Telling their stories

Researchers at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts have spent 40-plus years in a massive effort to catalog early Southern furniture and decorative pieces and the craftsmen who created these works.

The result is two very significant data bases, one of objects and one of the craftsmen who created these treasures, according to Robert A. Leath, the museum’s curator and vice president of collections and research. Through its research program, MESDA, as the museum in Winston-Salem, N.C., is called, has identified nearly 20,000 objects and 80,000 artists and artisans from the early South.

In his talk, “Many Voices, Many Hands: Two Centuries of Southern Furniture 1660-1860,” Leath described the museum’s research for those attending the 13th annual Friends of Magnolia Mound Plantation Petite Antiques Forum Jan. 30 at the Louisiana State Archives. His lecture included an overview of the history of Southern furniture and slides of some of the early treasures.

MESDA was founded in 1965 by the late Frank L. Horton and is widely recognized for its contributions to the study and understanding of Southern history, decorative arts and material culture. Its area of interest is the original southern British colonies of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.

“It’s not that we don’t think of Louisiana as part of the South,” Leath said, “but MESDA’s founder, Frank L. Horton met with Felix Kuntz, a well-known connoisseur of antiques from the Lower Mississippi Valley, and he agreed at that time that Frank should stick with what was going on in the Eastern U.S., and groups in the Lower Mississippi Valley would do that part.”

One of the first things Horton learned from his early research was that there is no one South, Leath said. “There were many Souths.” The English, the French, the Germans, people from other parts of the United States all represent different cultures that settled the South.

“New cultures emerged as all of these cultures came together,” he said.

To demonstrate, Leath showed a slide of a tall chest made in North Carolina but with distinct Quaker influence. “It was probably the work of a Quaker cabinetmaker who brought his Pennsylvania influence into North Carolina,” he said.

Horton found from his research that in the South different styles could develop within short distances. In particular, homes that had been lived in by families for generations in one area could be completely different from homes that had been lived in by families for generations just 50 miles away.

These different cultures, coupled with the fact that in the early 1960s when Horton founded MESDA many of the fine old Southern homes were “crumbling to the ground,” led Horton to believe that someone had to preserve and catalog what remained of early Southern culture.

The work of cataloging the craftsmen is especially difficult. “The South always had new arrivals of craftsmen,” Leath said. “In New England, they passed the trade from generation to generation, but in the South craftsmen tended to be first-generation British craftsmen who wanted to use their hands to acquire land to allow their children to be planters.”

Leath showed slides of pieces from MESDA’s furniture collection including what may be its most famous item, a court cupboard (a three-tiered sideboard) made in southeastern Virginia between 1660 and 1680. It had remained in the original family until the 1920s or 1930s.

“It is the earliest known piece of 17th-century Southern furniture known to survive,” Leath said. “Hundreds of 17th-century New England objects survive, but fewer than a dozen Southern 17th-century objects survive.”

Leath spoke of the strong influence of Scottish craftsmen as he showed a slide of a mahogany tilt-top, pie crust tea table made in Virginia. It was the work of Robert Walker, who arrived with his brother, William, an architect, from Scotland in the 1830s.

Another cabinetmaker with Scottish roots was John Shearer, who came from Edinburgh in 1774 to work in the back country of Virginia. “He was a man who lived so on the margins of society and lived so frugally that if it were not for the 30 objects he made, we would never have known who John Shearer was,” said Leath, who showed a slide of a beautifully carved bookcase made by Shearer.

“He was so proud of his work that he signed and dated it approximately 24 times,” Leath said.

Moses Crawford was one of a group of Irish Protestants who came into the Shenandoah Valley and later into the Piedmont of North Carolina and then into Tennessee. A cabinet made by Crawford is perhaps the earliest known piece of furniture made in East Tennessee. “It was found in a house near where Moses Crawford is buried,” Leath said.

One of the most interesting pieces Leath showed via slide was a dresser made by Thomas Day, a free black cabinetmaker who lived in North Carolina. “He was a third-generation cabinetmaker who owned his own factory with slaves,” Leath said. “He sent his children off for their education.”

Leath discussed a chest that he described as “a masterpiece of early inlaid Kentucky furniture” with inlay work similar to work on some known pieces of Baltimore furniture. The chest contains 36 inlaid bellflowers, graduated drawers with graduated fans inlaid on each one and a beautiful skirt with cabriole legs. “It could have been done by a Baltimore inlay expert who was passing through Kentucky at the time,” Leath said.

Experts at MESDA work hard to uncover the stories behind the works of decorative art and “the many hands and many voices” that created these pieces that are such an important part of the culture of the South. “These objects all had stories to tell,” Leath said. “Over time a diverse and wonderful culture emerged.”