Picture This XV

I don’t know much about early North American furniture other than they seem to have no idea when it was made.

Early on in the settlement of the colony, English joiners crossed the Atlantic, bringing with them, prevailing tastes and skills which they plied in their adopted land. Of course, there followed a steady stream of joiners from Mother England during the late seventeenth-century and then cabinetmakers during the eighteenth-century, all of whom introduced new trends, which, if not immediately adopted in their entirety in all regions, at least lent some influence locally.

I recently spotted this Philadelphia-made Black Walnut chest which, although it (to my British eyes) stands on ridiculously tall feet, is of otherwise rather lovely proportions, colour and appearance.


Walnut chest made by William Beake, Philadelphia, circa 1710. (H. L. Chalfant)

If it were English, I would say it was a Charles II (or his brother, James II) chest made circa 1670-85, which would account for the early form of joined frame-and-panel carcase construction and use of large scotia base moulding; combined with the applied moulding around the drawer openings which first appeared circa 1670. The drawer construction could reveal volumes more, but unfortunately there are no published images of the drawer internals.

The chest’s owner (North American dealer, H. L. Chalfant) describes the chest as being “An exceptional example of the William & Mary form…” and dates it to 1710 (by which time William and Mary were, in fact, long dead and Mary’s sister, Anne had been on the throne some eight years).

Chalfant concedes the turned feet are replacements (strangely though, they appear to have been modelled on a Hongwu vase rather than any bun foot I’m familiar with). The brasses too, are apparently replacements which may, or may not mean they are stylistically correct for the North American period – I just don’t know (they’d certainly be a little late if it were an English chest).

H. L. Chalfant has a number of other very attractive and interesting pieces of early North American furniture which are worth examining (with disparities between English/North American fashions being as much as fifty years in some cases).

Jack Plane


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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6 Responses to Picture This XV

  1. LD says:

    See the ‘APS Library Bulletin, Winter 2001 n.s. vol. 1, no.1’ for further examples of furniture with ‘Wm. Beake’ written on them. (This particular Bulletin discusses the account book of John Head, Joiner.)

    Also of interest — what did John Head mean when he wrote in the account book
    “To: The Wallen upapes of a Siler by an Irishman”?


  2. Adam says:

    Those are hideous feet on a variety of levels. It seems like dating the brasses would be difficult. They are so frequently replaced, occasionally multiple times. I don’t have the experience necessary to catch that sort of thing, unless there’s something obvious like wax shadows from larger previous brasses.


  3. D.B. Laney says:

    I have it, on very good authority (and some first hand knowledge), that North American Rats (and other small vermin) are considerably taller than their European cousins. Could it be that Mr. Beake was simply seeking to eliminate or, at least minimize the potential invasion of his lordship’s underthings? Or, knowing that the North American Colonies were dark and damp places, he simply assumed that a “hundred year” maintenance procedure could be carried out, one in which an eighth of an inch (or so) could be removed from the leg set, thereby eliminating rot and providing bright show wood.

    I can hardly keep still, just waiting to see your translation of Mr. Head’s journal entry.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Jay Robert Stiefel suggests “The Wallen upapes of a Siler by an Irishman” translates to an Irishman walling up a piece of a cellar.



      • I examined this chest recently during while researching another chest of drawers by Beake (or Beakes). Including the Chalfant chest there are 4 nearly identical chests of drawers attributed to Beakes, three of which are signed. One chest is dated 171? , the last numeral is covered by a drawer runner. This dated chest has what purports to be its original feet and are the ones from which those on Chalfant’s were copied. As with so much of the furniture from Philadelphia and West New Jersey in the first quarter of the 18th century the drawer sides and backs are yellow pine and the bottoms are riven Atlantic white cedar running front to back, nailed to a rabbet in the drawer front and nailed flush to the bottoms of the sides and backs. All four chests originally had single pulls attached with cotter pins. The chest with its original feet is the only one that may still have its original pulls. We’ll see when I have the chance to examine it in the near future.
        There are only a handful of signed and/or dated pieces of furniture made in Philadelphia or West New Jersey during the first 50 years after William Penn’s arrival in Philadelphia in 1682 making the Beakes’ chests important documents of one branch of the woodworking trade during this time. As such, it was very interesting to see it pop up on my screen this morning!
        The American incorrect and confusing use of British monarchies when describing furniture is hopefully on the wane though still used for some odd reason – long tradition of doing it, perhaps – even by major museums.


        • Jack Plane says:

          Chris, thank you for taking the time to impart your expertise in this area of North American furniture history.

          The drawer construction you describe exactly fits with methods employed in England circa 1670-90.

          I’m also relieved to read that Chalfont’s chest’s turned feet were copied from those on another Beake chest and not, as I had rudely surmised, based on a Chinese vase. Their shape still doesn’t sit well with my British sensibilities though!

          Please feel free to return to this topic when you have more information.

          Readers will appreciate by now how I enjoy poking fun at the ridiculous disparities between British monarchies and North American furniture periods, so although confusing, I wouldn’t like to see the situation completely rectified.



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