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
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