Flashback: Chester County Cabinetmakers

March 13th, 2009

This article on the cabinetmakers of Chester County, Pa., during the 18th and 19th centuries discusses the evolution of the trade, notable cabinet makers, and popular furniture requests of the era. It originally appeared in the April 1939  issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

The scope covered by the work of Chester County, Pa., cabinetmakers was literally from the cradle to the coffin. The daybooks are filled with orders for these two articles, which with that other symbol of man’s recumbency, the bed, seem to have been the most popular furniture of the day.

Governor Pennypacker's Desk: This slat-top walnut desk of the Chippendale period, with shell carvings in the interior, was undoubtedly made in Chester County. Until recently, it remained in the possession of descendants of its original owner.

Governor Pennypacker's Desk: This slat-top walnut desk of the Chippendale period, with shell carvings in the interior, was undoubtedly made in Chester County. Until recently, it remained in the possession of descendants of its original owner.

In between, of course, were the various articles which a man used and from which he drew a large measure of comfort during his earthly existence. There were chairs, tables for dining and other purposes, chests of drawers for storing his clothes, desks for his accounts and letters, tall clocks to measure the passing of time, and sundry items that filled the home of the 18th and early 19th Centuries. All these were made, and made well, by the cabinetmakers of Chester County.

According to the records, however, it was late in the 18th Century before any craftsman of this section actually styled himself cabinetmaker. The reason is not far to seek if one remembers that Chester County had no large centers of population at the time.

There was no courthouse in Goshen and the town of West Chester was not only unincorporated, but consisted of a little group of houses at a crossroads known as Turk’s Head. Through the hills and hollows of the county, every township, hamlet, or tiny cluster of houses had its own group of artisans. These were a cobbler, a tailor, a potter, a wheelwright, a joyner, a whitesmith, a blacksmith, and possibly, if the farmers were prosperous enough, a silversmith and a cabinetmaker.

Incidentally, although the trades of carpenter, joyner, and cabinetmaker tended to overlap, especially in a rural community, they were by no means synonymous. According to Webster, a carpenter is a workman in the heavier forms of wood, as with lumber in the structural work of a building; a joyner is one who joins pieces of wood, as in stairways and panels, window frames, and the like; and a cabinetmaker is one who makes fine woodwork, usually of grained hardwoods, as cabinets, chests of drawers, cupboards, etc. It is easy to see how through the years a man moved up from one trade to another, not only because his skill in woodworking increased, but because his neighborhood grew. For a century and a half ago, even as now, growth meant segregation and specialization.

Dining Table by Amos Darlington, Jr.: The turnings of this table, in two parts, match those of the Lafayette bed, made in 1822 by the same craftsman.

Dining Table by Amos Darlington, Jr.: The turnings of this table, in two parts, match those of the Lafayette bed, made in 1822 by the same craftsman.

In other words, where a neighborhood corners with its outlying farms suddenly found itself of enough importance and number of inhabitants to be styled village or town, it at once was in need of all three woodworkers, each a specialist, and possibly by force of circumstances, several steps above what he had originally intended. This may account for the fact that occasionally one finds pieces of old furniture beautifully joined, but ill-proportioned.

After the town of West Chester was incorporated in 1786, and as such townships as Goshen, Bradford, Westtown, and Birmingham grew in importance, there was a definite drift of artisans towards centers where population and patrons were most plentiful. Soon there was competition, which meant better and more ambitious work as well as advertising. At first there were only two mediums, a paper printed in German in Berks County and the Philadelphia Gazette. The latter was the logical choice for the truly ambitious man and between the years 1785 and 1796 several broadsides of Chester County cabinetmakers appeared.

In 1796, we find Benanial Ogden, cabinetmaker, on the West Chester tax list as owner of a large unfinished stone house and a “pretty good” shop. The stone house, long since completed, is now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Brinton. There is no known piece of furniture from his workshop, but Mr. Brinton did find a small Chippendale mirror with the signature of Thomas Beale, known to have been an apprentice of Ogden, on the back of its frame. Consequently, this mirror frame may have been made in the “pretty good” shop listed earlier by its owner.

Bible Chest by Amos Darlington, Sr.: The inlaid initials, A B, are those of Amos Brinton, for whom this miniature chest was made.

Bible Chest by Amos Darlington, Sr.: The inlaid initials, A B, are those of Amos Brinton, for whom this miniature chest was made.

Amos Darlington was another cabinetmaker who began working in 1796. Because he and his son, Amos, Jr., both kept careful account books, we have a clearer picture of them and what they made than of any other Chester County cabinetmakers. The books of the elder Amos run until 1828 and shed much light on what he made and the prices he received. Here are a few examples. In January, 1799, he made a fine walnut cradle for Caleb Brinton, prolific occupant of a house known as the Bee Hive near Westtown, at a cost of £1-7-6. A mahogany coffin listed the same year was priced at £3, or with hinges, 7-6 extra. On December 20, 1799, there was a corner cupboard for Job Darlington at £15, which was the equivalent of $75; and on June 28 of the next year he made a mahogany chest of drawers with claw feet for Amos Way at £8.

Before and after the turn of the 19th Century we find him charging £10 for a circular bureau; £2-12-6 for a high post bedstead; £9 for a secretary and bookcase; and £9 for a pair of circular card tables. All these pieces were quite different from the simple type one would expect in a Quaker district. Also, a few excerpts direct from his account books not only show that some of his prices compared favorably with the amounts charged by Philadelphia cabinetmakers, but that he had the ability to execute sophisticated designs if such were demanded of him:

“William Brinton Dr. August 12, 1801; To a Chest of Drawers 7-10-0; To a Dining Table 3; To a Breakfast Table 1-17-6; To a high post Bedstead 3; To a Chest 1-2-6. Dr. William Darlington, Dr. May 28, 1808; To a Library Book Case in two parts 9.”

Consulting the tax list for 1807, the name of Isaac Weaver, son of the silversmith Joshua, appears as a cabinetmaker. Like the Darlingtons, father and son, he lived in or near West Chester. Two years later the first county newspaper, The Village Record, was founded. In it, at least five of the county’s cabinetmakers advertised; that of Isaac Weaver, which appeared in 1810, reads:

A Darlington Tea Caddy: This piece, made of mahogany, in the Hepplewhite manner with delicate geometric inlay designs, was the work of Amos Darlington, Jr.

A Darlington Tea Caddy: This piece, made of mahogany, in the Hepplewhite manner with delicate geometric inlay designs, was the work of Amos Darlington, Jr.

“Isaac Weaver, Cabinetmaker, takes the liberty of informing his friends and the public generally, that he continues to make all kinds of cabinet-ware in the best and most fashionable style either plain or inlaid, next door to his father’s in the borough of West Chester, Chester County, where all orders directed to him will be attended to with punctuality and on the most reasonable terms. He also makes coffins and attends funerals on the shortest reasonable notice.”

In 1813, when he had just turned 21, an advertisement of Amos Darlington, Jr. appeared in The Village Record:

“AMOS DARLINGTON, Jun. RESPECTFULLY informs his friends and the public generally, that he intends carrying on the CABINET making business, at the old stand of Amos Darlington, senior, near West Chester. Coffins made and funerals attended to upon the shortest notice.”

He lived, as did his father, in the environs of West Chester throughout his life. His account books run until the year after his death, 1853, and necessarily contain many of the later and less interesting furniture of the Empire period. I have examined many pieces in the possession of the Misses Strode, granddaughters of the younger Amos. Such pieces as a maple sewing stand, tilt-top table, and dining table, made in the 1820′s, are beautifully constructed and show how fully he absorbed the art passed on to him by his father. Among the items in Amos, Jr.’s account book are:

“March 1823, To the Commissioner of Chester County A Book Case for the Prothonatary’s office $15; April 1819 To George Matlack 1 pair of mahogany bureaus $40; June 1821 To Davis Beaumont A window cornish $2; Dec. 1822 To Richard Jacobs 1 Bedstead, beaded Cornish $15.”

A Spice Box of Local Origin: The large central drawer bears the initials of Mary Martin Brinton, for whom the piece was made shortly after her marriage, in 1774, to Joseph Brinton. The one piece back slides upward, giving access to a number of cleverly concealed small drawers behind those seen from the front.

A Spice Box of Local Origin: The large central drawer bears the initials of Mary Martin Brinton, for whom the piece was made shortly after her marriage, in 1774, to Joseph Brinton. The one piece back slides upward, giving access to a number of cleverly concealed small drawers behind those seen from the front.

Also the following itemized account shows that this excellent craftsman was not above making humble household things if needed and ordered:

“1824 David Townsend, Dr.; Febry 5 To A Single Bedstead  $4; To A Walnut Candle Stand 3; July 25, To 2 venition Blinds for Bank 8; August 10 To a Small Box for Bank 0.25; 1825 March 29 To a rat Trap 0.25; October 31 To Cradle Rockers 0.50; Novr. 5 To a High post Bedstead & Cornice 11; Nov. 7 To A Cloths Horse 1.50.”

Another piece of the younger Amos Darlington’s work still in existence is a carved mahogany high post bed made about 1822. By an interesting chain of circumstances it became one of the many beds slept in by famous personages. When General Lafayette visited West Chester on August 26, 1825, he was scheduled to spend the night at the Cross Keys Hotel (later White Hall) on Gay Street, but the children of the keeper had scarlet fever. Consequently, the great man was entertained at the home of the Burgess, Ziba Pyle, across the street. Ziba, feeling that he had no bed fine enough for the General, appealed to Amos Darlington, Jr. for a bedstead commensurate with the dignity of the occasion. The cabinetmaker loaned him the carved mahogany one from his own home. It is still owned by one of his descendants.

In addition to the cabinetmakers already mentioned, two others advertised in the local paper before 1810. One was Thomas Ogden, son of Benanial. He worked well past the 1840′s and in addition to other cabinetwork, supplied the cases for Joseph Cave, West Chester clockmaker, who also advertised in The Village Record between 1824 and 1838. The other cabinetmaker advertising prior to 1810 was Elisha Swagger, about whom we know little besides the information conveyed by his advertisement.

It is interesting to note that all six of these craftsmen lived in or around West Chester; all advertised; all called themselves cabinetmakers (not joyners or carpenters of which the countryside was full); and all achieved this status after 1786. The one exception was Elias Neild of Birmingham, who described himself as cabinetmaker in a deed in 1785 and then disappeared.

Clock by Joseph Wills: Wills worked in Willistown, Chester County, and Philadelphia.

Clock by Joseph Wills: Wills worked in Willistown, Chester County, and Philadelphia.

Such are the brief sidelights on the known Chester County cabinetmakers as town records, daybooks, and newspaper advertising reveal them to us. In addition, there were numerous fine and early pieces made in this county which have no maker’s name, but are inextricably linked with its history. For example: the Pennel desk inlaid with initials and date; a desk with fine shell carving, descended in a branch of the family of Governor Pennypacker; and a spice box made in 1774 for Mary Brinton a year after her marriage to Joseph Brinton, which has her initials on the inner drawer.

Of course, in a thoroughly Quaker county, severity is characteristic of most of the cabinetwork. But as already stated, our cabinetmakers could and did make sophisticated and gracefully decorated pieces. Not so long ago we were called in to appraise what had once been such a piece. It was described over the telephone as a family heirloom in the shape of a high chest on legs. It turned out to be a beautifully proportioned Pennsylvania highboy with all the earmarks of Chester County cabinetwork. From across the room, we admired the slender ankle of the cabriole legs; but as we came nearer we realized that here were very strange looking feet. Bending down we saw that the claw decoration had been sliced cleanly off to the ball, leaving only a meaningless blob of wood. Further, each knee showed other rough scars where the same misguided hand had sliced away a beautifully and deeply carved cockle shell.

The piece had evidently passed down from liberal generations of Friends to the opposite type, whose religious scruples would brook no decoration and so they had cut it off.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.