In Focus

High chest of drawers [1985.B.18.A-E], 18th century, Massachusetts

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection_, by Charles L. Venable._

Designed for the secure storage of expensive linens and wearing apparel, high chests were among the most costly of all furniture forms produced in the 18th century. The lavish use of solid walnut for the carved shells, moldings, and front legs, the walnut veneer and banding on its facade, and a labor-intensive scrolled-pediment top made this example costly indeed. However, the original owners of this high chest could well-afford such expense. When the Ipswich merchant Daniel Staniford, died in 1757, his estate was valued at almost £570. His real estate included a "Mansion House[,] Barn & Garden in Ipswich Town." In the "Hall Chamber" was this "Case of Drawers" and its matching dressing table. In Staniford's inventory the pair was valued at 100_s_., the most expensive item in the house.

Following her husband's death, Mary Burnham Staniford married a Harvard-educated minister, the Reverend Joh Rogers. Like Daniel Staniford, Rogers was a wealthy and important member of the community and had connections in Boston. At the time of his death in 1775, his "Mansion House, Barn & other out Houses with about seven acres of Land" were valued at the enormous sum of £400. Although his inventory lists several fashionable pieces of furniture, including a "Japan'd Tea Table" and a "large Mehogany Table," it does not list the high chest seen here.

When Mary Staniford Rogers did four years later in 1779, however, she still owned this high chest, as well as the furniture she had inherited from Nathaniel Rogers. Her inventory lists a "Case of Drawers & Chamber Table £50." In keeping with 18th-century social and legal customs, Mary Staniford Rogers was considered the sole owner of this high chest since she brought it to her second marriage. Hence, it appropriately was included in only Mary's estate inventory and not her second husband's.

This high chest is part of a large group of pieces which originated in Essex County, Massachusetts. Characteristic of this group are the "ankeled" foot, leg profile, incuring knee respond, compressed cornice scrolls, and trapezoidal bonnet construction seen on this example. Beyond these basic features, however, numerous options were available. One could request deeply carved shell drawer fronts, as here, or gilt or inlaid ones- or no shells at all. A customer could get a walnut veneered and banded facade on his chest or have it made in solid wood. One could have drops on the skirt or simply have those pendant areas rounded off. By mid-century, the same shop could also provide claw-and-ball and hairy paw feet and carved knees. Besides these decorative options, major variations in form were available. This shop produced not only bonnet-top high chests and dressing tables, but flat-top high chests and bonnet-top chest-on-chests.

Unfortunately, no piece in this large group has been documented to a specific Essex County maker. The towns of Ipswich, Newburyport, and Salem were all prosperous during this period and supported many fine cabinetmakers. Given its family history, this chest may have been made in Ipswich. In fact, Daniel Staniford owed the Ipswich cabinetmaker Nathaniel Dutch (1704-1795) 8s.8d. when he died in 1757. Although Dutch could have made his thigh chest, it is logical to consider an origin outside of Ipswich as well. The town of Salem, for example, could certainly be the source of this entire group of furniture. Due to the large number of wealthy merchants living in Salem in the 18th century the town supported a great number of craftsmen. In the early 1760s, for example, Salem had at least seventeen furniture makers working in it. Certainly some of these artisans would have been capable of producing such a high chest. Joeseph Gavet (1699-1765), for example, ran a large shop with several workmen including his son Jonathan (1731-1806) and Henry Rust. Furthermore, his shop was exceptionally well-supplied with tools. When Joseph Gavet died in 1765, his shop had scores of tools, including veneering saws and veneering weights. Given the sophisticated nature of this high chest and the number of variations which exist within the entire group, it is likely that these pieces were produced in a shop like Gavet's—one that had both a highly skilled master and journeymen and a complete complement of tools and raw materials.

Whoever made this high chest may well have apprenticed in Boston during the early 18th century. The use of walnut veneer, herringbone banding, and carved and sometimes gilt shells closely relates to Boston examples from the 1730s. The presence of engaged pilasters and blocking on other members of this group suggests a strong Boston connection. As often happened, the maker of this high chest could have trained in Boston, only to be forced home to Essex County when Boston's economy began to stagnate during the second quarter of the 18th century.

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), 19-21.