This is an absolutely untouched piece: cobwebs and all. We were attracted to this piece not only because of its untouched, museum-like quality, but also by the complexity of design.
The drawerfronts and lid are constructed of beautifully figured tiger maple, all of the solid. No veneers here. The cabinetmaker used a beautiful piece of figured walnut in the prospect door which is flanked by documents drawers which reveal secret compartments, no doubt, for cash. The drawers behind the prospect door are of solid cherry. This is all beautifully dovetailed. The drawers are flanked with ring-turned columns between inset panels of walnut. The glass knobs are all original and glass knobs of this design are found patent dated throughout the 1820s and 30s.
Obviously, if this piece were refinished, it would scream tiger maple, however, it has mellowed through the years and is a true untouched piece of midwestern craftsmanship of the best quality where the cabinetmaker uses more current motifs, i.e. the feet and solid paneled sides, but holding true to the 18th century slant top desk form.
Secondary woods include tulip poplar, walnut, oak, and white pine.
Height: 45 in.
Width: 40 1/4 in.
Depth: 19 1/4 in.
The following is an examination report and identification by Philip Zimmerman.
PHILIP D. ZIMMERMAN, PH.D.
1425 VALLEY ROAD VOICE/FAX: (717) 390-9818
LANCASTER, PENNSYLVANIA 17603 PHILIP.ZIMMERMAN@FANDM.EDU
August 20, 2013
On Thursday, August 1, 2013, I examined a striped maple slant-lid desk with opalescent pressed glass pulls. This report summarizes my opinions and observations regarding the desk and its condition.
The slant-lid desk was made of a variety of woods and exhibits notable construction techniques. The overall form employs a top drawer that overhangs the three long drawers below and is supported by engaged half-columns at each side. This design innovation, ultimately inspired by French sources, seems to have entered high-style American furniture in the early 1820s. Incorporated into the traditional slant-lid form and made with mahogany veneers, this design typified 1830s and 40s furniture.
The Weiss slant-lid desk stands at a moment in time between prevailing federal furnituremaking practices and those of the American empire style, recently renamed the Grecian plain, or simply Grecian, style.(1) Use of striped maple as the dominant show wood harkens back to late-eighteenth-century furniture aesthetics. In this desk walnut veneer panels above and below the engaged half-columns provide geometric details in keeping with federal design, as does the relatively small-scale ring turning of the columns and ringed quarter-round molding along the base. Opalescent pressed glass pulls and cherryfaced lopers (lid supports) add further color. This overall decorative scheme continues inside with a large figured walnut panel highlighting the cherry central prospect door.
All of the drawerfronts are cherry, with small opalescent pulls, and set within drawer cavities having darkened edges. The backs of the column drawers slide upward to reveal small hidden drawers in the bottom, another traditional—and always imaginative—feature of slant-lid desks. The arch-headed shape of the prospect door panel, popularly called a “tombstone,” is another traditional element of this interior that has otherwise been updated by the broad arches below the again-traditional configuration of three small drawers above two side-by-side drawers.
Construction of this slant-lid desk includes several enlightening aspects. Overall it conforms to the norm, including graduated drawers, extensive dovetailing, paneled sides, and so forth. More detailed examination reveals use of small wedges in the large drawers to spread apart the dovetail pins, thereby holding the joint tightly together. This technique was used regularly in Pennsylvania eighteenth-century cabinetry and has long been understood as a Germanic practice. Additional evidence of substantial, Germanic cabinetmaking occurs inside the case where each of the drawer runners is nailed to a rail dovetailed into the front and rear case stiles. Most cabinetmakers depended upon the corner stiles alone to keep the desk in square; others added additional braces. This cabinetmaker used four braces, all dovetailed into the stiles.
The anonymous maker of this desk constructed the engaged half columns flanking the drawers in a manner that suggests he saw other examples but had not been trained in nor practiced making them. In most of these desks, the half columns fit into their respective recesses. In this example, however, the wood from which each half column was turned extends downward to the floor, becoming the front portion of each turned leg. The block separating the column from the foot is simply an unturned section. The block above the column also appears to be integral to this piece of wood. The foot had to be turned after the maker attached the partially turned facing to the conventional, rectangular stile immediately behind it. The rear stiles are solids, square in section, that end in turned feet.
Features of this slant-lid desk do not resemble known examples, thereby supporting a specific time and place of manufacture.(2) However, the mix of woods, presence of certain construction features, overall design qualities, and glass pulls combine to suggest it was made in the Ohio region after 1826. The combination of striped maple and cherry occurred in rural furniture throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Use of figured walnut in addition suggests western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and abutting regions west. Use of walnut as a secondary wood (some small drawer sides and some dovetailed braces in the case) reinforces the western locale, as does widespread use of tulip poplar as drawer sides and bottoms and structural parts of the case—including the board above the top large drawer. That board, visible as the writing surface behind the hinged lid, has been darkened to disguise its different color and grain, although the edge is visible from the front when the lid is closed. Other secondary woods include oak and maple, used in the non-walnut dovetailed braces, and white pine small drawer bottoms. Germanic construction traits point to craftsmen who migrated west and down the Appalachians
The original opalescent pressed glass pulls establish a time of manufacture no earlier than about 1826, when evolving scholarship identifies production began in earnest. A patent issued in November of that year to two employees of the New England Glass Company in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the first unambiguous evidence for this particular technology, although unspecified mention of “glass furniture” in an 1825 patent issued to John Bakewell of Bakewell, Page & Bakewell of Pittsburgh may also indicate fabrication of pressed pulls.(3) Three years later the Union Glass Company of Philadelphia and Bakewell, Page & Bakewell challenged the 1826 New England patent in court, indicating a far afield and quickly the technology had spread. The large knobs on the desk appear to be the same as one illustrated but not further identified a 1996 Antiques article.(4) Newspaper notices and other evidence indicate that glass furniture knobs became very popular in the 1830s.
Condition notes: The slant-lid desk survives in excellent condition with no significant repairs or restorations. The finish appears to represent the result of natural aging, oxidation, and use over the timespan of this desk. Its present aged condition reduces the original color contrasts inherent in the selection of different woods, but it achieves its own admirable qualities
1 John Hall and the Grecian Style in America, intro. Thomas Gordon Smith (New York: Acanthus Press, 1996), pp. XII-XIII; Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), p. 68.
2 The cataloguing and publication of early furniture from western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee lags that of the eastern United States.
3 An 1828 patent to John Bakewell, one of the other principles, may also signal the start of their production.
4 Kenneth M. Wilson and Kirk J. Nelson, “The Role of Glass Knobs in Glassmaking and Furniture,” Antiques 149, no. 5 (May 1996): 750-59, pl. VII