Chris Schwarz's Blog

Book Review: Two Books on Charleston Furniture

Southern furniture has always fascinated me, most likely because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life eating grits below the Mason-Dixon line.

For many years, Southern furniture was unknown or ignored until organizations such as the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts opened its doors. Of course, Southerners have always known about their furniture, but we’ve always been a little ashamed of it, as much of it was produced with abhorrent slave labor.

There are some great books on the topic, such as “Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection,” which is a fairly pricey tome but filled with great photos.

Recently I revisited two of my books on Charleston furniture while I was visiting my dad’s place down there. These two books are widely available new, used and through inter-library loan (a great way to sample a book before you buy it). Here’s a quick look at them.

“Charleston Furniture 1700-1825” by E. Milby Burton. This book was originally published in 1955 and was a groundbreaking work in its day. Burton, a long-time director of the Charleston Museum, had access to a wide range of documents and original pieces to assemble this book.

The book is as much a history of the town and its cabinetmakers as it is a book about the furniture. Fully half of the book is a survey of the different shops that were operating in the town at the time. Interesting, yes, but not too useful to the woodworker.

What is useful are the photos of the pieces themselves (which are unattributed to their makers) and some of the excellent discussion of some of the Southern woods used in these pieces. I really must get my hands on some red bay (Persea borbonia) to try some time.

There also are some nice hand-drawn elevations of some significant pieces of furniture, most likely that of Thomas Elfe. But there is precious little information on measurements and the like.

Also interesting are the close-up photos of the carving details. The rice leaf carvings on Charleston furniture are among my favorite details. A limited preview of this book is available on Google Books.

“Thomas Elfe: Cabinetmaker” by Samuel Humphrey. Written 40 years after Burton’s work, this book is one of my favorites on Southern furniture. Humphrey is a woodworker, so the text, photos and drawings are all very useful. There are measured drawings of many of Elfe’s most significant pieces, plus details of his famous fretwork pattern (which I really must make some day).

This book puts to rest any doubt that Elfe (plus his employees and slaves) were anything less than world-class builders and designers. Though Elfe is clearly influenced by Thomas Chippendale’s work, his work has a distinct flavor.

If you are a die-hard enthusiast of Southern furniture, both books are well worth owning. However, if you had to choose one, pick up a copy of Humphrey’s book and prepare to be charmed.

– Christopher Schwarz

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Two Books on Charleston Furniture

  1. Hank Knight

    Chris,

    I’ve havd a couple of conversations with May about Kentucky furniture, but it has been years ago. I’ll write him as you suggest and encourage him to write a book on it. He would be a good one to fill in this gap in documenting Southern furniture styles.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

    Hank

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    Hank,

    You are right that Kentucky furniture is a real-sub-style. I have seen a fair amount of it thanks to Warren May, a Berea craftsman who studies the style. He’s written two project articles for Popular Woodworking that feature Kentucky style pieces.

    However, I don’t know of any book that discuss it.

    You should ring up Warren and twist his arm to write a book!

    http://www.warrenamay.com/

    Chris

  3. Hank Knight

    Chris,

    First, thank you for shining your litirary light on Southern Furniture. It has long been neglected.

    I’ve had Burton’s book for many years and captures my interest every time I open it. I think it is especially interesting if you know Charleston well.

    Mark Maleski is correct, many classic American pieces from New England, New York and Pennsylvania were built by slave hands, both before and after the Revolutionary War. The abolitionist movement didn’t really begin to impact slave labor in the North in any significant way until the 1820s at the earliest.

    On another, related Southern Furniture topic, are you aware of any titles that discuss Kentucky furniture? I’ve always been of the opinion that furniture built in Kentucky during the early to mid 1800s represents distinctive style. It is simple, well proportioned and often decorated with simple string inlay. It is much less formal than Charleston style, but more refined than what I would classify as "country." I’ve not seen anything that discusses "Kentucky" style, so maybe I’m misguided as to whether it is a separate style or genre.

    Hank

  4. Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    Thanks for your recent posts highlighting Charleston period furniture. It’s nice that in recent years we’ve been seeing a wider, albeit belated, acceptance of Southern furniture as *legitimate*. Of course it’s never been illegitimate; it’s just been traditionally dismissed by the cognoscenti of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic antique furniture worlds as not being good enough. Are not prices beginning to reflect this new acceptance?

    And therein lays my disagreement with you about why the recognition hasn’t been there over the last century. To say Southerners have been mildly ashamed of our furniture because of the slave labor aspect of our history oversimplifies it. That’s a reason, but by no means THE reason. Alluding to Mark’s post, there’s enough of the stain of slavery in the history of trades in America to color in varying degrees both Northern and Southern builders and buyers of period furniture.

    Rather, I think Southern period furniture’s anonymity is due in large part to a patronizing and disdainful attitude, oftentimes openly expressed by antique dealers, curators and furniture historians, that no quality period furniture was produced below Pennsylvania.

    Opinionated folks like Wallace Nutting lead this charge. In Vol. 3 of Furniture Treasury he lists his personal pantheon in the Cabinetmakers In America section. There are very, very few Southern names in there (Elfe is listed along with Thomas Legare and Richard Magrath), with even fewer names from centers other than Charleston. And none of the Southern cabinetmakers get any additional explanatory background of the type Goddard and the notable Northern builders receive. Nutting was not alone in this attitude, just very vocal. I think they felt Southern furniture did not came up to standard (as defined by them) and therefore (herdlike) didn’t pay much attention to it.

    But as you point out, that’s changing. So we see progress in the “discovery" of Southern Furniture.

    Rick

  5. Bill

    Hey, neat trick. Just wondering how you managed to post a blog entry dated July 29 on July 25. I mean, I figured you might be in a different time zone or something, but that’s kinda ridiculous!

  6. Mark Maleski

    The Humphrey book is indeed a fine book, and the Burton book is on my wish-list (thanks for sharing your endorsement of it). The book on Charleston that I covet is the 3-volume "Furniture of Charleston" by Rauschenberg & Bivens. I was able to peruse a copy at a local SAPFM meeting and was highly impressed. Sadly it’s out of print and used copies are rare/costly.

    BTW, all pre-Revolutionary furniture must be associated with slavery. Newport was a slave-trade hub, slavery existed throughout the northern colonies, and the mahogany trade depended on slave labor. We should be able to be appropriately reverential about that without letting it obscure the topic at hand.

    Mark Maleski
    Herndon, VA

Comments are closed.