Federal String-Inlaid Mahogany Secretary Bookcase
One from a Near Pair of Chippendale Reverse-Serpentine Front Chest of Drawers
Chippendale Mahogany Block-Front Chest of Drawers
George Hepplewhite’s influential pattern book, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide of 1788, illustrates two designs for a “secretary and book-case.”1Hepplewhite, 9, pls. 43, 44. Alice Hepplewhite published the first edition of the book two years after her husband’s death. Acc. No. 65.28 is published in Conger and Pool, 1074, and Fitzgerald 1982, 103. The two-part unit served the same purpose as the desk and bookcase but lacked the slanted lid of the traditional form. “The accommodations therefore for writing,” noted Hepplewhite, “are produced by the face of the upper drawer falling down by means of a spring and quadrant, which produces the same usefulness as the flap to a desk.”2See Acc. No. 72.132, especially n. 7.
During the 1790s, a distinctive version of the form was developed in Salem. The design superimposes fashionable neoclassical details on a traditional Chippendale case. Craftsmen adapted their secretary and bookcases from patterns in two key publications: Hepplewhite’s well-known Guide for their general outline, and Thomas Shearer’s designs for The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices of 1788 for the traditional scrolled pediment and fretwork glazing that they frequently adopted, as well as the decorative rosettes and central tablet in the pediment.3Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices, pls. 1, 15.
Using the patterns of Hepplewhite and Shearer, Salem artisans created a stylish secretary that enjoyed considerable popularity. At least two dozen examples survive, all remarkably alike. One retains the label of William Appleton and two can be tied to Elijah and Jacob Sanderson.4Montgomery 1966, no. 178. The Department of State owns one Sanderson secretary (see Acc. No. 72.132); the other is in a private collection. Other craftsmen made the form as well. Between 1790 and 1820, Salem supported sixty-one cabinetmakers and sustained a complex piecework system of independent specialists, such as carvers, who provided the floral rosettes or eagle finial needed for a secretary.5Clunie 1977, 1006.
The Collection owns two exceptional Salem secretaries (see also Acc. No.72.132). This one displays an unusual inlaid thistle at the center of the pediment and has a gilt eagle finial of a type customarily associated with the carver Samuel McIntire (1757–1811).6Though antique, this eagle finial may be a replacement. The shadow of an earlier ornament appears on the plinth. Nevertheless, the finial is appropriate for the secretary and relates to eagles on two Salem secretaries (Comstock 1966, 553–55) and a large breakfront bookcase (Randall 1965, no. 67). The maker of the case remains a mystery. Neither the case nor a similar secretary from the same shop is documented.7The related secretary, owned privately in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in 1966, is pictured in Comstock 1966, 553. The Salem secretary from the Robb Collection may also be the work of the same maker (Sack Collection, 5: 1214–15). All relate in certain details to the labeled work of both William Appleton and the Sandersons and reveal the difficulty of attributing Salem Federal case furniture to specific makers. The original tacking evidence suggests that curtains were used.
The overall construction of the secretary is proficient. Yet it lacks the careful attention to detail seen in the work of such Salem masters as John Chipman (see Cat. Nos. 63.72.2 and 76.3). Instead, Salem secretaries of this type reflect the rapid production methods of enterprising artisans who sought to make many similar objects for an expanding market.8The author thanks Dean Lahikainen, Curator, The Essex Institute, Salem, for his guidance in the conservation of this secretary.
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.