Cabinetmaker Signed American Furniture

A manufacturers' mark will enhance the value of a quality antique, especially furniture, by anywhere from 40% to 500% depending on rarity and historical importance.

When a quality American antique painting appears on the market, it is almost always contains an artist's signature.  I would venture that this rule of thumb holds true 90% of the time.  People are drawn to paintings for their artistry and for their artist's appeal.  Contrarily, when a top quality example of early American furniture surfaces, the odds are over 90% that no maker's mark will be found.  Clues as to origin, and less-frequently maker, are available, however. When a distinctive signed or provenance-documented piece comes to light, its attributes become the criteria to identify similar unmarked pieces as to region in which they were made, and if enough specifics correspond, an "attribution" of maker. This Sherlock Holmes type of intrigue is a great allure concerning antiques.  Although few of their multitude perceive it, collectors, scholars and dealers who are passionate about early American furniture are drawn to its mystery as much as its artistry. They are, like-me, would-be private detectives.

To reinforce my opinion as to the rarity of signed furniture I analyzed all 216 examples of New England Furniture at Winterthur, Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods cited in Nancy Richards and Nancy Evans 500 page reference. Every piece in the book is fully pictured and scholarly researched including credited geographic origin. Concerning chairs: 81 are totally unidentified as to maker; 3 are branded with names of Colonial owners but not makers; 9 unmarked examples are attributed to a specific creator because of similarities in construction and style; 2 chairs have been ascribed to a maker by provenance; and finally, not one of the examples that Winterthur shares to document the history of New England chair-making is initialed or labeled. That's 95 chairs and no maker signatures.  Please consider however, that this statistic is somewhat distorted by the fact that no Windsor chairs, far more likely to be maker-marked, are listed in the book.  Additionally, later period chairs, also more likely to be signed, are also not included.

As to other furniture types: desks, chests, highboys, etc; 94 are unidentified as to maker; 3 are identified as to their first owners-two by chalk, one by pencil; 11 are attributed to maker based on to similar works; 1 is credited to its maker (Eliphalet Chapin 1741-1807) by provenance. It descended from the Alexander King (1749-1831) family of East Windsor, Connecticut.  King was brother in law to Chapin's brother, Aaron. The 15 remaining pieces of furniture are signed by their makers: 6 by chalk, 6 by printed label, and one each by branding, pencil and ink signature.  All totaled: out of 216 pieces, only 15 are artist signed--about 7%.  This, from a grouping representative of the finest American furniture extant, from both an artistic and historic perspective.  As a general rule, as furniture ascends in quality so too is it more likely to bear a signature. Quality pieces are also more likely to retain chalk-marks, labels, etc., than run-of-the-mill chairs and case pieces that have not been so well attended to over the years.

Here's an example of one piece that earned an attribution:  a high-country Maple High Chest of Drawers in Delaware's famous Winterthur Museum, item 175 in the book, is listed as probably having been made in the workshop of Goffston, New Hampshire Cabinetmaking shop of Major John Dunlap (1746-1792).   This attribution to one of America's most innovative artisans was made in part due to highly similar decorative and construction commonalities with a well-documented Queen Anne Maple Chest on Chest incised on the back "John Dunlap/1784."  Dunlap also left records about his work.  At least forty "Tall Case Chests" many having bandy legs and a deep ornamental gallery above a cornice are recorded in the cabinetmaker's accounts.  His "$54 charge" for such an elaborate piece was equal to 23 days pay.

Two chalk signatures also factored in the Dunlap attribution.  One on the inside backboard of the upper case reads: "Jennet M_ller/1780."  Records indicate Goffstown resident, "Gentleman" Thomas Miller, purchased a case of drawers from Dunlap, "May 21, 1773."  Jennet was likely a family member of the prosperous farmer. Another chalk signature on the inside bottom board of the upper case reads: "Willm Houston, Gofstown."  Research indicated that Houston was a young man from Bedford who apprenticed with Dunlap intermittently from between 1773 and 1777.  Imagine if the one signed Dunlap chest was never found, or the Major's extensive records?  Today, we might well be singing the praise of that great New Hampshire cabinetmaker of bandy leg tall chests--Mr. William Houston--and forgotten all about the cabinetmaker to whom he was indentured.

RULES OF THUMB CONCERNING SIGNED AMERICAN FURNITURE

 

  • A manufacturers' mark will enhance the value of a quality antique, especially furniture, by anywhere from 40% to 500% depending on rarity and historical importance.
  • Under 10% of American furniture predating 1830 will bear a cabinetmaker's mark.
  • Strong puritan, Quaker, Shaker and other religious ethical standards opposing self-promotion and vanity precluded many cabinetmakers from signing their products.  British homeland guild protectionism laws and tariffs may have also been an influence.
  • Some American and Irish made furniture lines, especially looking glasses, were fallaciously labeled or sold as being manufactured in Britain due to patchy Colonial preference for such wares.
  • A humble cabinetmaker's signature will often appear in an inconspicuous place, difficult to discover without bright lights, patience, assistance in lifting (for heavy pieces like highboys) and thorough examination.  Maker marks can be tiny or large and are frequently hard to read.
  • Especially concerning prime antique furniture, always proceed under the assumption that a maker's mark is there somewhere, waiting to be found.
  • Proud American Colonial (Pre 1780) and Federal (1780-1830) Period artisans often left evidence of their authorship impalpably, by creating highly innovative and distinctive wares.
  • Many signatures and labels have atrophied and disappeared over time.  A maker-marked piece found today should be carefully preserved and documented as it might well serve in the attribution of many unmarked pieces of similar style and construction.
  • Furniture signatures will be displayed in the following forms: Chalk-usually white but sometimes red or other colors, pencil, ink, paint, incised into the non-visible secondary wood, printed label, ink brand, impressed iron brand and heated iron brand.  After 1825, stenciled marks became popular.
  • Although the great majority of cabinetmakers who marked their works used their full names, a few used initials, as did many owners.
  • Documentary provenance is an accepted means of attaching a maker's name to his wares.  For instance, while the cabinetmaking shop of Eliphalet (1741-1807) and Aaron (b. 1753) Chapin has been credited with arguably the finest line of period rural furniture ever produced in America, not a single signed piece from their shop has ever been found.  Attributions have been made to the Chapin business by documental provenance and a distinctive line of quality examples passed down through the years from their home-base area, East Windsor, CT.
  • Partial labels and signatures can still help to identify a cabinetmaker.  Time elapsed photography, black light and other techniques are sometimes employed to read faded signatures.
  • A period cabinetmaker's mark will look like the style of 18th century script-more calligraphic than modern day writing.  For comparisons, study John Hancock's and other "signer's" signatures on the Declaration of Independence.  A signature in a later-day hand was likely produced at a later-day time.
  • Faked signatures do occasionally appear on the market, especially in the form of photocopied labels produced on aged or vintage paper.
  • Frequently, a period signature is indicative of ownership, a restorer, an embellisher, or some other person other than the cabinetmaker.  Such signatures can still contribute to a piece's value and historical perspective.
  • As a general rule, earlier pieces are less likely to contain signatures than later ones.  Pre-1760 signed furniture is exceedingly rare.
  • As a general rule, a sophisticated and inspired piece is more likely to contain a maker's mark than a lesser example of the same type and vintage.  Keep in mind however, that the majority of America's most superb antique furniture retains no signature other than its artist's handiwork.
  • A higher preponderance of European furniture is signed than American.
  • A maker's mark can frequently be a valuable factor in later period furnishings: for example, a Gustav Stickley brand on a Mission Oak piece.
  • Maker marks sometimes include date and location of manufacture, owner's name and other information contributive to value.
  • Like modern day carpenters, joiners (cabinetmaker who was not a lathe operating turners) often used secondary wood surfaces as scratchpads. Measurements, prices and other notes frequently found with case pieces. It is not inconceivable that handwriting analysis of such may be used to bolster a maker's attribution.
  • In addition to clock, Windsor chair and mirror manufacturers, cabinetmaker's whose rare marks appear with more frequency than others include: Michael & Richard Allison, Steven Badlam, Daniel Clay, Henry Connelly, Matthew Egerton, Benjamin Frothingham, John Goddard, Samuel Gragg, Lambert Hitchcock, John Janvier, Kneeland & Adams, H. Lannuier, William Lloyd, J. Meeks, John Needles, Duncan Phyfe, Anthony Quervelle, J. Rawson, William Savery, J. & S. Selzer, John Shaw, Joseph Short and John Townsend. These are all exemplary cabinetmakers.
  • The most prolific signers of all early furniture were the infamous Mr. "Bottom" and Mr. "Top" who were not people at all but designations for the upside and downside of a joiner's unassembled boards and case frames.