Federal Inlaid and Figured Linen Press
Federal Inlaid and Figured Mahogany Secretary Bookcase
Of a form called a wardrobe, linen press, clothespress, or press-cupboard-on-chest in documents of the period, this handsome case piece is one of the most striking realizations extant and the only known example of American furniture ornamented with nine American eagles.1This linen press was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark exhibition Nineteenth-Century America, mounted in 1970.
This linen press has been attributed to Michael Allison, the prolific New York cabinetmaker. The delicately flared French feet, scalloped skirt, and shimmering matched mahogany veneers are characteristics of Allison’s work, as they are of the finest Federal-period New York cabinet shops.
This example is closely related to a linen press at Winterthur also attributed to Allison. Parallel features on both examples include inlaid Prince of Wales feathers on the plinth, inlaid eagles, the highly individualized shape of the skirt, and a scrolled pediment with lacy framework. The fretwork on the Winterthur example— a holdover from an earlier era—is set against a solid background.2Montgomery 1966, no. 452. A similar example is illustrated in an advertisement by H. & R. Sandor, New Hope, Pennsylvania, in Antiques 129, no. 6 (June 1986): 1127.
While the evidence points to a New York attribution for the Winterthur and Collection’s examples, the form and specific decorative elements also relate to a Baltimore linen press with the label of John Shaw (1745–1829) in the Baltimore Museum of Art. This object is distinguished by a scrolled pediment with pierced fretwork.3Elder and Stokes, 98. The Collection’s linen press is similar to a case piece illustrated by Chippendale and to mid-eighteenth-century English and Irish desk and bookcases with simple bonnet tops and plain, linear facades.4Chippendale, pl. cxxx; Kirk 1982, nos. 639–42. Here, the earlier, conservative frontality has been updated with neoclassical ornament: inlaid ovals on the doors, fine stringing on the drawers, and a delicately pierced pediment.
Hepplewhite illustrated four designs for wardrobes with sliding shelves and doors concealing drawers. Conceived in an era when few houses had closets, such wardrobes were a visually appealing solution to a practical problem.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.