Defining a master cabinet maker in the 1700s involves numerous different tasks and craftsmanship. Their talents speak through the vast extent of contrasting designs to the elaborate polished final product. Years of experience judges a master cabinet maker beginning with his apprenticeship at a young age. These years of learning could vary from four to seven years, depending on the time period, the shop owner, and the location or region. During colonial America, a cabinet maker living in the northern and middle colonies notably prospered well for himself and his family. Documents prove this fact with tax records, land deeds, and estate records of known men associated with the trade.
A prosperous woodshop fills the air with constant sawing, planing, and chiseling while fulfilling the orders. The items range from cabinets to chest of drawers to tables to chairs to carriage bodies to coffins. The list continues with trunks, bowls, plates, wheel spokes, hairbrushes, mirrors, and much more. The abundance and the quality of the wood enhance the popularity and success of an eighteenth-century cabinet maker. Beech, Cypress, Walnut, Sassafras, Oak, and Cedar trees were bountiful and thriving in the British colonies. Records of Cherry trees spanning the height of twenty feet grow in colonial Virginia. Due to these massive trees, the cabinet maker constructs beautiful tabletops, leaves, and tops of chests. The width of the boards range from 18 to 20 inches and more with these substantial trees. Many today admire the talents of the colonial cabinet maker. Collectors admire the intricate dovetail joints, the exquisite hand carving, and the finale of beeswax polish. Oil and spirit varnishes required less labor and were popular with all colonial woodshops. Several steps were part of the staining process same as it is today. Beeswax, commonly used on mahogany and cherry, brings forth the natural beauty of the wood.
North Carolina Colonial Cabinet Makers
Reaching far from the life of colonies such as Pennsylvania and New York, cabinet makers begin to journey into the frontier lands of North Carolina. Today, the focus will be on seven known cabinet makers living in colonial North Carolina.
Amos Alexander(1769-1847) was born to the parents of Hezekiah Alexander(1721-1801) and Mary Sample Alexander(1734-1805. Before his marriage to Milly Orr in 1797, he lists as a cabinet maker in 1795. Residing in Mecklenburg county, the court records reveal Alexander taking Evan Bradley as an apprentice for four years in April 1795.(1) Another Mecklenburg county court record shows Alexander taking young Henry Pratt, age 13, as an apprentice on April 23, 1805.(2) January 27, 1806, the Mecklenburg court records show Alexander taking an orphan, William McCormick, as an apprentice for four years.(3) This is common practice with colonial county judicial systems. Often, orphans would become court issues, and these county courts would decide the placements of these children until they reached maturity. Alexander’s burial took place at Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. All of his children remained in the Charlotte area except for his son, Captain James Rankin Alexander, who migrated to Allen County, Kentucky.
William Andrews lists as a cabinet maker in Warren county in 1793 when he files a will that offers clues to his trade. The will date October 7, 1793, names Jordan Worsham as heir to his woodworking tools.(4) Andrews continues to live in Warrenton until he died in 1806. A sale of his estate held before August of that year offers more clues to his craft. The inventory sale consisted of 3 axes, three augers, one paint stone, one piece of mahogany, one timber for carriage body, one lot of cabinet tools, one pair of money scales, and one safe.(5) Drury Andrews, the administrator of the estate, becomes the local cabinet maker in Warrenton until 1821.
Joseph Ashbury is living in New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina. The 1769 county tax records show Ashbury paying for four white males and a set of carriage wheels.(6) Craven County court records reveal on April 24, 1769, Ashbury takes John Leith, age 18, as an apprentice.(7) Ashbury accepted payment on a coffin from the estate of Ambrose Cox Bradley on November 5, 1770(8). On September 17, 1781, Ashbury files a will leaving his tools to his wife.(9)
Myles Badham lists as a cabinet maker in Chowan County in 1792. No other information on this individual.
Blake Baker appeared in Halifax County when he purchased land from Joseph Lane on February 21, 1757. Baker acquires more acreage in the Halifax area in May and August of the same year. Baker owns several homes including his plantation named Woodstock and his cabinet business. His will records reveal his death as 1769 and names his wife heir of Woodstock and his woodshop.(10)
Rowan County Cabinet Makers
James Gheen, born circa 1740, shows as a cabinet maker in Rowan County Court on February 9, 1787. Gheen takes orphan John Miller, son of Benjamin Miller, as an apprentice for five years and three months. Ordered by the court, Miller must learn the art of joiner master. James Gheen dies October 25, 1796, and his will names son Joseph as heir to his tools. Other members mentioned in the will are his wife, Elizabeth, son James and daughters, Hannah, Elizabeth, Eleanor, and Rachel.(11) Another note located among the Rowan County court records dates February 10, 1809. Benjamin Howard appeared in court with Joseph Erwin and James Todd to give a bond for the maintenance of a child begot on the body of Rachel Gheen.(12) It is most likely that James Gheen acquired his skills in Pennsylvania before settling in North Carolina. A Gheen dresser recently sold online via liveauctionsonline.com for an undisclosed amount.
Peter Eddleman is a member of the jury in Rowan County in 1767. This jury bears witness to a new road from Belews Creek to Salem. Other jury members listed are David Singwell, Thomas Singwell, John Funkhouser, Christian Funkhouser, Barney Fekr, Peter Schermer, George Holder, Charles Holder, Jacob Stoner, and Peter Ludwig.(13) Eddleman, born in Germany circa 1716, traveled to the colonies aboard the ship named Albany. Eddleman owns land in Pennsylvania for a short time before migrating to North Carolina before 1767. Eddleman dies February 4, 1795. His funeral took place at Organ Lutheran Church in Salisbury.
Many will find ancestors who shared their talents with wood, but it takes a considerable amount of skill to proclaim one a master cabinet maker. During the pre-American Revolutionary War years, they ranged few in numbers, and as time flows by, large manufacturing warehouses replace the independent master cabinet maker. Thankfully, their talents remain with us among family heirlooms, photos, and museums.
If you would like to learn more about the practices of the colonial cabinet makers, please browse through the book entitled “The Cabinet-Makers and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” by Thomas Sheraton. The publication date is 1793, and the location is London. Another good resource to use about colonial furniture would be the book entitled “A Short Dictionary Of Furniture; Containing 1767 Terms In Britain and America” by John Gloag. The publication date is 1965, and the location is New York. Keep in mind that city directories provide clues to occupation as well as early tax and court records. Don’t forget the newspaper archives and local records within small towns and communities.
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- Mecklenburg County Court Records April Term 1795
- Mecklenburg County Court Records 1805
- Mecklenburg County Court Records 1806
- Warren County Wills 1793
- Warren County Estate Records August 1806
- Craven County Tax Records 1769
- Craven County Court Records 1769
- North Carolina Wills 1748-1941
- Craven County Wills 1736-1857
- Halifax Will Records November 1769
- Rowan County Wills 1799-1819
- Rowan County Court Records 1807-1813
- Rowan County Court Records 1767
- Photos of furniture courtesy of MESDA known as Museum Of Early Southern Decorative Arts