Highboy

 

Although the highboy was probably originated by English craftsmen, it was left for those working in America to carry the development of this furniture form to its conclusion. The reason, although somewhat obscure, is perfectly logical. For various causes, the highboy did not appeal to the general public of the British Isles; but in America, from the William and Mary period to the conclusion of the Chippendale years, highboys were made in great profusion. In fact, for every British highboy made by the cabinetmakers in England ten or twenty were produced by those in America.

Families of wealth and position demanded pieces in keeping, and for them craftsmen such as those of the Philadelphia school fashioned highboys in the Chippendale manner that showed what they were capable of in the matters of carving and elaborate detail. Under their hands, as well as those of the New England Chapin, the straight-lined immigrant took to itself such refinements as the bonnet top, delicately turned finials, and elaborate carving to ornament both the front of the case and the knees of the front legs.

But life in colonial America was by no means confined to the large centers. In many country communities there lived people of varied fortunes. Their tastes were simple but those who had the means furnished their homes with the best furniture obtainable from local craftsmen. Even those whose furnishings were of necessity plain seem to have insisted on at least one piece of furniture that in size and workmanship would lend dignity to the principal room of the house. An imposing secretary or a highboy fitted this requirement. Like the square piano of the Victorian era, it dominated the scene and gave an air of distinction to the entire house.

Highboys were, of course, relatively expensive but the demand was great enough so that probably all cabinetmakers from Maine to Philadelphia made them. Mahogany and walnut were the favorite woods for urban pieces. Country cabinetmakers, with an eye to what their customers could afford, used all kinds of native woods, even pine. A antique highboy of the latter wood is rare today, however. It was not unusual for an assortment of woods to be used in the same piece and the whole painted with old New England red filler to conceal this variation. Very beautiful highboys were made of cherry. Maple was also a favored wood; but if of the straight-grain variety, the finish was often red filler.

The wide area throughout which highboys were made in America and the number of craftsmen who produced them might conceivably have resulted in many differences. But, in the main, it was a standardized piece and craftsmen in all sections adhered to a common basic design and set of proportions. There were two exceptions to this. In and around West Chester, Pennsylvania, a small group of cabinetmakers, working as early as the William and Mary period, made miniature highboys with doors in the upper part as decorative spice boxes. These were delicately wrought, sophisticated urban pieces intended for either parlor or living room. Behind the doors was a set of small drawers for the storage of the then expensive spices.

Dating a generation later, in New York State, in an area lying east of the Hudson and south of Peekskill, there were two and perhaps other cabinetmakers who made full-sized highboys with a cupboard upper section. These variants of the standard highboy were not so delicately made and obviously were country pieces. The upper half had no drawers at all but a series of three or four shelves behind the doors for the storage of household linens and kindred things. They were simple pieces probably designed for halls or bedrooms rather than the more important rooms of the house.

From this evidence it seems proper to ascribe all full-size highboys with cupboard top to the general region of Westchester County, New York. Further, since they are all of true highboy proportions, there can be no doubt that they were made as a variant of the standard one of the American Chippendale period. What gave the few cabinetmakers who produced them the idea of the cupboard top is fairly obvious. Linen presses, that is, two-part pieces with a base containing drawers and an upper section that was a cupboard, were popular in England from the Chippendale period and were also made in America from 1750 to 1800, and even later. Obviously, these craftsmen of Westchester County recognized the practicality of combining what seemed to them the best features of both pieces, the highboy base and the linen-press cupboard. Why cabinetmakers working in New England, New Jersey or Pennsylvania did not find the possibilities of such a combination appealing enough to make just a few of them is. an open question.

Apparently, the cupboard-top highboy of full size was a peculiarity of Westchester County, New York, and those in miniature were a product solely of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Of the unique pieces made in New York State, I know only five examples and three of those bear every evidence of having been made by the same man. One of pine and various light woods has been in the collection of Dr. George P. Coopernail of Bedford, New York, for thirty years. He acquired it locally and at that time was able to verify the fact that it had been made near by. The name of the cabinetmaker is lost information. Another highboy of similar detail and execution is in the collection of Ralph Reinholdt of New York, who found it at a farmhouse in the general vicinity of Brewster, about fifteen miles from Bedford. The third, its doors mutilated by the substitution of glass for the wooden panels, I once saw in a kitchen at Pound Ridge, New York.

It seems likely that all three of these pieces came from Bedford or some near-by town. This idea is strengthened by the fact that in Dr. Coopernaills collection there is another similar piece, a linen press. This he knows was made at Cross River, New York (five miles from Bedford), about 1800 by an apprentice as his "proof of skill piece." In other words, a demonstration that he had mastered his trade and should be advanced to journeyman standing. Comparison of this piece with the cupboard highboy reveals such close similarity of detail as to warrant the belief that this apprentice served under the craftsman who made the earlier piece.

In proportion and detail, the highboys found in or near Bedford follow the English tradition. But a few years ago two others of the cupboard type were found with a mixture of Dutch and English in style and workmanship. One was near Tarrytown and the other at Ballston Spa, New York. How the latter had traveled so far can be accounted for only by family migration. Both pieces are so alike in proportion and execution as to leave little doubt that they were made by the same craftsman. The sturdiness of the short cabriole legs terminating in bold Dutch pad feet and the outline of the scalloped apron between are stylistically Dutch with some English refinement. The upper cupboard also has some of the Dutch kass about its lines although the proportions have been reduced. Thus, these two pieces can logically be ascribed to a craftsman who knew both English and Dutch furniture forms as well as their tradition of design.

As already stated, there is no record of the full-size cupboard highboy having been produced in other parts of the country. One now and then hears vague rumors of them in New England and Pennsylvania, but on investigation such pieces prove to be either nonexistent or changelings. So for the present, at least, they must remain a unique and ingenious product of Westchester County, New York.

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