John Head

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 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.

Before I address the preferences, habits, and construction attributes of the shop that produced the Wistar family high chest and dressing table I will attempt to clear up some confusion concerning several issues relating to the appearance and materials of the pair that have puzzled previous historians. In Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner, footnote #54, Stiefel writes of the Wistar high chest, “The configuration of the top of the chest has been the subject of controversy.” He is referring to photographs made throughout the twentieth century that show the high chest with a convex-moulded element sitting on top of the chest above the cornice. In some views the moulded element is surmounted by a gallery consisting of short turned pillars.  In the same footnote, he also notes the various lists of wood species said to be used in construction of the pair – the drawer fronts have been described as solid or veneered while the lists of secondary woods sometimes includes the species yellow poplar, a species Stiefel doesn’t encounter in Head’s accounts before 1743.

I was part of the project furniture conservation team that treated furniture in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as loans scheduled to be part of the exhibition Worldly Goods, The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 10, 1999 to January 2, 2000. During that time, we performed an extensive examination and treatment of the Wistar family high chest and dressing table. The primary and secondary woods species found were typical for furniture made in the Delaware River Valley, 1690-1740. All primary wood is black walnut, including the top of the high chest. The walnut boards are solid, there are no veneered surfaces. The drawer sides and backs, drawer supports, dustboards, backboards, and the corner blocks inside the case that the legs socket into are hard pine, the drawer bottoms and top boards of the lower section of the high chest are Atlantic white cedar. No yellow poplar was found, consistent with Head’s wood purchases observed in his account book.

The earliest published image of the high chest and dressing table are found in Robert C. Moon, The Morris Family of Philadelphia, 5 vols., Philadelphia: Ketterlinus Litho. Mfg. Co., 1909, 5:248. At that time, they were owned by brother and sister John T. and Lydia T. Morris and were photographed in rooms in their house, “Compton”, located in the Philadelphia neighborhood Chestnut Hill. (“Compton” was designed by Theophilus P. Chandler and completed in 1887/88. It was demolished in 1968. It sat on the grounds of what is today the Morrris Arboretum.)


In 1935 the pair was illustrated as plates 12 and 13 in William Macpherson Hornor, Jr’s.  Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture. By this time, they were in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where they were bequeathed by Lydia T. Morris in 1928. The turned gallery is no longer present but the concave moulding still sits on top of the high chest.


Hornor, “Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture”, 1935.

The next illustration appeared in Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976) no. 22. The concave moulding is still present but the escutcheons on the two square drawers of the lower section (and the two square drawers of the dressing table) are now missing.

3 centuries

“Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976.

In 1983 the moulded top was removed from the high chest. Museum employees determined it was not original based on physical evidence and from 1983 until early 1999 the high chest and dressing table continued to be exhibited as part of the furnishings of Cedar Grove.

cedar grove

Roger W. Moss, “Historic Houses of Philadelphia”, The Barra Foundation 1988, photograph by Thomas Crane. Cedar Grove, second story chamber.

In Worldly Goods, The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758 (The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999) the high chest and dressing table are illustrated in fig. 167. But as our treatment of the pair was not completed before the catalogue photography deadline, an early twentieth black and white photograph, colorized for the catalogue, was used showing the moulded top and square drawer escutcheons in place.


Worldly Goods, The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999.

At the beginning of our examination of the high chest and dressing table in 1999, I opened a drawer and found the 4 escutcheons that had be removed from the square drawers during a previous treatment in 1975. It was a simple matter to return them to their original positions.


The current condition of the high chest and dressing table as seen today in the PMA galleries and in current photography, reflects the original appearance of the pair more than at any time since they were first published by Moon in 1909. In 1999 we searched the Museum for the moulded top removed in 1983 to determine for ourselves its authenticity but without success – it was likely discarded soon after its removal. We agreed, however, that the top was most likely not original. The top of the high chest consists of two edged-joined walnut boards. The sides are lap or half-blind dovetailed to the top, hiding or disguising the joint. The surface is fair planed, or finished almost as finely as the drawer fronts. If the top of the chest were to be hidden, we reasoned the joiner would have used rough planed secondary wood boards and exposed the joinery, reducing labor and cost if the top were to be covered by an additional element.

It was not long after the Worldly Goods exhibit that I came across another bit of evidence concerning the moulded top – a photograph made at Cedar Grove in the late nineteenth century before the house was moved from Harrogate near Frankford, about 4 miles from Old City Philadelphia, to West Fairmount Park in the late 1920s. In the photograph the high chest has no concave moulded top and the square drawer escutcheons are in place.


Cedar Grove, second story chamber. Late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

In all likelihood, John T. and Lydia T. Morris added the moulded top and gallery to the high chest, updating it for its move to their Victorian mansion in Chestnut Hill. It did no harm and was easily removed, an early instance of a non-intrusive treatment. I wish it was still around though. Click on the photo from the Moon volume to enlarge it. Look closely at the turned pillars of the gallery, they mimic the “trumpet” turned legs of the chest and table. Who made those?


cherry case

Peter Stretch clock movement, cherry case attributed to John Head.

The Peter Stretch arch-dial 8-day clock housed in a cherry case attributed to the joiner John Head sold at Sotheby’s this past Saturday for $348,500 (hammer price plus buyer’s premium), a sum above its high estimate of $300,000. While not a record for an American tall case clock – that belongs to another Peter Stretch clock in a carved mahogany case purchased by the Winterthur Museum in 2004 for $1,688,000 – it is a record price for any furniture documented or attributed to the workshop of John Head.


A series of math calculations written in chalk on the interior surface of the side of the waist.

chalk 2

The math calculations continue down the length of the side and were clearly made before the board was cut to width. Written by Head, someone else in the shop, or calculating the purchase price of a parcel of cherry boards?


The blocks at the corners of the base are later additions.

base 2

There is physical evidence the base moulding was taller and had a decorative sawn shape similar to surviving mouldings on cases documented and attributed to John Head.

sothebys photo

Photograph supplied by Sotheby’s of the base of the case with the blocks removed. Evidence of holes bored for the dowels of turned feet can be seen at the front corners.


Rear view of the hood showing features consistent with John Head’s workshop practice.

It is fitting that a collaboration between John Head and Peter Stretch should garner such a high level of marketplace interest. Stretch’s work, along with that of his sons William and Thomas, represent the acme of clock making in colonial America during the first half of the eighteenth century. This clock and case also represents the most expensive version of John Head and Peter Stretch’s collaborations as Head charged £5-0-0 for clock cases with arched-hoods in woods other than walnut – the most he charged for any clock case – and Stretch charged £15-0-0 for arch-dial clock movements, a total of £20-0-0 for the combined clock and case. (It is unclear at this time whether the pierced name boss with the makers name and location surrounded by engraved foliate scrolls, a pair of birds in flight and the motto “Tempus Rerum Imperator”, added to the £15-0-0 Stretch typically charged for arch-dial clocks.)


Dial of the Peter Stretch 8-day clock movement.

name plate

The elaborate pierced and engraved name boss. Five cases attributed to John Head house clock movements with similar name bosses, four are engraved with Peter’s name and one with his son William’s.


The moon and tide-dial complication in the arch. Moon dials provide useful information about the night sky at any location, tide dials in combination with moon dials are principally seen on clock movements made in, or for, port cities.

Fennimore and Hohmann speculate the Stretch family of clockmakers produced the type of moon dial seen on this clock between the years 1725 and 1735 and began to employ the elaborate pierced and engraved name boss in the late 1720s. This is consistent with John Head debiting Peter Stretch for cherry clock cases in 1732 and 1737 and a cherry case to John Morris in 1736 – who may have purchased a movement from Peter Stretch on his own account. In 1734 Head charged two other customers £5-0-0 for cases, his price for cases made of cherry, cedar, and mahogany, at the same time Stretch charged them £15-0-0 for clock movements. Thus the date range for the manufacture of the clock sold at Sotheby’s is fairly narrow – roughly the decade of the 1730s or circa 1735 – a more accurate date range than that given by Sotheby’s.

Whether or not more furniture attributed to John Head comes to the marketplace this year, the tercentenary of his arrival in Philadelphia, the tide of interest in this émigré joiner appears to be on the rise.


At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the William Graham clock in a mahogany case attributed to John Head, circa 1733, has recently been placed between the documented high chest and dressing table made by John Head for Caspar and Catherine Wistar in 1726. The cherry clock case was likely made within a few years of the Graham clock whose intact components confirm the original appearance of the cherry case.

The chest of drawers attributed here, but not by the auction house, to the Philadelphia joiner John Head sold at Sotheby’s this past Thursday. The hammer price was $26,000. With the “buyers premium” now at 25 percent, the total price was $32,000. This was more than 2 and a half times the high estimate but over $6,000 less than what it sold for 27 years ago. There was no salesroom announcement of a revision of the catalogue description to include an attribution to Head before the lot was sold. Auction houses give much weight to attributions, signatures, and labels on objects but missed this one at the same time they were heavily promoting the attribution of the case housing a Peter Stretch to Head. That tall-case clock will be sold this afternoon.


Chest of drawers, attributed to John Head, Philadelphia, circa 1725.


Half-inch drawer dividers with full thickness and full depth hard pine dust-boards. A circle and slash chalk mark on the second tier dust-board survives as lack of use and attendant wear meant the drawer bottom did not rub against the dust-board, removing the mark.


Drawer escutcheon.


Drawer pull. John Head used the same drawer brass combination on a surviving high chest of drawers. That high chest is illustrated in “The Connoisseur”, November 1978, p. 206, fig. 15.


Original iron lock.


Of the hundreds of dovetail made by this shop I’ve examined, this is one of the very first miss-cuts I’ve come across. The short saw-kerf beneath the two upper long kerfs was started in the wrong location.


On the exterior of the drawer the miss-cut can be seen in the first pin from the top.


The Head workshop used three designs of chalk marks on the exterior surfaces of drawers, a double circle drawn in one stroke, a half-circle and slash seen one the back of this drawer, and a “V” that tilts towards the back, seen on the proper right side.


The bottom of a long drawer. The bottom is composed of edge-glued shingle-width riven cedar and is nailed to the back, sides, and a deep rabbet in the front. Cedar running strips are glued at the sides. This was a new drawer construction technique in England when Head began his apprenticeship and he used it on the majority of the drawers he made in Philadelphia.

In January 1990 Christie’s sold the collection of May and Howard Joynt of Alexandria, Virginia. Lot 469 was described as “A Fine William And Mary Walnut Chest Of Drawers, Pennsylvania, 1720-1740” and carried an estimate of $6,000-$9,000. On January 19th, 2017, Sotheby’s will sell the same chest now described as A Very Fine and Rare William And Mary Walnut Chest Of Drawers, Pennsylvania, circa 1715” with an estimate of $8,000-12,000. Sotheby’s believes, I guess, that it has become more fine and rare than it was 17 years ago. They also give it only a slightly higher estimate than the last time it sold even though in 1990 it sold for $38,000, more than four times the high estimate.


Christie’s 1990 sale of the Joynt Collection, lot 469.

There were several reasons for the 1990 price, one of which is the remarkable state of preservation of the chest. These plain chests with large turned feet would had become anachronisms by at least 1790 and horribly out of place in chambers by the middle of the nineteenth century. Chests like this were dispatched to attics, basement, and barns, often damp settings with dirt floors which meant they started to rot from the feet upwards and nails and locks began to rust. Single brass drop-pulls are no match for strong tugs on loaded drawers and fail early in the life of heavily used furniture. It’s a matter of course for 300-year-old objects to have had multiple sets of drawer hardware changed out when in continual use.


Deep kerfing on the interior drawer front and an undisturbed cotter pin used to attach the brass pull.

This chest of drawers, however, appears as if it were used lightly for several years then put aside in a dark, dry place until moving into the antiques market, perhaps by the 1940s or 1950s. The brass pulls and escutcheons are the originals, the locks and nails are still bright, the turned feet are full height, and there is only a trace amount of wear on the drawer runners. The interior is remarkably clean, absent the centuries of dust and debris that usually accompanies this type of object. Examining a chest in this condition allows for careful scrutiny of the maker’s hand.


The bottom of one of the two top tier drawers. The bottom board is riven Atlantic white cedar, the side runners are sawn cedar.

And we can make an attribution to that maker: the Philadelphia joiner, John Head (1688-1754). At the 2014 Winterthur Furniture Forum Alan Anderson and I presented “Making it in Philadelphia: John Head and the Joyners Craft in the Early 18th  Century”, where we discussed furniture made in John Head’s workshop, analyzing the materials, tool use, and construction and design strategies observed in furniture documented and attributed to the Head workshop. A broad and nuanced understanding of the shop’s working practice allowed us to attribute numerous surviving objects that have interrupted records of documentation, to Head’s workshop.


Proper right side and back of a top tier drawer showing some of the characteristic white chalk shop marks. These are present on the drawers of all objects attributed to John Head’s workshop.


Old-growth, slow growing hard pine sides, Atlantic white cedar bottom board and runner exposed on the side of the drawer. This drawer construction was characteristic of British joiners work beginning circa 1700 according to Adam Bowett.

This chest mirrors every shop practice seen in the documented Wistar high chest and dressing table including, but not exclusive to, wood species selection, details of drawer construction, and idiosyncratic chalk marking for drawer part identification. The evidence of Head’s account book shows he debited for 118 chests at £3-0-0 from 1720 to 1741. These are assumed to be walnut chests, chests designated as cherry or maple were priced higher, consistent to the additional charges for clock cases made of these woods. Surprisingly we have identified few chests of drawers that can be attributed to the Head workshop, some half dozen or so, many fewer than clock cases though Head made more than two chests of drawers for every clock case. Some possible reasons for the high attrition rate are noted above – a large, plain, chest that went out of fashion within 60 years – readily replaced with new models after the still useful storage chest was deposited in a dirt floor out building.

Nevertheless, just in time for his tercentenary, John Head has sent us a time machine of the best sort – but plain. And it’s only January!


The simple mitered cornice moulding used by the Head workshop eliminates the end grain edges when boards with moulded ends are used for the tops of chests. The sides are lap-dovetailed to the top.


Large diameter turned feet. Blocks glued to the corners of the bottom board allow for better purchase for the dowel that passes through the foot into the chest.


Interior surface of the proper right side. The darkening at the front edge has the appearance of a brushed on stain. A good candidate for microscopic-analysis!


A British Colonial chest made by English immigrant John Head in Philadelphia, circa 1725. The brass single-drop  baluster shaped pulls with cruciform back plates, which were going out of style by 1715 to be replaced by the loop-handle double cotter pin pulls seen on the Wistar furniture, along with the half-round rail moulding, give the appearance of chest made circa 1705.

Next Page »