gray before it was planed during construction of the drawer.

Chest on chest. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1738. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. The drawer is made with unusual and meticulous dovetails. Two other chests on chests by this anonymous joiner are dated 1738.

Interior drawers from a Delaware River Valley desk and bookcase c. 1740. The thin sides and backs of all the small drawers of the desk and bookcase interiors are riven white oak. The sides and backs of the long drawers of the desk are hard pine.

Several species of hard pine grew on both sides of the Delaware River that resembled Scots Pine and Norway spruce in strength, working properties, and appearance. The North American relative of Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is red pine (Pinus resinosa). Species of the yellow or hard pine group found in the Delaware River Valley include long leaf pine (Pinus palustris), shortleaf pine (Pinus echinate), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and pitch pine (Pinus rigida). The several species of hard pine cannot be differentiated from one another microscopically and it follows that we are unable to visually identify distinct species of hard pine when examining furniture. The gross characteristics of red pine corresponds to the various species of hard pines but is microscopically unique and can be separated from all other North American hard pines. Hard pine was used primarily for drawer sides, backs, and, infrequently, bottoms; tops, bottoms, and backs of dovetailed carcasses, and backs and bottoms of framed forms. Hard pine was also occasionally used as a primary wood for forms more typically made of walnut and was often used for plain storage chests and tables for secondary rooms such as kitchens.

The various hard pine species can be distinguished in the forests from bark, needle, and cone samples. In South Jersey they know their pines and want to make sure you do too!

Table with drawer. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1710. Black walnut, hard pine. The only secondary wood of this early Philadelphia table is hard pine used for the drawer sides, back, and bottom.

Table with drawer. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1710. Black walnut, hard pine. The bottom of the drawer is a single board sawn near the center of the tree so it is effectively quartered on each side of a narrow section of flat sawn wood at the center. After more than 300 years there is left than one quarter inch shrinkage of an eighteen inch wide board.

Chest of drawers. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1720. The drawers of this framed chest are side hung, a relatively rare drawer construction in Delaware River Valley furniture. All three local secondary wood species are used in one drawer, white oak for the sides, hard pine for the back, and Atlantic white cedar for the bottom.

Chest of drawers. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. The fine quality of hard pine available in the early eighteenth century is seen in this drawer side. It is cut from a tree that grew very slowly and perfectly straight.

By at least the early eighteenth century, joiners had added another wood species to their furniture making, Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Carpenters favored the woods light weight, rot resistant properties, and its ease of working, especially when riven, employing white cedar for siding on frame buildings and for roof shingles of frame, brick, and stone buildings. Joiners adopted the practice of carpenters, riving bolts of white cedar and edge joining the edges to produce three-foot-wide drawer bottoms of quartered wood that eliminated shrinkage problems encountered when using single wide, flat sawn boards. White cedar bottoms produced a lighter drawer than an oak or hard pine bottom and the aromatic, sweet scent was pleasant and may have acted as an insect repellent when drawers were filled with costly woolens. White cedar was also used for elements where strength was not necessary such as backboards, dustboards, and glue blocks.

High chest of drawers. Made in Philadelphia, 1738. Maple, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. At least seven thin riven cedar boards edge joined together make up the bottom of this drawer. A large patch of split grain is visible.

Chest of drawers, made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1720. Another drawer from the framed chest with side hung drawers showing split grain that was not planed because of the changing grain direction.

Spice box. Made in Southeastern Pennsylvania, c. 1760. Black walnut, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. The linings of small drawers were sometimes made entirely of riven white cedar. The demand today – from customers, collectors, gallery owners, and furniture makers themselves – to produce highly finished surfaces inside and out means we are unlikely to see this type of surface topography coming out of contemporary makers shops.

“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.

“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.


Black walnut pulpit and sounding board. Old Swedes Church, Wilmington, Delaware. Made by John Harrison, Philadelphia, 1698.


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.


A black walnut chest at Old Swedes Church, Wilmington Delware. Probably New Castle County, Delaware, before 1713. Possibly by Christian Joransson (Finnish, born New Castle County, DE).


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

red cedar

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.

pine barrens

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 pinesLongleaf 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.


A hard pine oval or gate-leg table. Made in the Delaware River Valley, ca. 1720. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Hard pine drawer sides and back from a black walnut spice box attributed to John Head. Philadelphia, ca. 1735.


Interior surface of a closet door made of hard pine. Stenton, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1730.


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.

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