K.G. from the 805 is downsizing, and writes me that an antique table needs a new home, and, in my opinion, it should find a home that has a great respect for American history.
The table has a label verso that states: “This table belonged to Maria Morris, the daughter of Robert Morris,” the financier of the American Revolution, “and Maria’s husband Henry Nixon,” son of John Nixon, an American brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. I hope my genealogical research as follows is correct, as it helps to date the table to the last quarter of the 18th to first quarter of the 19th century.
Henry and Maria had a daughter, Ellen Cora Nixon, who had a daughter also named Ellen, who married into the famous wealthy mercantile clan, the Wahl family; when Mr. Wahl died, Ellen married another fantastically wealthy Philadelphian, Charles Harrison. They lived in a grand mansion on Locust Street near Rittenhouse Square. Charles served as provost of the University of Pennsylvania from 1894-1910. Ellen’s granddaughter inherited this table in 1940.
Historians say the Revolution would not have happened without Robert Morris’ cleverness with money and a knack for pirating. He was the main financier of the Revolutionary War; his ships “borrowed” loot from other vessels to add to his formidable wealth, which he loaned to the government. When his friend George Washington was ensconced as the first President, Morris’ house became our nation’s first White House; Morris moved next door. Today you can see the foundations of The President’s House a few steps away from the Liberty Bell on the Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Perhaps, of this table, we can say, “George Washington breakfasted here?”
Now, aside from the fact that this table is traced through to two of our great Revolutionary War heroes, through to some of the 19th century Philadelphia main line elites, a nice provenance for sure, the VALUE of the table lies in this one question: is it English or is it American, late 18th century to early 19th century? English 18th century furniture is generally slightly more refined in construction: taking the example of an English chest of drawers, the drawer blocks that hold dust shelves in place are made smaller and with more precision, as well as the smaller more precise dovetailing. Extra English care was taken in artisanship due to the more experienced craftsmen of England. On a dresser the extraneous panels between the drawer cavities are called “dusters” – you will see those on 18th century English furniture.
In New England of the late 18th century the demand for furniture was growing, and American furniture was produced quickly. American furniture, even though sometimes not as well made as English, is valued today at higher prices because it is more rare.
I believe K.G.’s table is indeed American, although this form, a tilt-top breakfast table, originated in England. I suspect an American origin, firstly, because two Revolutionary War patriots and their families would not have purchased “English,” and, secondly, because the mahogany used for the tabletop are two boards of mahogany, two wider boards being easier and faster to cobble than many smaller boards. The edges are molded, the top rises upon a baluster carved pedestal, supported by four down-swept sabre legs, raised on brass-capped animal claw foot casters. The joinery boards under the top which are not meant to show (the table, when tilted vertically was meant to stand against the wall) are solid mahogany. Chances are, because this form was rare in America, to show off American craftsmanship a more expensive wood was used as “secondary” supporting wood, when typical supporting wood would have been American white pine.
The mahogany would have been exported to the US from Santo Domingo. The table was perhaps made in Baltimore, a great import center for imported wood, known for furniture craftsmanship in the late 18th to early 19th century If we knew the maker, the table may be worth more than my estimate of $2,000. In my opinion, it should be worth more because of its provenance, but the general market for “Brown” 18th century furniture is very low today. To research the maker we need the experts at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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