In Focus

Desk and bookcase [1985.B.27.A-B], 18th century, Salem (Henry Rust attribution by Charles Venable)

The following essay is from the 1989 publication: American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable. In this essay, Venable attributes this piece to cabinetmaker Henry Rust. Later scholarship reveals that it was made by Nathaniel Gould.

Desk and bookcases such as this one were extremely rare in colonial America. Not only were they labor intensive to construct, requiring the shaping and fitting of dozens of parts, but they consumed large quantities of imported mahogany. Consequently, the only persons who could afford them were members of America's mercantile elite. Placed in one of the finest parlors of a house, such desks functioned simultaneously as symbols of wealth and power and as organizational centers of one's business activities. The upper bookcase section held the numerous ledgers which recorded business transactions, which the lower portion provided storage for correspondence and important documents. Its fall front acted as both a writing surface and a security barrier. A variety of things, from rolled maps and sea charts to sheets and clothing, could be placed in the bottom drawers.

The original owner of this desk and bookcase was probably Col. Joseph Sprague (1739-1808) of Salem, Massachusetts. Sprague was one of Salem’s most prominent merchants during the second half of the eighteenth century. Not only did he operate an import-export business, he owned a distillery and two farms as well. He also held stock in the Danvers Iron Factory, Andover Bridge, Union Star Insurance Company, and the Salem and Danvers Aqueduct. Upon his death in 1808, Sprague’s total property was worth the enormous sum of $86,925.69. Among his holdings was a well-furnished “mansion house” at 384 Essex Street. Besides 195 troy ounces of silver plate, this house contained a “Book Case” worth $31. This item was by far the single most expensive piece of furniture in Sprague’s home and was probably the mahogany desk and bookcase seen here.

Upon Col. Sprague’s death in 1808, his house and its contents passed to his daughter, Sarah White Sprague (1764-1844), and her husband, Dr. William Stearns (1754-1819). Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Stearns graduated from Harvard in 1776. After studying medicine with Dr. Joshua Brackett of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Stearns moved to Salem where he opened an apothecary and grocer’s shop. In 1781 Stearns’s success enabled him to marry Sarah White Sprague, the daughter of one of Salem’s richest and most prestigious families.

When Stearns’s inventory was taken following his death in 1819, his furniture was grouped together as "House-hold Furniture” along with other items, including clothing and his horses and chaise. The total sum of his combined property and business investments was almost $60,000. The home his wife had received from her father was worth $4,000 alone.

Although it too does not list furniture separately, the inventory of Sarah White Stearns provides a clearer picture of the character of the Sprague-Stearns family furnishings. This 1844 document lists each room in the Essex Street house separately along with the total value of their contents. While the entire house was well furnished, the more expensive and impressive pieces were concentrated in the most public rooms, the two front parlors. In the “Eastern front room” there was $175 worth of furniture. The “Western front room” contained pieces valued at the enormous sum of $300. By investing in impressive furniture and placing it on view in their front parlors for others to see, the Stearns emphasized their high standing in the social and economic hierarchy of Salem.

This desk and bookcase is part of a large group of blockfront furniture from the North Shore of Massachusetts. Although strong similarities between these pieces indicate that this design tradition was one followed by numerous cabinetmakers in this part of New England, this particular example is part of a distinct group of exceptional case pieces made in Salem. At present this group includes three blockfront desk and bookcases and five desks.

Besides having virtually identical proportions, carved shells on their base drops and/or bonnets, claw-and-ball feet, base molding and blocking profiles, and interior layouts, all of these case pieces are constructed in the same manner. The bottom boards are single wide boards; the glue blocks are thick and shaped; the rear ones are cut on a diagonal; the solid drawer fronts are relieved on the inside; the sliding dovetails of the drawer divers are left exposed; the drawer sides are finished with a double-bead apparently made by the same molding plane; they all lack giant dovetails behind their base molding; and they have stock cut to the same thicknesses and used in the same directions.

Although variations occur in decorative details on the interiors, the knee brackets, and blocking (the top corners could either be squared or rounded), the only major construction feature that varies is the base’s framing. Two methods were used-either the feet and glue blocks were applied directly to the baseboard as here or framing members were inserted between the clocking and the baseboard along the front and sides.

What is most interesting about the shop that produced these exceptionally well-designed and finely blocked case pieces is that it simultaneously made equally impressive bombé furniture. Although the three known bombé desks and two chest of drawers from this shop have curved sides and front facades, rather than blocking, they are constructed in basically the same manner. The two methods of base framing are found on these pieces, as well as identical base moldings, glue blocks, feet, shells, and proportions. The bombé desks’ interiors are basically the same as those of the blocked examples. One intriguing difference between the blocked and bombé case pieces is in the dovetailing of their drawers. On the blocked examples the drawers sides are straight and the rear dovetails are exactly like those in the front of each lower drawer. However, in the bombé pieces the drawer sides are curved to follow the shape of the case sides and the pins and tails of the rear dovetails are reversed in comparison to the front corners. The reason for this reversal is at present unclear.

Although a desk and bookcase identical to this example has recently been published as from the workshop of Nathaniel Gould, it is more probably that they were made in the Salem cabinetshop of Henry Rust. The existence of three inscribed pieces of furniture support this conclusion. The first of these is a relatively plain desk which is neither blocked nor bombe, but has a closely related interior, bracket foot profile, and overall construction. On the document drawers are numerous ink inscriptions including: “This Desk / Made By / Henry Rust / of / Salem. . . .Salem New England / one Thousand seven Hundred and / Seventy.” The signature is the same as that on Rust’s 1812 will. The second case piece is a blockfront desk which is like the lower section of the Bybee desk and bookcase. On the bottom of this fall-front desk is the chiseled inscription “H x Rust.” The final example is a desk and bookcase identical to the one seen here. Although not signed by Rust, this piece carries on the top of its lower section the inscription, “Nath Gould not his work” and the date 1779. A comparison between this inscription and the lengthy, signed ones on the document drawers of the first desk suggests that they were all done by the same hand- that of Henry Rust.

Born in 1737, Henry Rust was the son of an Ipswich tanner, John Rust (1707 - ca. 1750). Shortly after his father’s death, Henry was sent to Salem, where he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. According to the early Salem historian, Col. Benjamin Pickman, Rust was bound over to the “joiner” Jonathan Gavet. However, Jonathan Gavet (1731-1806) would only have been about nineteen years old when Rust arrived in Salem around 1750. Also, he was primarily a turner by trade, not a cabinetmaker. It is far more likely that Rust was apprenticed to Jonathan’s father, Joseph Gavert (1699-1765).

Joseph Gavet ran one of Salem’s most sophisticated cabinetmaking shops. At his death in 1765, the shop contained an enormous quantity of specialized tools and three workbenches. During his tenure in the Gavet shop, Rust would have learned to use this wide range of tools and to perform various joinery techniques. Given Joseph Gavet’s family connections, he may have also absorbed a design aesthetic which was heavily influenced by that of Newport, Rhode Island.

Joseph Gavet was the son of a joiner, Philip Gavet (d. ca. 1714). Although Philip was probably born in Essex County, Massachusetts, he moved to Westerly, Rhode Island, around 1713 to live with his oldest son Ezekial (also a joiner) who had moved there about 1700. Since Joseph Gavet was about fifteen years old at the death of his father, it is possible that he was sent to Rhode Island for training by his woodworker brother, Ezekiel, or by someone in Newport. If this is the case, Joseph Gavet could be responsible for introducing various “Newport” design and construction features into Salem-area furniture through his own work and that of his numerous apprentices, including Henry Rust. Newport-type characteristics of this desk and bookcase include the blocked fall-front, the stepped interior, the lack of beading strips on the front edges of the case sides, and the absence of a giant dovetail.

When he married Lydia Janes (1740-1808) in 1759, Henry Rust had probably completed his apprenticeship with Joseph Gavet. By the early 1760s, he had established himself as an independent cabinetmaker. In 1762, for example, he was recorded on a list of Salem’s master craftsmen, along with Gavet. Three years later in 1765, Rust purchased a house and shop on the corner of Federal and Washington streets from the cabinetmaker Thomas Needham, who had evidently moved to Marblehead. When Rust’s former master, Joseph Gavet, died the same year, his estate was indebted to Rust for 10s.4d. Nathaniel Gould, who inventoried Gavet’s shop, was also owed 14s. by the estate.

During the turbulent 1770s, Rust was successful enough to invest in shipping ventures. Probably aided by the connections of his mariner brother, John of Gloucester, and ones he himself made in Boston, Rust “made his money in the Revolutionary war, by considerable risks.” In 1779, while still considered a cabinetmaker by local authorities, Rus was a co-defendant in a legal dispute over the schooner Canso’s cargo. In the same year he purchased the hull of the William for (insert L pound symbol) L1,6000, presumably for refurbishing.

Rust’s trading investments in commodities, such as boards, hogsheads, tobacco, fish, cotton, raisins, and currants, were apparently profitable. By the early 1780s court records and property deeds no longer list Rust’s profession as cabinetmaker, but rather as merchant. In 1786, he and his business partner, Benjamin Brown, built a brick store on Essex Street. Besides building a store, Rust purchased numerous pieces of land throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century, while lending money to various persons. As his wealth increased, so too did his social standing. In 1783 Rust served as a representative to the General Court in Salem and in 1792 and 1793 was a member of the state legislature.

By the time he died in 1812, Henry Rust had amassed an estate of over $40,0000. Besides his extensive local property holdings, Rust owned houses and land in Gloucester and over 2,000 acres of land in and around Rustfield (now Norway), Main. In Main he also had a gristmill, sawmill, and tannery. Other than a “Building in County Street improved as a work Shop with the land,” “Two pit saws & gear,” and “Four thousand feet of clear Boards,” there is nothing in Rust’s inventory that reflects his cabinetmaker origins. Rust had probably ceased working as a cabinetmaker in the 1780s, when his mercantile interests became paramount. However, judging from the furnishings in his home at the time of his death, Rust did not repudiate his former profession. The most valuable piece of furniture he owned was “One Mahogany Desk & Book Case” worth $36. Like the one owned by his fellow merchant, Joseph Sprague, seen here, Rust’s towering desk and bookcase silently proclaimed his wealth and power to all those who saw it.

Excerpt from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 58-63.