Sanderson and Salem furniture


For at least forty years students of American craftsmanship have realized that a large quantity of fine Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture with distinct characteristics of design was made at Salem, Massachusetts, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the reputation of Samuel McIntire as wood carver, architect, and possibly, at times, a maker of furniture has so dominated the Salem scene that the accomplishments of the large groups of skilled cabinetmakers who worked there during this period have been obscured. They, collectively, made this seaport one of the most remarkable furniture-making centers of all New England.

Although there were some sixty cabinetmakers working in Salem during McIntire's active years, in the past the quick and popular thing has been to tag every Salem piece with his name. Yet he was primarily an architect and creative wood carver who executed decorative furniture details for a number of the Salem cabinetmakers on order. For the names of the craftsmen who actually made this Salem furniture one Must search its history like a detective.

Except for Boston, Salem was the most important seaport of the North Atlantic coast from about 1780 to 1830. Her merchants, through their captains and supercargoes, were seagoing Yankee peddlers. Their ships traded regularly with the ports of the southern states, the West Indian islands, Europe, the Levant, Africa, South America, India, the China coast, and the islands of the Pacific. For prosperous voyages, their ships had to start with full cargoes. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries holds full of salt fish, lumber, rum, and general provisions sufficed.

Then, about 1780, Salem merchants discovered another home product that could be sold profitably abroad. This was furniture. The chief markets were the southern seaports, the West Indies, South America, South Africa, and India. No record has yet been discovered of Salem furniture taken-on venture to the China coast, despite the well-known partiality of Cantonese merchants for Occidental household appointments. But researches in the original shipping documents in the Essex Institute, chiefly done by Mabel M. Swan, show the other ports to have been good markets for Salem furniture.

For instance, in 1780 the schooner Ruth carried a cargo that included I 66 pieces of furniture with an invoice value of £547 : I :0 to Charleston, South Carolina; in 1803 the brig Wellcome Return carried furniture worth $5,618.98 to the "coast of Brazil." This was consigned by ten Salem cabinetmakers, whose names are included in the invoice. In 1805 William Appleton ventured twenty-one cases of furniture, valued at $793, to be sold at some unnamed foreign port; and the next year Jacob Sanderson shipped on the schooner Prince, bound for the Madeira Islands and the West Indies, thirty-eight cases of his furniture, valued at $2,213. Another significant invoice, dated 1799, covers $243 worth of furniture made by Edmund Johnson and shipped on the John for Surinam in Dutch Guiana.

These must have been handsome pieces. Description and value were: "One Swell'd Mahogany Desk & Book Case, $110; Two Swell'd Mahogany Bureaus, $44 each; and Three Mahogany Traveling Desks, $15 each." The first item, which, according to the standards of 1799; was an expensive piece of furniture, may possibly have been, in design and execution, very much like the Edmund Johnson, labeled, break-front, Hepplewhite secretary, with handsome mahogany-veneered panels, that is now in the Henry Ford Collection.

In any consideration of Salem furniture making, the name of Elias Haskett Derby looms large as a buyer and seller. For example, there is the entry of £ 77:8 :0 for tables, bureaus, and bedsteads bought of E. & J. Sanderson and shipped mostly on the John to be auctioned at Calcutta. Also, in 1799, for shipment on the Grand Turk and destined for the same port, he bought £230:16:0 worth of sideboards, desks, card tables, bureaus, and beds from the same cabinetmakers. It would be illuminating if the Derby documents contained some comment on how these two consignments sold in Calcutta in competition with the furniture undoubtedly exported to the same place by London cabinetmakers.

These invoices are quoted from Mrs. Swan's book, Samuel McIntire, Carver, and the Sandersons, Early Salem Cabinet Makers, published by the Essex Institute. This is based on manuscripts labeled Elijah Sanderson in the institute's collection. Study of this book, along with Artists and Craftsmen of Essex County, by Henry Wyckoff Belknap, also published by the Essex Institute; Salem in the Seventeenth Century and Salem in the Eighteenth Century, by James Duncan Phillips; The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, by Ralph D. Paine; and the published diaries of the Reverend William Bentley, pastor of East Church, Salem, 1783 to 1819, unfolds a detailed picture of Salem as a center of cabinetmaking and allied crafts.

Also, recollection of the quantities of typically Salem furniture found in various parts of the West Indies by venturesome dealers and brought back to the United States starting about 1915 provides a corroborating footnote.

It should not be forgotten that there was a close bond between shipbuilding and the craft of furniture making. Both used wood as the basic material. Also, the cabins of the more ambitious boats were often finished with beautifully executed wood trim. Figurehead and other outside ornamental features were done by skilled wood carvers and frequently finished by painters and gilders who could shift easily from marine orders to those of carved and gilded furniture decorations.

Since Salem had been a shipbuilding town as early as 1636, here was a community with artisans thoroughly trained for furniture making. Yet, unlike Ipswich and other near-by towns, she seems to have produced little important cabinetwork before the latter part of the eighteenth century. The answer is to be found in Salem's economic history. When, as a prelude to the American. Revolution, the British government sought to punish Boston merchants and shipowners by closing that port, commerce shifted fourteen miles up the coast to Salem, and the town became a most important center of coastwise and deep-water shipping. This lasted until about 1835, when the comparatively shallow waters of her harbor proved inadequate for the larger ships of deeper draft.

During the years of her trade supremacy, however, shipowning merchants made large fortunes and built themselves handsome houses which required furniture to correspond. So, from a record of only one cabinetmaker in the seventeenth century and but fourteen working in Salem prior to 1770, we find over twenty-five located there during the last quarter of that century, and over a hundred more during the first thirty-five years of the nineteenth century. There were also fourteen chairmakers, thirteen carvers, four spinet and piano makers, five gilders and painters, and three upholsterers.

A large proportion of these craftsmen were born and served their apprenticeships in other well-known furniture towns such as Ipswich, Marblehead, Beverly, Boston, and Watertown. Obviously, Salem attracted these men, trained elsewhere, as a good market for what they could make. As closely as I can trace them, there were in this seaport town between 178o and 1837, the year of the first city directory, at least a hundred craftsmen with their own shops. Essex, North, Court, Federal, Liberty, Chester, Mill; Boston, Charter, and Derby streets seem to have been the favorite locations, with those on Essex Street far outnumbering the rest.

Considering the quantity of furniture produced in Salem during these years, pieces bearing labels are surprisingly rare. We have the Edmund Johnson break-front secretary in the Ford Collection, already mentioned; a fiddleback chair with carved Spanish feet, in the collection of Harriet S. Tapley, that is also by Johnson and bears the initials E I cut on the back of the crested top-piece; a break-front bookcase, found in Cape Town, South Africa, now in the collection of Henry F. du Pont, and labeled "Nehemiah Adams, Cabinet Maker, Newbury Street, Near the Common, Salem, Mass."; a mahogany serpentine-front chest of drawers with canted, molded-bracket feet, and printed oval label, "Made and Sold by W. King, Salem," now in the collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair ; and a spinet with severely plain case in the Essex Institute. Lettered in a panel above the keys is "Samuel Blythe, Salem Massachusetts, Fecit." The date of its making has been established as 1789 and it is credited with being the first actually made in the United States.

Against this brief list of labeled Salem pieces is a longer one of pieces that can be attributed definitely to specific Salem craftsmen by family descent and documents. Included in this are: a sideboard and a dressing table supported by cyma-curved brackets in the Essex Institute, and a card table, privately owned, all made by William Hook. Other attributed pieces are a mahogany desk with serpentine front and slant top by Elijah Sanderson in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a chest of drawers with mirror, bequeathed to the New England Historic and Genealogical Society by Dr. Lizzie Daniel Rose Atkinson, a descendant of the maker ; a scalloped-top card table with spiral-reeded and rosette-carved legs by Nathaniel Appleton, which Luke Vincent Lockwood found some years ago in the possession of the maker's granddaughter; a mahogany secretary with central carved eagle finial and diamond-pane doors, now in the Essex Institute and attributed to "the Appletons"; a sofa in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University, with carving definitely established as the work of Samuel McIntire; and a three-legged mahogany fire screen with oval shield and half-oval candlestick leaf by Thomas Hodgkins, that is in the Essex Institute. This is known to have been made for Jacob Sanderson, for whom Hodgkins was shop superintendent when Jacob was out of town. Also, lately exhibited at the Concord Antiquarian Society, and from the collection of Mrs. Warren Stearns, are a sofa, card table, dressing table, and worktable, made for Lucy Hill Foster by Nehemiah Adams at the time of her marriage in 1810.

Besides these, many other pieces have been attributed on the grounds of workmanship, design, and decorative detail to various craftsmen of Salem. A careful study of them all shows characteristics typical of Salem provenance and these are repeated so consistently as to raise the question of who was the guiding genius in this town. Who dictated style and design and made both so individual that Salem pieces can readily be distinguished from those made at the same period in other Massachusetts towns where cabinetmaking was one of the important occupations?

The answer is the firm of Elijah & Jacob Sanderson. This firm was a very important shipper of Salem furniture in both coastwise and foreign trades. The partnership consisted of three men—Elijah and Jacob Sanderson and their partner, Josiah Austin. All were cabinetmakers by trade. What could be more natural than that the other Salem cabinetmakers, from whom this firm is known to have bought liberally for export, should have conformed to styles and designs that the partners liked and knew they could sell profitably in distant ports? In short, Salem furniture of the Hepplewhite and Sheraton periods has recognizable characteristics because it was made to suit the taste of Elijah and Jacob Sanderson.

These brothers were born in Watertown, Massachusetts, in '751 and 1757, respectively. By 1779, having served their apprenticeships to some unnamed cabinetmaker in their home town, they had reached Salem and formed a partnership with Josiah Austin. As early as 1788 they began shipping Salem furniture twice a year. Some went to southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina; other shipments to foreign ports.

The partnership of the two Sandersons and Austin lasted until the death, in 1810, of Jacob, who had been the leader and also in charge of the cabinet shop on Federal Street. Then Caleb Burbank, a painter, Benjamin Swan, a cabinetmaker, Joel Tay, and Captain John Waters, owner of the schooner Molly, formed a new partnership with Elijah Sanderson for exporting Salem-made furniture. It did not prosper. Lawsuits and counterlawsuits ensued which probably account for the preservation of the Sanderson accounts and manuscripts now in the Essex Institute.

A year later Dr. Bentley has an entry in his diary regarding the fraudulent bankruptcy of Deacon Sanderson. It was a period of hard times for businessmen and the Bentley diary is not lacking in comments on other Salem cabinetmakers who had overextended themselves in speculative shipments of furniture and had been forced into failure as a result.

Comparing known examples of Salem furniture with designs in the Hepplewhite and Sheraton books discloses that these Massachusetts cabinetmakers drew liberally on the plates of the two English masters. The break-front secretary, the card table with scalloped top and turned legs, forming half-engaged columns at the bed, can both be found in one or the other book. When Jacob Sanderson died, an inventory of his estate included three copies of Hepplewhite's Guide. McIntire followed one of Sheraton's designs almost line for line in his carved sofas (the one in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection) ; and for his characteristic basket of fruit, so frequently carved for the decoration of card tables, mantels, and both interior and exterior house decoration, the original can be found in a plate of A Compleat Treatise on Perspective by Thomas Malton, London, 1778.

Thus, it is evident that the Salem cabinetmakers, as well as the carver, Samuel McIntire, knew these books well and followed their designs. But I am convinced that the individuality of Salem furniture was a result of the taste of the partners in the firm of E. & J. Sanderson & Co. And of these three, it is probable that Jacob Sanderson was the guiding genius, since he was the man in charge of the workshops while his older brother Elijah was often away from home acting as supercargo on the ships carrying their speculations in furniture.

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