Nineteenth-century Furniture and Cabinetmakers

Although Tennessee furniture has been an overlooked and forgotten regional treasure, the simple and straightforward functional pieces produced by Tennessee craftsmen before 1850 reflect an era of outstanding craftsmanship. The furniture of this period exhibits dignity and worth of material objects from everyday life.

Early furniture-making was not limited to cabinetmakers in major settlements like Greeneville, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. Many craftsmen lived in rural areas and combined their craft with farming and carpentry. Other craftsmen–turners, joiners, chairmakers, carpenters, upholsterers–produced furniture for Tennessee homes. For cabinetmakers and related craftsmen, the growing towns offered more opportunities for successful businesses.

Nineteenth-century craftsmen had to be versatile in order to survive, prosper, and satisfy the needs of their community. Rural and urban cabinetmakers served as coffinmakers, which established them in the undertaking business. These craftsmen adapted their skills to the needs of their patrons.

The 1820 Manufacturers' Census from East and Middle Tennessee counties contains important information about cabinetmakers. Craftsmen listed information about the materials used, the quantity and cost of materials, and the names and pieces of finished products. Gross production ranged from less than $100 annually to as much as $6,000. The average shop operated with no more than three craftsmen, though one Nashville cabinetmaker employed five men and nine boys. The apprenticeship system, in which boys in their early teens were bound to craftsmen by the quarterly court or by parental consent, provided necessary help in the cabinetshops. The wide variety of furniture forms mentioned in the 1820 census includes chests, chairs, cupboards, tables, dining tables, clock cases, sideboards, desks, secretaries, bedsteads, presses, bookcases, and candlesticks. In one year James Bray, a Knoxville cabinetmaker, and the four craftsmen in his shop produced sixty pieces, ranging from square tables (sold for $3 each) to secretaries and cherry presses (sold at $50 each).

Apart from the 1820 census, the most important estate inventory is that of cabinetmaker Daniel McBean. His inventory and sale accounts provide a vivid picture of a Nashville shop in 1815. Forty-three furniture items made in advance for sale were on hand at the time of his death. The items, ranging from cradles to dining tables to bookcases and sideboards, were sold by the administrator of McBean's estate.

Tennessee furniture reflects the heritage of the westward migration and the individualism of the early pioneers. While isolated from eastern mainstream influences, frontier craftsmen inherited Old World craft traditions and often showed some familiarity with academic styles. Their work was also shaped, however, by their new environment and the peculiar circumstances and needs of a frontier society. The result was an individualistic combination of stylistic elements and an unconventional use of construction techniques that gave backcountry furniture the distinctive character so attractive to the collector and so challenging to the historian of material culture. Identifying furniture made in Tennessee can be difficult, as cabinetmakers signed few pieces of furniture. Instead, artisans let style and craftsmanship identify their work. Many years later, this practice, while a testament to the craftsman's confidence in his distinctive style, is an impediment to those trying to identify regional pieces.

The patrons of Tennessee furniture makers were primarily Anglo-Americans of English, Scots, and Scots-Irish descent. They arrived from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the products of diverse economic and social backgrounds. As they poured over the mountains, the settlers furnished their homes as their means allowed, using design concepts brought from eastern areas.

The difficulty of the journey to Tennessee often precluded the inclusion of furniture. As a consequence, settlers purchased locally made furniture after their arrival in the new region. As wagon roads became better and river shipping became easier, Tennessee craftsmen found themselves in competition with the skilled and stylistically sophisticated manufacturers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. Cincinnati, one of the largest furniture manufacturing cities in the country, began shipping large assortments of furniture downriver to Tennessee. Prominent citizens like Andrew Jackson selected wares from Philadelphia, which were shipped upriver from New Orleans.

Varieties of wood are useful in designating Tennessee furniture. The distinguishing characteristics of the grain and color of cherry made it the favored wood for furniture. The mellow brown color made walnut the second most frequently used wood. Other woods used for furniture included maple, mahogany, and rosewood. Two regionally abundant woods–tulip poplar and yellow pine–were used for secondary parts like drawer bottoms and sides and backboards. Tulip poplar was used in pieces made throughout the state, but yellow pine was used in the geographic regions of higher altitudes where these trees were plentiful. Occasionally cedar and cypress were used as secondary woods.

Tennessee furniture has a simplicity in both form and decoration. Craftsmen of the region inlaid lighter woods into the native cherry and walnut for decorative appeal. An array of motifs can be found–rope and tassel, gamecocks, geometric forms, running vine, eagles, compass stars, simple line, diamond, and quarter-fans. The largest number of inlaid pieces originated in upper East Tennessee. The use of inlay declined in Middle Tennessee and is found least frequently in West Tennessee.

The most distinguishable Tennessee forms include the sugar chest and the Jackson press. The sugar chest was developed to safeguard large quantities of sugar, a commodity of great value. Fairly simple in design, a sugar chest consisted of a large wooden storage bin set on legs. The majority of chests featured a small drawer below the bin. Since only the most affluent nineteenth-century households could afford sugar in bulk, a sugar chest was a status symbol displayed in public areas of the home like the dining room.

The Jackson press is also indigenous to the Tennessee region. Although the form and name were contemporary with Andrew Jackson, the exact origins of the press remain unknown. As early as 1825 the term appeared in an estate inventory in Davidson County, where Andrew Jackson lived. Most presses consisted of a shaped back splash over a rectangular top above two projecting drawers over cupboard doors set on turned feet. In the small area of Good Spring, the Levi Cochran cabinet shop produced three Jackson presses between 1833 and 1835, charging from $20 to $23 for each.

Other forms of furniture produced in Tennessee included desks, secretaries, bookcases, candlestands, work tables, tables, cellarets, sideboards, slabs, safes, cupboards, presses, dressers, tall case clocks, tall chests, bureaus, chests, clothespresses, wardrobes, bedsteads, chairs, settees, and sofas. According to the 1820 Manufacturers' Census, desks were among the most expensive articles produced, though most settlers would not have needed a desk. Necessary pieces of the nineteenth-century home included candlestands and work tables. These were found in abundance in inventories of the period.

The rise of the plantation culture sparked demand for high style furniture like elaborate sideboards. In 1815 cabinetmaker Captain James G. Hicks produced a cherry sideboard for $129.99. Advertisements often proudly listed sideboards. Another related form was the slab or slab-sideboard, a tall table sometimes fitted with drawers. The safe was a piece used for storage of food, usually placed in the kitchen area. The safe consisted of a wooden case with two drawers over two doors fitted with punched tin panels. Tin designs varied from the simplistic to the more elaborate punched designs of tulips, hearts, stars, candlesticks, urns, and other geometric shapes.

Two forms of furniture necessary for storage were the cupboard–flatback or corner–and the bureau. Both of these forms survive in large numbers. The continued functional aspect of these pieces may explain why they have survived.

Three major categories of chairs appeared in Tennessee inventories–Windsor, fancy, and common chairs. Nineteenth-century household accounts referred to chair sets in half-dozen and one-dozen lots. Most households had a half dozen Windsor or common chairs. Chairs were usually painted in a variety of colors ranging from yellow and red to green and black to conceal the variety of woods used in their production.

The furniture produced in Tennessee during the nineteenth century imparts a sense of pride and respect for our forbearers who struggled to create homes of comfort and beauty in a new territory.

Suggested Reading

Derita Coleman Williams and Nathan Harsh, The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and Its Makers Through 1850 (1988)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Nineteenth-century Furniture and Cabinetmakers
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date May 7, 2021
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018