A Southern American Federal Walnut chest of drawers, initialed and dated by the maker “W T 1811”, attributed to William Triplett, Fauquier County, Virginia
An exhaustive research of American craftsmen working in wood-related fields during the period 1810-1813 reveals only fourteen men (out of several thousand) whose name corresponds with the initials “W T”.* The following is a list of these artisans, including their occupation:
1) Takington, William, working 1811-1811, Beaufort Count, North Carolina, Carpenter’s apprentice.
2) Taylor, William, Dover, 1809-1813, New Hampshire, Cabinet-maker.
3) Taylor, William, 1798-1819, Richmond, Virginia, Carpenter.
4) Thornton, William, working 1801-1817, Sussex County, Virginia, Carpenter.
5) Tillery, William, 1811-1811, Prince William County, Virginia, Carpenter.
6) Todd, William, 1809-1813, Savannah, Georgia, Carpenter.
7) Towles, William, 1811-1811, Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Carpenter.
8) Triplett, William, 1812-1822, Fauquier County, Virginia, Joiner-unspecified.
9) Trotter, William, 1808-1812, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Cabinet-maker.
10) Tucker, Wood, 1813-1813, Warren County, North Carolina, Carpenter’s apprentice.
11) Tuck, William, 1811-1819, Annapolis, Maryland, Cabinet-maker
12) Turner, William, 1811-1819, Caroline County, Maryland, Carpenter.
13) Turner, William, 1805-1818, New York City, Cabinet-maker.
14) Turner, Willis, 1810-1816, Southampton County, Virginia, Carpenter/Wheelwright.
Note should be taken that during the American Federal Era (1785-1820), those tradesmen listed as “cabinet-maker’s” or “joiner’s” had a significantly different occupation than those referring to themselves as “carpenter’s”. Thus, nine of the individuals above can be ruled out as possible makers of the present chest. This would leave five, three of whom resided in highly urban areas, and a fourth listed in New Hampshire, making a link to any of their shops, based on vernacular details appearing on the chest, highly problematic. The last candidate, William Triplett, of Fauquier County, Virginia, would clearly seem the most likely suspect, for a number of reasons, including materials, regionalism, and construction details associated with the chest. Most notably, the maker of the piece had a general familiarity with the “bureau with quarter fluted columns”, an earlier form favored by Philadelphia cabinet-makers between 1760-1780 but favored naïve construction details and more rural materials that are decidedly “less than urban”**. Smaller towns outside of larger urban areas, such as those westward in the Valley of Virginia, were much slower to adapt to the latest styles and tastes of their urban counterparts. Additionally, the inclusion of American Federal motifs, such as the “French” style feet, and the addition of geometric inlay suggests a much later date of manufacture adding credibility to the inscribed date of ?1811?. The chest relates fairly well to a grouping of western Virginia case pieces sharing similar construction details attributed to German immigrants who traveled from Philadelphia to settle the Shenandoah Valley***. A large grouping has been identified and documented by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Condition: The chest, shown in a pre-conservation state, remains in good shape. The surface has been refinished at some time in the chest’s history. The top is comprised of two-boards of solid walnut joined to the case sides by a series of dovetails of closely spaced dovetails. The thumb-molded edge is joined to the top with square-cut nails and glue. The top contains a generous back overhang, a design commonly associated with Baltimore and Annapolis cabinetwork. The sides of the piece are solid walnut. There are no dustboards. The drawer support are nailed, rather than dovetailed, to the carcass. Square wooden pegs join the bottom molding to of the carcass to the inner frame. The geometric “diamond” inlay was clearly made in house by the maker rather than supplied by a specialist. The majority of the under-side blocking is original. The back contains a series of three vertical backboard chamfered on three sides which slide into the case’s top and sides. The stamped oval hardware, while of the period, is a replacement fitting the original sets holes precisely. The brass escutcheons are modern replacements.
Inscriptions/marks: The chest contains an incised mark on the bottom which reads “W T 1811 (?)”. The author seems to have included some “doodle” which is illegible, at the end of the inscription. The chest’s center backboard has the date “1811” inscribed again. Faint chalk notations of the numbers 1-8 mark the inside of the chest. The chest has an additional chisel design, on the second drawer runner (proper right), which appears in the form of a circle with lines on the inside, a possible suggestion for a design to be utilized elsewhere that would resemble Federal Era fan inlays.
MATERIALS: Walnut, tulip poplar, cherry, possibly white pine, light colored inlays (undetermined), and brass.
DIMENSIONS: Height overall 39”, Depth overall 22”, Width overall, 38”.
*Reference: The Museum of Southern Decorative Arts, Index of Early Southern Artists and Artisans, 2000.
Hewitt’s American Cabinet-makers 1999-2000 Edition.
American Cabinetmakers, Ketchum, 1995.
** While the use of walnut as a primary wood was not unknown to Philadelphia cabinet-shops (many were, in fact, delighted that the wood in such short-supply in England, appeared in the Colonies, with great abundance), the use of it in smaller board construction and in combination with poplar and cherry secondary woods would seem unlikely. Also, pegged construction details enjoyed some favor in Philadelphia, such as those used to join through tenons on chairs, but was rarely associated with major construction in high-style case pieces.
*** The nailing of drawer runners to the case sides along with the heavy dovetails which proliferate the drawer construction suggest smaller workshop practices, particularly those of the German-American cabinetmaking communities west of Philadelphia and Baltimore.