Upholstered furniture was a luxury in the eighteenth century, and for Americans, settees were rare and expensive. Perhaps as a mark of status, upholsterers and a few cabinetmakers advertised repeatedly in New York newspapers that they could readily supply this unusual form. One of the earliest references appeared in 1749, when Stephen Callow, “Upholsterer, from London,” included “seattees” among his list of upholstered goods.1Gottesman 1938, 134.
The mid-eighteenth century would have been a likely period for the settee’s first owner, William Beekman (1684–1770) of Brugh (Bridge) Street, to acquire new and expensive furnishings. New York City was then rapidly gaining in sophistication and wealth because of renewed attention from Crown officials and an influx of British officers. Recalling the 1750s, Anne Grant wrote that “at New York [City], there was always a governor, a few troops, and a kind of little court kept; there too was a mixed, and in some degree, polished society.”2Anne Grant, Memoirs of an American Lady (1832; reprint, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1901), 85.
Beekman was a senior member of a respected and influential family that had settled in Manhattan in 1647.3A portrait of Beekman of ca. 1767 by Abraham Delanoy (New-York Historical Society) depicts him seated on a damask-covered easy chair similar in style to the settee. For a full history of the family, see Philip L. White, The Beekmans of New York in Politics and Commerce, 1647–1877 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1956). A successful doctor, he turned to a mercantile career in the 1740s, when King George’s War opened up opportunities. Several of his sons followed his interests, and James W. (1732–1807), who inherited the settee, became one of New York’s wealthiest merchants and a Revolutionary leader.
Gilbert T. Vincent
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.