Object Details

ca. 1775-1800
United States: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia (possible)
North American
wood; mahogany; secondary woods not recorded prior to reupholstering
Overall: 40 3/4 in x 100 1/2 in x 35 1/2 in; 103.505 cm x 255.27 cm x 90.17 cm
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David H. Stockwell
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Related Objects

Pair of Mahogany French-Upholstered Armchairs Made for Governor John Penn

Pair of Mahogany French-Upholstered Armchairs Made for Governor John Penn

Affleck, Thomas
ca. 1766
wood; mahogany; white oak

Object Essay

Sofas with the arched back, serpentine front seat rail, and outward-scrolling arms of this imposing example have survived in greater numbers from Philadelphia than from any other American city. A sofa of the same large dimensions, but with peaks in the back and a Gothic fret pattern carved on the seat rails and front legs, has been attributed to the Philadelphia cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck, for a commission of about 1766 from John and Ann Penn; the Penn sofa was made en suite with a set of armchairs, two of which are in the Department of State Collection (Acc. No. 76.20.1–.2).1For the sofa, see Shepherd, 6–8, and Philadelphia: Three Centuries, cat. no. 79; for the armchairs, see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, 138–39, cat. no. 55 (Acc. No. 76.20). Other sofas of this type descended in the Ferris family of Wilmington, Del. and the Burd and Fisher-Wharton families of Philadelphia; the last example is also in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Examples more closely related in their design to the present sofa, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Bayou Bend, lack firm provenances but have secondary woods that suggest origins in Philadelphia. In addition to the Affleck-Penn suite cited above, documented examples include the case made by John Folwell in 1771 for David Rittenhouse’s orrery and furniture made in 1783 by Thomas Tufft for the Logan family.

Furniture with straight legs and applied foot moldings, known as “Marlborough feet,” became fashionable in Philadelphia about 1765.2Hornor 1935, 189, pls. 272–73. The absence of peaks on the back and carving or moldings on the legs may indicate that the Department of State’s sofa dates to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when such details had become less fashionable with the advent of the neoclassical style. 

This sofa was as much the creation of the upholsterer as the cabinetmaker who made the frame. The maker or original owner may have taken into consideration that the frame’s massive size would be diminished visually by the addition of loose pillows and bolsters in addition to the seat cushion or “mattress.”3The use of these elements is documented in designs by Thomas Chippendale as well as by English sofas that retain their original upholstery; see Chippendale, pl. XXIX, and a set made in 1765–69 for the Picture Gallery at Corsham Court in Wiltshire, pictured in John Kenworthy-Browne, Chippendale and His Contemporaries (London: Orbis Publishing, 1975), 28, pls. 21 and 22. The Philadelphia upholsterer further refined the sofa’s appearance by outlining the frame with decorative brass tacks; originally, the arched back was also defined by a row of brass tacks along its top edge.4Elizabeth Lahikainen and Associates, “Upholstery Conservation Treatment Report EL–176–95,” Curator’s files, U.S. Department of State. These features, together with the imported cover fabric, added greatly to the cost of the finished sofa.5According to a furniture price list published in Philadelphia in 1772, the frame of a similar mahogany sofa with Marlborough Feet . . . with bases cost £5, but the upholstery would have added as much as £10 to £20 to the total cost. Weil, 184; Hornor 1935, 150–53.

Equal in value to a desk and bookcase or high chest of drawers, sofas occupied a dramatic focal point in the parlor. Unlike chairs, they were not placed against the walls after company had departed but were left in position, normally next to the fireplace. A visitor to the house in Philadelphia occupied by George Washington during his presidency noted, “On the left of the fireplace was a sofa which sloped across the room.”6Hornor 1935, 152.

David L. Barquist

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.