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Low cupboard

1680-1710
Origin: America, Virginia, Tidewater
OH: 35 3/4"; OW: 45"; OD: 18 3/4"
Black walnut, yellow pine, and tulip poplar
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1966-461
Appearance: rectangular joined cupboard; overhanging top molded on front and sides; full-width top drawer with applied edge moldings and central pull; two flat-paneled doors hung on pairs of iron butterfly hinges and with applied panel moldings; case sides with two flat panels and applied moldings all set within joined frames; feet are integral with corner stiles.

Construction: The single-board top is fastened to the upper edges of the frame with wooden pins and large wrought nails. The molding on the front edge of the top is integral, while that on the sides is set in rabbets and fixed with pins. The carcass frame consists of four full-height corner stiles, four top and bottom rails, center rails on the right and left sides, and a dividing rail between the drawer and doors on the front. All frame joints are mortised and tenoned and pinned. The case back originally consisted of a single riven panel, flat on the outside, beveled on the interior, and set into grooves in the back frame. Each case side has two smaller panels of the same design produced and assembled in the same way. Their outer faces are decorated with moldings set into the rabbets formed by the panels and the adjacent frames and fixed with pins. The mortised-and-tenoned doors have panels and moldings like those on the sides. The single-board bottom is notched at the corners and rests on the upper edges of the bottom rails. A shelf of the same design rests on the upper edges of the center rails of the case sides and is secured from above with thin notched rails that are nailed to the front and rear case stiles. Similar rails also support the side-hung drawer.

The drawer has a full-length dado cut into each side to receive the drawer supports. Each drawer side is joined to the drawer front with a single large dovetail and secured with two large wrought nails. The drawer back is face-nailed to the ends of the drawer sides. The unbeveled bottom board abuts the inner faces of the drawer front and drawer back, is face-nailed to the bottom edges of the drawer sides, and originally had a single large nail driven through the rear face of the drawer back into the rear edge of the bottom board. The applied moldings on the drawer front were originally secured with pins.

Materials: Black walnut top, corner stiles, front rails, side rails, rear top rail, side panels, backboard, drawer front, doors, applied moldings, drawer runners, and shelf braces; yellow pine drawer sides, drawer back, drawer bottom, shelf, and bottom board; tulip poplar rear bottom rail.
Label:This early cupboard may be a Virginia interpretation of the French buffet bas, or low cupboard. Widely produced in rural France and areas of transplanted French culture such as the province of Quebec, the waist-high buffet bas typically featured a pair of paneled doors and often included a tier of one or two drawers at the top. French Huguenots, who began immigrating to Virginia in growing numbers at the turn of the eighteenth century, could have introduced the form to the colony. Their chair making traditions are readily discerned in several early Virginia and North Carolina armchairs. Huguenots settled in a number of Virginia jurisdictions including Surry County on the lower James River, near the place where this cupboard was found.

On the other hand, it is equally possible that the cupboard is a version of the English chest of drawers with doors in which the internal drawers were omitted. Although it is considerably plainer, the construction, fenestration, and dimensions of this cupboard are remarkably similar to those of a London-inspired, Connecticut-made chest of drawers with doors now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Unfortunately, in the absence of similar Virginia case furniture with which to compare this piece, it is impossible to do more than speculate about the object's cultural origins.

The CWF cupboard probably functioned much like a court cupboard, offering facilities for both display and secure storage of valuable tablewares. As the wealth of the colonial gentry grew during the first century after settlement, the elite increasingly surrounded themselves with imported luxury goods such as fine ceramics, glass, pewter, and silver or "plate." Virginian William Fitzhugh commented on the social benefits derived from assembling and displaying these goods in a letter to his London agent in 1688. When ordering a broad assortment of silver, Fitzhugh noted, "I esteem it as well politic as reputable, to furnish my self with an handsom Cupboard of plate." To ensure that the proper impression was made on their neighbors and guests, men and women of Fitzhugh's standing lavishly exhibited their silver and other wares atop cupboards of various forms, sometimes bolstering the effect by the addition of a "Cloathe [and] 2 Chushions" to elevate the most important pieces (probate inventory of William Moseley, Norfolk Co., Va., 1671). When visitors were not about, the valuables were safely locked in the ample compartments in the bases of the cupboards.

Predating the era of cabinetmaking in America, case furniture of this period was produced by joiners, the same artisans that built simple boxes, joint stools, and other wood-framed structures. The CWF cupboard is typical in that it consists of riven or hand-split panels set within a boxlike framework of stiles and rails. The joints of the mortised-and-tenoned frame are secured with wooden pins, and the same method is used for fastening the ornamental moldings to the outer surfaces. Instead of the applied feet common on later case furniture, the carcass stands on extended structural corner stiles. As was the norm, the drawer is fabricated from heavy stock, nearly an inch in thickness. While it is primarily assembled with nails, there is also a large, single dovetail at the front end of each side, suggesting that the maker was familiar with urban British joinery techniques. The drawer is supported on rails nailed to the interior of the case that correspond to deep grooves, or dadoes, cut into each drawer side. Makers of genteel furniture had generally abandoned these techniques by the 1720s in favor of fully dovetailed carcasses and drawer frames.

Little joined case furniture survives in the South. Although evidence suggests that there were once many more examples of such work than are known today, southern joined chests and cupboards were probably never produced in the large quantities made by contemporary New England artisans. The near absence of urban centers in the late seventeenth-century South worked against local production of furniture in substantial amounts and the survival of goods actually produced was further inhibited by the region's warm and damp climate. The physical destruction wrought by the Civil War and the widespread poverty inflicted by Reconstruction, which lasted until the early twentieth century, also took their toll. As a result, this cupboard is the only known piece of early southern joined case furniture that retains an original side-hung drawer.
Provenance:According to source, the cupboard was discovered outside the town of Wakefield in Sussex County, Virginia. Letter to Curators, Ron Hurst & Jon Prown from C. Leland Nettles, Banco, Virginia, Nov. 21, 1997: "This cupboard was found in Surry County near Rocky Hock Church by C. Leland Nettles. He bought it for $1 from Rives Pond and sold it to William Bozarth for $150. When found, it was on Mr. Pond's back porch."
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