New Jersey


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 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.

wistar

A detail of two highly figured, flitch-cut drawer fronts from the Wistar family high chest. Made by John Head. Philadelphia, 1726

door

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.

pulpit

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

detail

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.

chest

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).

title

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.

joynt-high-chest

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.

bottom

A riven Atlantic white cedar drawer bottom from a high chest attributed to John Head. Philadelphia, ca. 1725.

sawn

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.

dt240719

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

spice

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

stenton

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

floor

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.

pines

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.

More information and photos of the carved mahogany stove plate pattern at the Burlington County Historical Society.

The size of the pattern is 26 inches high and 33 inches wide. The ground of the relief carving is on the shy side of 5/16 of an inch below the upper surface. I don’t believe a router was used to lower the background. It’s difficult to see in the photographs but the ground has an undulating surface, even with some areas of slight tear-out as the flat carving gouge used to produce the ground was worked across the grain, the carver knowing the tear-out would disappear in the iron casting.

At the HABS site I found photographic copies of older photographs of the carved pattern now at the Burlington County Historical Society and a six-plate stove that used the pattern for the sides. I had previously believed that no stoves made with this pattern survived, but one did, at least until sometime in the late 19th/early 20th century. It appears to be in an advanced state of deterioration and I do not know of its present whereabouts. We also now know that a side pattern for a 10-plate stove was at times adapted for use in a 6-plate stove. And we know the design of the front plate pattern that accompanied the sides, a large urn with trailing leaves and flowers.

Pattern. HABS photo

6-plate stove made with pattern in the Burlington Historical Society.

6-plate stove made with pattern in the Burlington Historical Society.

Thanks must go to Charles Cunningham who donated the pattern to the Burlington County Historical Society in 1934. I wonder if it could be found out how he came by it. Picked it from a pile of discarded wood patterns at Batsto?

Pattern label

Pattern label

No discussion of Pennsylvania and New Jersey stove plates can fail to mention the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a little over 30 miles north of Philadelphia. Among the tens of thousands of artifacts Henry Chapman Mercer collected for his museum were hundreds of stove plates. You can examine them in the “stove plate room” at the top of the museum.

stove-plates

A corner of the Stove plate room at the Mercer Museum.

It was over 30 years ago that I photographed the carved mahogany front plate pattern for a cast iron stove, seen below, when it was displayed in a Plexiglas vitrine in the center of that room.

I’ve just done what the HABS photographer did in the 1940s, made a photograph of a (my) photograph so the image in it could be freely shared and not lost to time.

Front plate pattern. Mercer Museum

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

detail

Detail of BCHS pattern.

I recently spent the day working at the Burlington County Historical Society in Burlington, New Jersey. While there I was able to examine and photograph what is, for me, one of the treasures of their collection – a carved-wood pattern used to produce one side of a ten-plate cast iron stove. A small number of complete cast-iron stoves along with numerous chimneybacks and disassociated stove plates made in the Philadelphia region during the second half of the eighteenth century survive, but less than a handful of the carved wood patterns used to make an impression in moist sand into which the molten steel would be cast are extant. Primarily produced in furnaces in the Schuylkill Valley and West Jersey, or South Jersey as it is known today, six-plate stoves were introduced about 1760 and ten-plate stove were probably being made by the early 1770s.

In 1766 a dam was built on the Batsto River near its junction with the Atsion and Mullica rivers and the Batsto Furnace was established. The mahogany side-plate pattern at the Burlington Historical Society was probably carved in Philadelphia c. 1775. Its low-relief blend of rococo and neoclassical elements marks the end, in the eighteenth century, of carving playing the primary role in the decoration of furniture and other objects produced for, and desired by the gentry. The winds of many changes were blowing.

Enjoy the photos, they will open to full size when clicked on.

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