“The history of the John Grass Wood Turning Company points out the great

changes that have taken place in the manufacturing process over the past century and a

half. The fact that the structure and machinery are in essentially the same place and

condition as when the firm was founded is remarkable. Both the skill and the work-ethic

of the men involved are also a part of the story. We are stronger in going ahead if we

know where we have been.

The challenge to preserve the John Grass site with all its components is a serious

one and is not to be taken lightly. Today’s method of computer-controlled mass

production of wood turned objects is a far cry from what was the norm at the time when

the John Grass Wood Turning Company was a flourishing industry in the Old City

District of Philadelphia. Without action at this time, this part of our industrial history will

more or less disappear, only to be read about in books.”

Jane Mork Gibson, John Grass Wood Turning Company Historical Background

The quote above are the concluding remarks of an essay written c. 2008 by Jane Gibson which appears on a website of the John Grass Task Force, a group connected with the Center for Art in Wood that sought to preserve the building and contents of the John Grass Wood Turning Company, located at 146 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, which had ceased business operations in 2003. A timeline of the John Grass Turning Company on the same site ended with this:

“2010 – The Philadelphia Chapter of the United Carpenters and Joiners of America, one of the earliest supporters of the Center’s John Grass efforts, purchased the building and all of its equipment from the descendants of John Grass who owned the facility. This purchase ensures that the Center’s efforts to both preserve and raise awareness about the Grass building have contributed to its future rehabilitation and use. Stay tuned for future update.”

There have been no further updates to the site but the final chapter of the history of the John Grass Wood Turning Company can now be written. Earlier this year the Philadelphia Chapter of the United Carpenters and Joiners of America sold the building at 146 North 2nd Street and last Friday September 15, 2017, the contents of the building was sold at auction to a single bidder. Unfortunately, this is another disgrace for the cause for preservation in Philadelphia where the pressure from developers has been assuring the rapid destruction of the historic fabric of the city. The John Grass Wood Turning Company building is now next in line and only waits for the removal of the contents to be razed. What happened between 2006 when the John Grass Task Force was created and today? And why did the sale of the building and the dispersal of its contents receive zero press when it was one of the most remarkable survivors of the city’s industrial past, a city at one time known as The Workshop of the World? At the auction preview the Thursday before the sale, it appeared I was the only one who showed up for one last look.

The history of the John Grass Company can be found on several sites listed below so I won’t go into detail of the company’s history here except to say John Grass immigrated from Bavaria in 1853 at age 15 and first appears in the city directories as a wood turner in 1872. The company moved the North 2nd Street address in 1916.

Click to go to the link.


Historical Background by Jane Mork Gibson

Hidden City Philadelphia

Save John Grass on Youtube

Below are a selection of my photos of the exterior of the John Grass Wood Turning Co. made in 2009 and interior images made September 15, 2017.


Daniel Kemper Jackson, Unicorn Rocker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1974. Pine, oak, maple. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia.

There is presently a rare opportunity to see the work of Daniel Kemper Jackson (October 18, 1938- August 3, 1995) in person.  Dan’s Rocking Unicorn is on currently on display at the Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. A public viewing has not been possible since its creation in 1974. It was a private commission and was not included in the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History” at the University of the Arts, the present name of what had been the Philadelphia College of Art when Dan taught there from 1964 to 1976. Dan made two previous carved rocking animals, in 1971 a rocking horse for his daughter Sophia and a rocking peacock in 1973. In scale and volume, the Unicorn rocker is the largest work Dan produced – it is 73 inches high, 76 inches long, and 15 inches deep – as well one of his last.

His career was tragically cut short by illness not long after he completed the Unicorn Rocker and few people outside of his contemporaries in the craft scene, his students, and craft historians would recognize his name today. Yet his influence was great, both through his inspirational teaching – many of his students became teachers themselves, his influence now felt by several generations of woodworkers – and by his guidance at setting up two of the preeminent woodworking programs in the country – in 1964 Dan established the woodworking department at the Philadelphia College of Art, and in 1975 he was asked by Jere Osgood to create the woodworking shop for the Program in Artisanry at Boston University.

Dan had a deep interest and knowledge of historical furniture and worked restoring and refinishing furniture for antique dealers while in his teens. This familiarity and appreciation of the history of woodworking is present in much of his work. It is overwhelmingly so in the case of the Unicorn Rocker.

The Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where Dan had his studio on Tulpehocken Street, has a history of intense activity in the woodworking trades, especially from the last quarter of the nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth. The Dentzel Carousel Company, established in 1867 – at several locations on Germantown Avenue – and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, established in 1904, later purchasing the Dentzel Company in 1928 – at 130 East Duvall Street – left a legacy of excellence in the creation of carved carousel animals. Dentzel had been absorbed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company by the time of Dan’s arrival in the early 1960’s but the Philadelphia Toboggan Company would not leave Germantown for Lansdale, Pennsylvania until 1971 and there were still several carving and turning shops producing traditional work throughout the neighborhood during Dan’s time here though they are gone today. (Today Germantown has a thriving arts scene that includes contemporary furniture makers.)

Dan must have come to know this history and was moved to create a carousel animal in his own terms. It does not move up and down on a pole or revolve on a pedestal but it is given movement through its rockers. Like the Dentzel carousel animal carvings it is both sculptural and functional. It is unpainted and the exceptional knowledge of material and lamination and joinery technique is on full display. Now 43 years old, it remains in perfect condition. There is not one split in the numerous laminations. It is worth the effort to see it in person – and make sure you watch it rock.

Dan Jackson in his studio during the making of the Unicorn Rocker. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Daniel Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker in his studio on Tulpehocken Street, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1974. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Dentzel Carousel Company master carver Salvatore Chernigliaro, Germantown, Philadelphia, c. 1920.

The catalogue of the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, with a forward by Steven Tarantal and essays by Helen W. Drutt English and Edward S. Cooke, Jr. is an invaluable resource for information of Daniel Jackson’s life and work.

Dan Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker at The Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. September 14, 2017. Still rocking, but get permission from the gallery first!

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.

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?


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