Chester County Furniture

By Susan Hanway Scott
Photo Courtesy of H.L. Chalfant:
American Fine Art & Antiques
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December 23, 2010
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Chester County Furniture

Newport shells? Check. Shaker room? Got it. New York Classical chairs? Yes.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) American Collections are not meant to be local, but “to exhibit both the range and depth of the Museum’s collections.” Yet curators could easily fill the galleries with furniture from their own city. After all, “Philadelphia was the undisputed center of furniture making before the Revolution, where the development of the Philadelphia Chippendale style reached the apogee of colonial achievement…” according to Joseph Downs in American Furniture.

Philadelphia furniture wasn’t shabby after the Revolution, either. Given space limitations, what furniture from Chester County makes the cut at the PMA and what does it tell us about local antique furniture?

On a pedestal in the PMA’s Patricia Sinnett Flammer Gallery are three objects: a maple transitional side chair by Philadelphia Quaker William Savery, 1750–1760; a Germanic wardrobe from Lancaster County; and a rush-seated ladderback armchair, 1750-1780, “probably made in Southeast Pennsylvania.” A label explains, “The furniture displayed on this platform was produced in the mid- to late 1700s by artists working in more traditional styles, often in settlements west of Philadelphia. Their form and decoration are less trendy than the high-style Philadelphia-made furnishings also on display in this gallery and often resemble furniture made in the European countries where the settlers were born.”

PMA curator Alexandra Kirtley says, “These pieces are very traditional and functional with little indicators of style….” The chairs could have been made in England, Philadelphia, or in Chester County, and they would have been commonly found in the country or in the city, reminding us that only the wealthy, perhaps the top two percent, bought high-style furniture.

So simple pieces were made in both the city and the country, but the latest, fanciest high-style furniture was made in Philadelphia, right? Not always. There are several beautiful pieces of furniture on display, such as a Queen Anne walnut transitional side chair, made by Solomon Fussell, labeled, “probably made in Southeastern Pennsylvania, possibly Philadelphia.” Displayed nearby is a tiger maple dressing table, 1735-40, with the same “probably/possibly” description.

“Philadelphia was the undisputed center of furniture making before the Revolution, where the development of the Philadelphia Chippendale style reached the apogee of colonial achievement.…”

Even more dramatic than these pieces is a 1724 William and Mary lowboy, inlaid on the top, proclaimed by Albert Sacks as a “masterpiece” (and owned by the PMA but not currently on display), made in Philadelphia or Chester County. Consider that in 1718 there were only 903 landholders in all of Chester County, according to an article entitled Distribution of Wealth in Eighteenth-Century America by Jack Marietta.

Of course, all it takes is one wealthy landowner and one very talented cabinetmaker to produce such a masterpiece. Yes, Philadelphia produced a lot more high-style furniture than Chester County. In Worldly Goods, Jack Lindsey wrote, “Philadelphia’s leading workshops … had the capital to employ and keep specialized turners, carvers, engravers, and chasers, whose skills, honed over time, greatly augmented the quality and range of finished products they could offer.”

However, when William Hornor wrote, “The proportions constitute the truest guide in differentiating between Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania productions. In the former they were almost always good; in the country the lines were less conventional,” he was perpetuating a stereotype.

In contrast, Albert Sacks wrote in The New Fine Points of Furniture, “Some very wonderful pieces were made in areas outside the big centers, with much expertise and quality.” Sacks goes on to write, “Many smaller centers and towns in New Hampshire, Connecticut and the Connecticut Valley, Chester County, and Lancaster, for example, produced pieces exhibiting earlier influences long after the general circas associated with those periods had past.”

One of the best local examples of this phenomenon is wainscot seating. A wainscot chair in the Flammer Gallery, 1710-1730, from Southeastern Pennsylvania (probably from Chester County, according to Kirtley), is an early piece, but the style persisted in Chester County. In a dissertation on Line and Berry Inlaid Furniture, Lee Ann Griffith wrote, “It is remarkable that a wainscot settle was made using joinery techniques and dated 1758, just a few miles away from Philadelphia, the most innovative and influential style center in the colonies.”

Schiffer explains this “style lag” in Furniture and its Makers of Chester County. “For over 200 years the population of the county was primarily rural, conservative, and middle-class with a strong Quaker element.” Yes, but don’t forget the 1724 lowboy, quite high style for its time.

Chester County was not uniformly middle class. Marietta’s work describes a sharp increase in share of wealth among the top 10 percent of Chester County landowners after 1750. And, as Barry Levy writes in his dissertation The Light in the Valley, Chester County Quakers were “materially ambitious and successful.”

Sometimes their material success was confined to quintessentially Chester County furniture, like the wonderful 1740–1760 line-and-berry chest in PMA’s “Rural Pennsylvania Collections,” and sometimes it wasn”t.

“Some early craftsmen who trained as apprentices in Philadelphia established independent shops in Delaware, Chester, Bucks, and Montgomery counties .…” according to Lindsey. Philadelphia craftsmen moved to Chester County and vice versa. Philadelphians bought furniture in Chester County, and vice versa. Line-and-berry inlaid furniture is particular to Chester County, but there’s an inlaid chest in the Flammer gallery made in Philadelphia, that’s pretty much just missing the berries.