July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Republican austerity, the simple life suited to a new and still quite .primitive nation, was an appealing notion when the United States came into being. There was something rugged about the continent itself, after all; and we were quick to contrast ourselves with the corruption of an effete monarchical government. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson began his Presidency, and his own egalitarian principles pushed the country still further away from the pomp and etiquette that prevailed overseas.
But it never occurred to Jefferson—or, indeed, to most of the other Founding Fathers—to equate simplicity of manner with ugly houses or plain furniture. The archives of the period bulge with letters in which these statesmen, Washington foremost as usual, require their correspondents to ship them a wide variety of luxury goods. Just recently a bottle of Jefferson’s Bordeaux wine reached a vast sum at auction ($156,450); some of his French furniture is back at Monticello; and, of course, that house and the Jefferson-designed University of Virginia are among this country’s architectural masterpieces.
When it came to furniture, American cabinetmakers, most notably in Newport and Philadelphia, had for some time been making furniture that could rival the best imports, but in the years after the Revolution the domestic industry flowered. Spurred by a burgeoning maritime economy and invigorated by a fresh wave of immigrant craftsmen skilled in the latest European styles and techniques, new regional centers emerged and new, specialized kinds of furniture came into being.
The secretary on the opposite page is a case in point. It is in the style of Thomas Sheraton, the English cabinet-maker whose graceful neoclassicism came to dominate furniture making as the eighteenth century drew to a close. This piece, however, was made in New York. Harmonious and delicate, its sien- der elegance makes it virtually certain that it was meant for a lady, and its first owner must indeed have been pleased. Although the French Empire style, with its stiffer, heavier, more majestic forms, was gaining influence in this period—the first decade of the nineteenth century —the secretary is purely English in concept even if, by London standards, a little behind the times. What we see here, in fact, is a testimonial to the relative isolation of the United States; it took time for European fashions to cross the Atlantic. And once they arrived, they invariably underwent a more or less sub- tie transformation into an American—or, more precisely, a regional—vernacular. The craftsmen of Salem, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all produced distinct variations on the imported styles.
It is also clear from this secretary that American craftsmen equaled their European counterparts. Whether this is the work of Duncan Phyfe or another New York cabinetmaker such as Michael Allison or John T. Dolan, the fact remains that surface, proportions, and details are all superb. The exceptional fineness of the grain of the mahogany, the delicacy of the finials—an American eagle flanked by two classical urns—the slender, archlike tracery of the doors, the trompe’oeil drawers outlined in ebony, the subtly reeded legs, and the gentle, bulbshaped swelling of the feet all bespeak the hand of a master. Indeed, there exist very few pieces of this quality.
Of course it was not cheap. Although no invoice has survived, the secretary must have cost something between twenty and thirty dollars, a huge sum at a time when the charge on the toll road between Albany and Schenectady was twenty cents for a horse and carriage, and when it was possible to live, decently though modestly, on a dollar a week. We do not know who the first owner was, but she probably was a New Yorker —although, naturally, pieces made in the city were often shipped elsewhere. And she must have been wealthy: in the first decade of the nineteenth century, New York was already the great financial and trading center it has remained ever since. The banks prospered, and Wall Street became something more than a topographical location. Even then observers complained about the shocking luxury flaunted by the new rich.
At the same time, New York was becoming the busiest harbor in the United States. The customhouse was turning into one of the great political patronage plums, and merchants were building vast fortunes. Perhaps the first owner of the secretary belonged to that fortunate elite. What is, in any event, sure is that the secretary provided its owner not just with the look of elegance but with all the modern conveniences as well. The shelves behind those glazed doors are adjustable; the writing tablet slides out; and a secret well encloses two drawers where letters and awkward bills could be kept discreetly.
Just a few years before, the secretary’s owner might well have ordered it in Europe, but Napoleon’s endless wars and the constant interruptions in shipping that resulted had made imports unreliable. So American craftsmen got their chance to show that they, too, could produce beautiful furniture. They never looked back, and the Sheraton secretary was the beginning of a long and glorious tradition.