Federal Inlaid and Figured Mahogany Linen Press
To hold the extensive libraries that cultured Americans vigorously amassed at the end of the 18th century, the secretary became a necessity. In its extended wing-and-secretary form or in the more typical bookcase-overdesk, such objects were “intended for a gentleman to write at, to keep his accounts and serves as a library.”1Sheraton 1793, pl. 52.
Best known today of the American secretaries were those made in the Boston and Salem areas. These are distinguished by contrasting light and dark veneers, a serpentine-shaped pediment, and geometric trellis designs on the glazed doors. Many have eagle and/or ball-shaped finials.2For example, see the advertisement in Ginsburg & Levy, Inc., Antiques 95, no.4 (April 1969), 445; and Rodriquez Roque, 64–65. Most frequently, the bookcase rests on a desk with a large secretary drawer, three smaller drawers, and turned, reeded, or square tapered feet in the style of Thomas Sheraton.
By contrast, the secretary in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, while similar in overall form to these “North Shore” desks, is typical of New York furniture of the Federal period in decoration and design. The shape of the skirt, for example, is closely related to one on the linen press attributed to Michael Allison, also in the Department of State (see Acc. No. 66.111).
Another linen press in a private collection has many similarities to the Collection’s secretary. In common are the shape and configuration of the pediment, with three rectangular inlaid blocks at the sides and the center, the delicate stringing on the drawers, and the identical apron and feet. With “sensuous figured mahogany, almost resembling silk moiré, combined with bands and ovals of crotch mahogany and entwined with diamond and oval inlays of urns and eagles,” this linen press is attributed to Allison, who may also have been the maker of the desk in the Department of State.3Cooper 1980, 209.
If Allison was not the maker, then it was another skilled craftsman who was successful in integrating inlays into surfaces and “creating a unified and interesting facade.”4Ibid.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.