Baltimore antique furniture


Compared with other commercial centres of its day, the furniture history of Baltimore is brief. The three decades between 1790 and 1820 mark the high point of its craftsmanship. Nevertheless, in that short period the men who worked there produced furniture of such beauty and individuality that it can readily be distinguished from that of craftsmen working elsewhere.During those years the designs of Hepplewhite, Shearer, and Sheraton were followed, but the resulting pieces were more than mere copies.

There were added touches distinctive of Baltimore itself. Out of three hundred or more cabinetmakers known to be working at the time, was some one master craftsman responsible? If so, who was he? New York had its Duncan Phyfe; John Seymour was working in Boston; Henry Connolly was a master workman in Philadelphia; but in Baltimore no one man seems to stand forth from the rest. City directories, newspaper advertisements, and, occasionally, a labelled piece give us faint glimpses of the men who made this distinctive furniture.

So far, that is all and there is room for research. Brevity of period and excellence of workmanship, however, can be explained by a short detour into Maryland history.

Although the royal charter for the colony was issued in 1632 to Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore, and his brother Leonard Calvert came over the following year as governor and leader of two hundred immigrants, Baltimore Town was not established as a separate community until almost a century later. Even after it was "erected" in 1729 by special act of the colonial legislature, it grew slowly. Located at the head of navigation on the Patapsco River, fourteen miles from Chesapeake Bay and two hundred miles northwest from the Atlantic Ocean, it was too far inland to be of much importance for many years. Not until the Revolution was under way were there any signs that it was destined to be more than a county-seat village. Then, wheat from the fields of Maryland and the new West, flowing into Baltimore for shipment as grain, flour, or bread to Europe and the West Indies, pointed the way to a commercial future.

It was also found to be an important outlet for the export of iron, lumber, and packing-house products in return for raw sugar, rum, and other things not otherwise available. By 1790, when the first census was taken by the newly organized United States of America, Baltimore had a population of 13,503, in marked contrast to the two hundred inhabitants of forty years earlier. Seven years later it was incorporated as a city and grew steadily, doubling in size with practically every census. In 1800 its population was 26,514 and by 1830 it had increased to 80,625 inhabitants.

As early as 1790 this town on the Patapsco ranked third in volume of commerce and had an annual export trade of two million dollars. With a change in less than half a century from a minor village to a booming commercial centre, Baltimore obviously attracted craftsmen of all kinds. Handsome houses went up in increasing numbers and there was need of men to make their furnishings. Study of the early city directories shows that they flocked there to such an extent that furniture makers alone comprised at least one per cent of the city's population. My estimate is that during the thirty years when the best furniture was made, out of every hundred men gainfully employed, from three to four were earning their living by making furniture or by working at allied trades.

With such activity, it naturally followed that skilled craftsmen were attracted to Baltimore, but the remarkable circumstance is that when they settled there they made furniture that largely had characteristics not only different from that made in other sections of America, but also distinct from that of London or the provinces. Baltimore craftsmen were obviously conversant with the plates of design in the Hepplewhite, Shearer, and Sheraton books, but they indulged in no radical departures from the basic furniture forms then in fashion. Rather; the individuality of Baltimore furniture was revealed by little touches, such as balloon inlay on tapered legs, flat muntins with inlay edging for secretary doors, larger carved rosettes on chair arms, and the like.

Further, the pieces of furniture bearing distinct Baltimore characteristics are limited. They include arm and side chairs, window seats or benches, double-topped card tables, tea tables of the Pembroke variety, dining tables of either two or three parts, sideboards, desks and secretaries, low chests of drawers and tall clock-cases. Baltimore craftsmen seem not to have left their imprint so markedly on beds, sofas, chest-on-chests, linen presses, Windsor chairs and settees, and mirror frames. One wonders at this, since the city directories of this period contain a number of listings of craftsmen with such special designations as "bedstead maker," "mirror maker," and "Windsor chair maker." What has become of their work? It is to be hoped that some well-documented examples may yet be discovered and so round out the story of Baltimore furniture.

The majority of pieces of known Baltimore provenance are distinctly Hepplewhite in style, but furniture clearly inspired by the designs of Shearer and Sheraton also is found. For instance, the use of large oval panels of glass showing figures in classic Roman dress done in gold leaf obviously had its inspiration from the Shearer plates as shown in his design for a sideboard, Plate VI in the London Price Book of 1788. And there exist Baltimore chairs that are almost direct copies of chair designs in Sheraton's Drawing Book, particularly in the details of the back.

Although Baltimore was not the only city in which the inlaid spread eagle was employed as a patriotic decoration, it was used there early and sometimes in an unusual form. For instance, there is a Baltimore card table where at the top of each of the front legs there is an oval eagle in which the bird is standing with its right claw outstretched holding a rod, on the upper end of which is draped a liberty cap. So far as I know this conception of the eagle is unique and assuredly was not a stock design made in quantity by a man who specialized in furnishing inlay designs to cabinetmakers in widely separated localities.

Another Baltimore inlay design is a small ram's-head mask above the bellflower pendants. Such a combination is not found on furniture from other sections. Another shows still a different Baltimore detail. It is the teardrop panel with curved top, tapering downward to a point. Here the panel is further decorated with bellflowers, but the teardrop panel was also used by Baltimore cabinetmakers without added decoration. Generally, satinwood was used, and since this decorative detail somewhat resembles a partially deflated balloon dropping rapidly to the ground, the design has sometimes been referred to as the Baltimore balloon. This table has a semicircular eagle inlay in the centre of the top, placed along the back edge. A kidney-shaped card table also is typical of Baltimore work. The classic panel inlaid in the centre of the skirt, as well as the two smaller vertical panels at the top of each leg, are as distinctive of provenance as a label.

In general, then, one of the outstanding characteristics of Baltimore workmanship is the bold use of oval panels in the veneer, accentuated by inlaid lines of satinwood or other material of light colour. Another local touch was the pronounced geometric design achieved by lines of light-coloured inlay and, at times, wide bands of veneer placed on outer edges to make the straight lines of the piece more pronounced. At times, too, the delicate muntins of secretary doors were given added character by edging them with satinwood inlay. Additional decoration was accomplished by the use of pendent bellflowers in shades of green inset into layers of satinwood veneer.

By means of these and other decorative details the Baltimore craftsmen left the impress of their artistic genius on pieces they seem to have been too modest to sign. However, a goodly number of them advertised in the current journals, and the inference is that many of them may have had labels. If so, and they could be found, an important chapter could be added to the story of Baltimore furniture making.

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