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Apothecary cabinet or chest

Origin: America, Virginia, Goochland or Louisa County
OH: 21 1/4" OW: 18 3/8" OD: 13 1/4"
Cherry, mahogany, yellow pine, light and dark wood, mother of pearl, and bone
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1978-72
Appearance: Rectangular cabinet; overhanging top with book-matched and mitered veneers, inlaid three-part stringing, and inlaid four-pointed star; unmolded edge of top with cross-banded veneer and stringing; single full-width upper drawer with same veneer and inlays as top, interior divided into 20 compartments of different sizes for bottles, scales, etc.; drawer partitions double-beaded on upper edges and interior is coated with transparent red wash; pair of doors have same veneer and inlay as top and drawer; each door is backed by a swing-out structure that contains 10 small drawers with stringing, bone and mother of pearl inlays, and turned bone pulls; swing-out units each reveal a bank of 18 drawers of the same design; shaped skirt with French feet; three-part inlay on front and sides of case just above feet.

Construction: The mahogany-veneered top is screwed to three lateral rails dovetailed to the case sides. The sides, of solid cherry, have integral aprons and feet. The bottom board and the drawer blade beneath the large drawer are dadoed into the case sides. The backboard, also with integral feet, is nailed into rabbets at the sides and flush-nailed at the top and bottom. The swing-out units have joined and nailed cherry carcasses with full-depth yellow pine dustboards between each drawer. The small drawers are dovetailed and have flat bottoms that are set into grooves at the front and sides and flush-nailed at the rear. The large drawer is also dovetailed and has a beveled bottom that is set into grooves at the front and sides, flush-nailed at the rear, and braced with thin, widely spaced glue blocks. Its sides, back, and interior partitions are made of laminated boards with cherry above and yellow pine below. The inner surfaces are covered with an original red wash, and the partitions are set in dadoes that are exposed along the lower edges of the drawer front, back, and sides. The front feet are augmented at the front with shaped mahogany blocks. The front apron is veneered on yellow pine and is backed with glue blocks of the same wood.

Materials: Cherry case sides, doors, swing-out unit carcasses, large drawer blade, and beading on back, sides, and partitions of large drawer; mahogany front feet; mahogany veneer on top, doors, drawer fronts, and interior drawer blades; yellow pine top core, backboards, dustboards, bottom board, drawer bottoms, drawer sides, drawer backs, and glue blocks; light and dark wood, bone, and mother of pearl inlays; bone drawer pulls.
Label:Until the middle of the nineteenth century, medicines consisted primarily of animal, vegetable, and mineral substances. Sold in powdered or granulated form, these elements could be mixed with liquids. In urban centers, apothecaries made and sold these preparations, but in rural districts some householders maintained stores of ingredients for home medication. Often southern plantation owners or their wives doctored everyone in their extended family.

The medicinal supplies used by professionals and laymen alike were sometimes kept in compact, many-drawered cabinets like this Virginia example. Containing a total of fifty-eight small compartments, this cabinet is well suited for the separate storage of substances that were expensive, potentially dangerous, and usually sold in small quantities. The lockable doors conceal nearly forty small drawers in which papers containing dry ingredients could be sorted and housed, while the large drawer above the doors features twenty compartments of varying sizes for vials of liquids, scales, a mortar and pestle, and other equipment.

The first owners of the cabinet were wealthy Piedmont planter Alexander Spottswood Payne (1780-1859) and his wife, Charlotte Bryce Payne (1786-1870), who used the piece at New Market plantation in Goochland County. Strong evidence indicates that the cabinet was made by James McAlester, an artisan who worked either in Goochland or adjacent Louisa County. At least two other pieces by McAlester are known. One, a mahogany and yellow pine desk and bookcase, descended in the Guerrant and Miller families of Goochland County (MESDA research file 6702). The other, a cherry desk with tambour doors, was signed by McAlester three times (CWF acc. 1993-432). Although its early history has been lost, this desk bears the inscription "Louisa County, Virginia January 2, 1818."

McAlester's productions share distinctive structural traits and decorative details. For instance, the large drawers in the cabinet and both secretaries were identically cut and assembled. Even more compelling is the unusual dovetailing pattern seen on the interior drawers of all three pieces. In each case, the lowest pin on the front corners has an extra notch that reveals the beveled forward edge of the bottom board. The small drawers in the secretaries are divided by partitions faced with pronounced double beading precisely like that on the dividers within the cabinet's topmost drawer. The inlaid stringing on all three objects is also remarkably consistent in gauge and pattern, while the signed secretary and the cabinet both rely on animal bone for some of their white inlays.

Virtually nothing is known about McAlester's operation. Even the location of his shop is uncertain since three men with the same name resided in Goochland and Louisa Counties during the period. Nor is it known where McAlester served his apprenticeship, although the complexity of ornament and structure found in his work strongly suggest a familiarity with urban cabinetmaking traditions. McAlester's home lay only about forty miles up the James River from Richmond, but a tantalizing reference in the Alexandria census of 1799 may point to a northern Virginia connection. In that year a carpenter called Nathaniel McAllister resided in the city's second ward and rented a room to "Jas. McAllister," also described as a carpenter. Like many eighteenth-century families, the McAlesters of Goochland spelled their name several different ways, including McAllister. Records confirm that the James McAlester who built this sophisticated furniture had a kinsman named Nathaniel McAllister.

McAlester's use of mahogany veneer on the doors, drawer fronts, and top of this cabinet and his choice of mother of pearl for the inlays around the small drawer pulls indicate that he had access to imported materials, despite his rural location. That he relied on cherry for the sides of the case and bone instead of ivory for the pulls and inlaid panels implies that either these exotic materials were not available in quantity or that they were too expensive to use throughout the piece. Apparently it was acceptable to stain the cherry sides in imitation of mahogany so long as the real thing was applied to the facade. Such a combination of primary woods is rarely encountered on furniture from urban centers along the Virginia coast.
Provenance:Although family tradition states that the cabinet was first owned by Martha Dandridge Payne (d. 1791) of New Market plantation in Goochland Co., Va., it is more likely that the first owner was her son, Alexander Spottswood Payne (1780-1859), also of New Market. Payne married Charlotte Bryce (1786-1870) in 1804, and the couple may have acquired the cabinet about that time. The Paynes moved to Campbell Co., Va., near Lynchburg, in 1839. There the cabinet descended to their son, David Bryce Payne; to his daughter, Ella Gratten Payne; and to her daughter, Helen Spottswood Turner Henderson (d. ca. 1977), from whose estate CWF purchased it the next year.
Inscription(s):A mid-twentieth-century gummed label on the bottom of the large drawer is inscribed in ink "Belonged to Martha Dandridge grand daughter of Gov. Spottswood. She died 1791 & was w. of Archer Payne of New Market, Goochland Co. Chest brought to Lynchburg by her son Alex. Spotts. Payne in 1840. It was [illeg.] to belong to Gov. Spottswood--This chest came to David Bryce Payne then to Ella Martha Payne then to Helen S. Turner." Various numbers and words, old and new, are penciled on some drawers and the case in an attempt to match the drawers to their openings.