Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Visit to Thomas Elfe’s House

“Charlestonians thought of themselves as Englishmen who happened to be living in America, and naturally did everything possible to emulate the life of London society.”

- E. Milby Burton, “Charleston Furniture 1700-1825″

Thomas Elfe (1719-1775) was likely the most successful cabinetmaker in colonial Charlestown. One estimate put his personal worth at more than 6,200 English pounds, a sizable fortune for a woodworker.

His shop on King Street in Charleston produced thousands of pieces for the well-monied classes of this wealthy city. A contemporary of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), Elfe’s work was heavily influenced by Chippendale’s “The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director,” though the pieces I’ve seen of Elfe’s work also show distinct Southern American touches.

Since I started visiting Charleston in 1993, I’ve read a lot about Elfe, seen his work in museums and read “Thomas Elfe Cabinetmaker.” But I’ve never visited his house on Queen Street, a circa 1760 Georgian house which is open for tours only two hours per day on Monday through Friday. My schedule and the house’s schedule have just never matched up.

Today I finally got to take a tour while I sent the rest of my family to the city market to buy T-shirts and llama-shaped key chains. The reason the house has such unusual hours is because it’s still the residence of Bill Ward, who owns the house and runs the tour.

The house is unusual because it sits about 30 feet off Queen Street, an unusually deep setback. Ward explained that the person who bought the house in 1968 when it was in a derelict state jacked it up and moved it back from the edge of Queen.

Other than that unusual point, the house is remarkably well-preserved. The four original rooms of the house are completely outfitted with the original cypress woodwork and nine-over-nine windows. To add to the Colonial effect, Ward turns off all the modern lighting (which I didn’t see much evidence of) and lights candles and relies on the natural light filtering in from the street during the tour. This enhances the tour, but makes interior photos impossible (I refuse to use flashes, sorry, but you can see photos here).

Ward has outfitted the house with original American, English and European antiques from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including a modern reproduction of one of Elfe’s stacking chests made by a cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg.

While Ward patiently answered the occasionally inane questions from the rest of the tourists (“What do you mean, it’s …?Chippendale?’ “), I took the opportunity to examine the woodwork throughout carefully. All four rooms of the house have fireplaces that are surrounded by beautiful cypress frame-and-panel mantles with extensive built-ins.

All the house’s remaining doors are original with beautiful hardware and bold fields on the door’s panels. The rooms also feature wainscoting below a chair rail , all in all it’s a joiner’s paradise. Ward said that this wasn’t Elfe’s final house; a later house burned down.

What I also really like about these house tours is that you can get a bit of history that has been unfiltered by Disney or some modern interpreter. Elfe quite fits the American ideal of an entrepreneur. He was trained in England and came to the Colonies to seek his fortune. But he was a Tory, loyal to the crown, and owned a good number of slaves. Ward says that Elfe owned 10 slaves that worked in his shops and another 50 that worked at a farm that Elfe owned.

After the Revolution began, Elfe was deceased, but he had passed his tools and possessions to his son Thomas Elfe Jr., also a cabinet maker and carpenter. His family was punished by the new government, exiled from Charleston for a time and the estate heavily taxed.

Today I think that Elfe’s work is sorely underappreciated. Search the Internet a bit and I think you’ll agree that pieces from his shop are at the top of the heap. And there is lots of research ahead. One of his account books survives, which has been an invaluable source of data for scholars. But appreciation for Elfe himself isn’t on the scale it should be.

Witness the comments Ward made as we were wrapping up the tour. We were standing in his reproduction kitchen, which cleverly conceals the appliances, when I asked him if he knew this was Thomas Elfe’s house when he and his wife purchased it.

“No, not really,” he said. “My wife was from Charleston and we were looking for an appropriate period house to buy to house our antiques. We didn’t know who Thomas Elfe was.”

- Christopher Schwarz

A view of the garden from the modern back porch.

A view of the modern back porch and kitchen. The original kitchen burned.

11 thoughts on “A Visit to Thomas Elfe’s House

  1. Mark Maleski

    Chris,

    Thank you for your posts on Charleston and 18th century development. Charleston is one of my favorite places to visit – though not sure which I enjoy more: the history, the architecture, or the food!

    It’s interesting that Elfe (and Charleston cabinetmakers in general) used cypress as a secondary wood yet you found it was used in Elfe’s house for mantles, window frames, etc. I would’ve expected a more ‘desirable’ species to have been used. Thoughts?

    WRT the accredidation of Elfe’s work – Humphrey’s book makes the point that it’s difficult to trace more than a few pieces directly to Elfe’s hands. We simply don’t have the primary sources available to us to do "research on his slaves" or the "sophistication [they] had in their woodworking abilities." What we do know is that pre-revolutionary cabinetmakers in all of the colonies gained an advantage from slavery in many different ways. I’d hope we can be reverential about that while not letting it distract us from the study of the cabinetry and those icons who produced it.

    Mark Maleski
    Herndon, VA

  2. Scott

    Dear Chris:
    Of course I don’t think you write a pro slavery blog. It is an inciteful and well written one, as is your magazine. Talking about slavery is not "politics" it is history. Talking about Elfe and his slaves is about the history of woodworking. To answer your question, no you shouldn’t ignore everything the man did as long as you can be sure the man actually did it. If I saw such a place I would be struck at the sophistication that the slaves had in their woodworking abilities, without the benefits that Elfe was given in life. Would a study of Greene and Greene be adequate without studying the Halls.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Scott,

    I mentioned his slaves. If you think this is a pro-slavery blog, you’re mistaken.

    The work attributed to Elfe’s shop (and his slave labor) is extraordinary. Should we ignore everything made under conditions unacceptable to our modern views?

    If you want to talk about woodworking, please continue. If you want to talk about politics, please hold your tongue on this blog.

    If you want to discuss this offline, send me an e-mail.

    Kind regards,

    Chris

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Dan,

    No, those chairs were part of the owner’s collection, which did not have any Elfe pieces. I thought they were curious myself. Next time I see Mike Dunbar I’ll have to ask him about them.

    Chris

  5. Dan Pleska

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the tour. I noticed in one of the photos that there were a couple of Windsor chairs with an unusual shape to the bow back. Were these Elfe’s design or just something I haven’t seen before?

    Thanks again,
    Dan

  6. Chris Somers

    Chris,

    Thanks again for expanding my knowledge of this history of this craft. This perspective – which obviously finds its way into PWW and Woodworking – is a valuable distinction for your publications, IMHO.

    Otherwise, I have just one word for you:

    "Tripod"

    or, heck, even "Monopod."

    -Chris

  7. Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    Bravo for (again) highlighting the excellent but under appreciated work of Southern cabinet makers like Elfe. Though I’m biased toward this form, I believe they surrendered nothing to Townsend, the Seymours et.al.

    Now imagine being the joiner who was commisioned by Thomas Elfe to fit out the interior of his new house. I’m guessing he was a pretty tough customer.

    (Unless he had his slaves or his employees do the work or did it himself. Do you know?)

    Cheers,

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Actually, that chest in the Chipstone exhibit (a *very* interesting thing in and of itself) is not the double chest on Humphrey’s book. Both are indeed beautiful. The one on Humphrey’s book features Elfe’s famous fretwork design.

    Thanks for the links!

    Chris

  9. J Nelson

    There is a table made by John McAlister at:
    http://www.sapfm.org/gallery/viewpiece.php?id=185

    It is based on a design by Thomas Elfe. The original is known as the Rutledge Family Breakfast Table. The design is elegant and the reproduction beautifully made.

    An original Thomas Elfe double chest can be seen at:
    http://www.chipstone.org/SpecialProjects/Cost/14cost.html

    I assume it is the same chest pictured on the cover of Humphrey’s book about Elfe. The wood is gorgeous.

  10. Michael Brady

    I’ve discovered the woodworking time machine! Here I sit on July 16th and I’m able to read the blog entires from July 17-20. Awesome. What will the market do on Monday, Chris? Please respond below:

    P.S. Next time you have TLN’s ear could you whisper the words "sharpening jig" into it?

COMMENT