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Double chest of drawers

Origin: America, South Carolina, Charleston
H:89 5/8" OW:44 1/2" OD:24 3/8"
Mahogany, bald cypress, and tulip poplar (all by microanalysis).
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1974-166
Appearance: Double chest format; broken scroll pediment with carved rosettes and pierced fretwork tympanum; wooden finial originally sat on extant mahogany plate at center of tympanum. Upper case has complex cornice with wall-of-Troy molding and sawn fretwork; chamfered front corners with stop-fluted pilasters and lamb's tongue bases; drawers arranged three over two over three full-width; original bail and rosette pulls. Lower case with secretary drawer (now gutted) over two full-width drawers; standard base and waist moldings; four ogee bracket feet on original casters.

Construction: In the upper case, the top and bottom boards are dovetailed to the sides, and a series of horizontal backboards are nailed into rabbets at the sides and are flush-nailed at the top and bottom. Each chamfered corner pilaster consists of a mahogany face with an applied lamb's-tongue base, the whole glued to a tulip poplar stile that is triangular in section and features a triangular tenon at each end. The stile-and-pilaster assemblies are glued to the case sides, the top board, and the bottom board. The drawer blades are tenoned into the rear edges of the corner stiles. Full-thickness dustboards are butted to the drawer blades and are glued into dadoes in the case sides, stopping two inches short of the backboards. The drawer guides are set behind the corner pilasters and are glued to the dustboards. The drawer dividers and their associated guides are glued into dadoes in the dustboards. The now replaced kickers for the top right and left drawers are glued into original dadoes. Drawer stop blocks are secured to the drawer blades with two wrought nails each. A two-part laminated cornice and adjacent fretwork and astragal moldings are glued and nailed to the case. The tympanum fretwork is sawn from a solid board to which frontal moldings are secured with screws set from behind. A pair of carved rosettes is sprig-nailed to the tympanum assembly. The back of the tympanum assembly is supported by a four-inch mahogany glue block on either side. The finial plinth consists of a mahogany plate nailed to the fretwork at the front and to a three-inch-wide vertical support at the rear. This rear support is reinforced by two horizontal glue blocks at its base.

The lower case features top and bottom boards dovetailed to the sides and backboards like those in the upper section. The drawer blade-dustboard assemblies are slid into dadoes, and the joints are concealed by face strips applied to the front edges of the case sides. Stop blocks for the two conventional drawers are like those in the upper section. The stop blocks for the secretary drawer consist of two vertical blocks nailed to the case sides just in front of the backboard. Nails secure the waist molding to the top of the case. The base molding projects below the edges of the case and is backed with large bald cypress glue blocks along the front, sides, and outermost edges of the back. Each bracket foot assembly is supported by a pair of horizontal flanking blocks above a large, quarter-round, vertically grained stump with a caster mounted to its base.

The drawer fronts feature figured mahogany veneers glued to cores of straight-grained mahogany. Recessed cock beading along the edges of the drawer fronts is glued and nailed in place. The drawer fronts, sides, and backs are dovetailed together. The bottoms of the full-width drawers all feature a medial rail that is dovetailed to the drawer front and nailed to the bottom of the drawer back. A pair of laterally grained panels is then set into grooves in the drawer sides, drawer front, and medial rail, and are flush-nailed at the rear. No glue blocks are used. The small drawers feature single bottom panels grained front to back, set into grooves at the sides and front, and flush-nailed at the rear. The secretary drawer has brass quadrant hinges at the front. The sides are dovetailed to the back. The now missing top board for the secretary was originally dovetailed to the drawer sides and nailed to the drawer back. The internal partitions for this drawer, also missing, were originally dadoed and nailed to the drawer bottom and sides.

Materials: *Mahogany upper and lower case sides, pediment assembly including glue blocks and vertical supports, cornice facing, applied fretwork, chamfered corner pilasters and their bases, drawer blades, drawer dividers, drawer stop blocks, secretary stop blocks, facing strips on front edges of lower case sides, waist molding, base molding, exposed faces of bracket feet, drawer front cores, veneers, and cock beading; *bald cypress upper and lower case top and bottom boards, backboards, drawer blades, drawer guides, cornice backing, base molding glue blocks, rear faces of rear bracket feet, all foot blocking, drawer sides, drawer backs, and drawer bottom assemblies; *tulip poplar triangular stiles behind corner pilasters in the upper case. *=microanalysis.
Label:Despite its long lasting popularity in New England and the Middle Colonies, the high chest of drawers never achieved broad acceptance in the coastal South except for the area around Baltimore. By about 1730, the high chest was considered out-of-date in British urban centers, where it generally had been superseded by the clothespress and the double chest of drawers. Because of the coastal South's close cultural and economic ties to Britain and its continuing popularity as a destination for emigrating British cabinetmakers, gentry householders there were exposed to and readily accepted these newer forms at an early date. Eastern Virginians and their neighbors in northeastern North Carolina and parts of Maryland developed a clear preference for the clothespress, which remained in favor from the 1750s to the 1820s. Residents of the Carolina Low Country instead chose the double chest, which Charleston cabinetmakers produced in some numbers during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Accounts indicate that Thomas Elfe (1719-1775), one of many local artisans, produced nearly thirty double chests in one seven-year period (1768-1775). Only after the Revolution did South Carolinians gradually abandon the form in favor of the clothespress, a development that mimicked contemporary British trends.

As might be expected, Charleston double chests are closely modeled on British prototypes. A comparison of the example illustrated here with a typical British double chest of about the same date reveals especially strong parallels (see photo in object file). Both feature broken scroll pediments with pierced fretwork tympana and paired rosettes flanking a platform that supported a wooden finial. Both have chamfered corners with fluted pilasters on their upper cases, and both contain concealed secretary drawers with lids supported on brass quadrant hinges. Both stand on original casters. Standard British construction details depicted in the Charleston chest include the use of a dovetailed center batten in the bottom of each full-width drawer. This refinement, which offered an extra measure of support across the broad expanse of the drawer bottom, is rarely encountered in American furniture outside the coastal South. The execution of the chest's drawer fronts in figured mahogany veneer on solid mahogany cores also reflects British practice.

The CWF chest was first owned by Charleston merchant and planter John Deas (1735-1790), a Scottish immigrant, and his wife, Elizabeth Allen Deas (1742-1802). Aided by Elizabeth's substantial family fortune, the Deases lived well and traveled widely in America and Europe before the Revolution. This piece, probably the "double Chest Drawers" listed in the 1791 inventory of John Deas's estate, is the finest known double chest of drawers from colonial Charleston. It is clear evidence of the Deas' considerable wealth.

The most basic Charleston double chest featured a flat top with a simple molded cornice. John and Elizabeth Deas selected a far more complex chest with a cornice enriched by a wall-of-Troy molding and a "fret around," as cabinetmaker Elfe called the sawn element just below the cornice. The top of the chest received a purely ornamental and labor-intensive "pediment head cut through" and a carved finial. The Deases also chose to have the chest fitted with brass casters for ease of movement, and they specified that the top drawer in the lower case be supplanted by "a desk drawer," options also available in the Elfe shop. Judging from the double chest entries in Elfe's account book, the inclusion of these extra components increased the cost of the chest by about 33 percent over that of a standard model.

Because there are many parallels between the details on the Deas chest and the descriptions in Elfe's accounts, it is tempting to ascribe the piece to him. Such an attribution is all the more appealing because Elfe sold architectural fretwork similar to the fret on this chest. However, an examination of extant Charleston double chests demonstrates that they are the products of several shops in spite of their outward similarities, and local documents confirm that Elfe was not the only artisan who built the form. In 1772, Richard Magrath (w. 1771-1777), another former Londoner, advertised "Double chests of Drawers, with neat and light Pediment Heads, which take off and put on occasionally." "Neat double and half chests of drawers" were listed among the wares of John Dobbins in 1770, who also had professional connections to London. In short, a firm shop attribution for the Deas chest must await the discovery of additional documented case furniture from Charleston's large and diverse cabinetmaking community. In the meantime, the Deas chest clearly supports Eliza Lucas Pinckney's (1722-1793) claim that the people of colonial Charleston "live very Gentile and very much in the English Taste."
Provenance:The chest was originally owned by Charlestonians John (1735-1790) and Elizabeth Allen Deas (1742-1802). It descended to their grandson, Dr. Elias Horry Deas (d. ca. 1862); to his daughter, Anne Simons Deas; and to Col. Alston Deas, who sold it to antiques dealer Harry Arons in the 1930s. Arons conveyed it to antiques dealer Joe Kindig, Jr., of York, Pa. CWF acquired it from Joe Kindig III in 1974 by exchange.
Mark(s):Six parallel strokes, possibly made with a race knife, appear on the top board of the lower case. The dustboards and adjacent spaces on the right side of the upper case are numbered "1" through "4," starting with the lowest dustboard.
Inscription(s):"X" is chalked on the back, "L" is penciled on the bottom of the top left drawer, and "m" is penciled on the bottom of the top center drawer. "O" is chalked on the back and "R" is penciled on the bottom of the top right drawer. "X" is chalked on the back of the left drawer in the second tier. "8" is chalked on the bottom of the drawer in the fifth tier. "V" is chalked on the dustboard beneath the secretary drawer. "IS / Æ 3 Ms" is chalked on the back of the drawer in the seventh tier. The inscription was interrupted by a saw cut during construction of the chest. The word "bottom" is chalked on the back of the bottom drawer.