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Fig 1: Banister back armchair. Unknown maker, Maryland, ca. 1710– 1740. Cherry. H. 42 1/2, W. 23, D 26 in. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society Museum; gift of David McKinnie. 1992.16.1. This armchair is the earliest piece of locally made furniture in the Maryland Historical Society collection. It is similar to a set of four side chairs, which, together with this armchair, descended in the Cromwell family of Baltimore County.
The Maryland Historical Society has recently installed a permanent exhibition that provides the first truly comprehensive and inclusive examination of one of the state’s most significant art forms. Furniture in Maryland Life explores the manufacture, design, and function of furniture made and used in Maryland from the state’s founding in 1634 to the year 2000. The exhibition focuses on aesthetic and economic influences and the skills and craftsmanship that shaped Maryland’s furniture industry. While a number of objects, many recently acquired, are evidence of regional production, the majority of furniture included in the exhibit is from Baltimore, the economic and style center of Maryland from the 1780s onward. What follows is a sampling of the over one hundred pieces of furniture in the exhibition, about 30 percent of which have never before been displayed.
Fragments of furniture hardware dating from the early seventeenth century found in archeological sites in Southern Maryland, represent the earliest tangible evidence of furniture in the state. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s many Maryland colonists obtained their furniture and other household goods from Great Britain and New England, but many made do with homemade or simple, locally produced furniture. It wasn’t until the 1760s that cabinet and chairmakers in Baltimore and Annapolis produced high-end regional furniture. Robert Moore and Gerrard Hopkins trained in Philadelphia and brought high-style Philadelphia Chippendale to Baltimore; and Archibald Chisholm and John Shaw, both Scottish immigrants, brought fashionable English styles to Annapolis.
Fig. 2: Fall-front desk or secrétaire à abattant, attributed to John Bankson and Richard Lawson (working 1785–1792), Baltimore, Md., ca. 1792. Mahogany, boxwood and poplar. H. 82, W. 37, D. 18 in. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society Museum; designated Purchase Fund, 2001.41. The Bankson and Lawson shop made the earliest known American-made fall-front desks.
The earliest piece of regional furniture in the Maryland Historical Society collection is a banister back armchair (Fig. 1) made between 1710 and 1740, and used by the Cromwell family of Baltimore County. Other early pieces include side chairs, circa 1740-1760, owned in St. Mary’s County, and a large oak and iron storage chest made circa 1700-1710 in Germany and brought to Maryland by ancestors of the Hatton family who still reside in Prince George County.
By the mid-1700s, Maryland’s population had increased substantially and a number of small towns had developed, enabling a handful of cabinetmakers, often working with a journeyman and apprentices, to set up small shops. Elsewhere in the colony, indentured and enslaved workers made furniture for use on plantations. However, most prosperous Marylanders continued to use imported furniture until after the Revolution.
The MdHS recently purchased a modest pembroke table by Charles Farrow, an Eastern Shore cabinet and chair maker. This table, signed on the swinging support for the table leaf, is the only known signed piece of eighteenth-century furniture from Chestertown, Maryland.
After the Revolutionary War, geographic and economic forces made Baltimore the fastest growing city in the new nation. Prosperity stimulated building activity and created a large market for the cabinetmaker’s trade. Craftsmen from Maryland and abroad flocked to the city.
Fig. 3: Charles Peale Polk (1767–1822), Portrait of Richard Lawson (1748–1803), Baltimore, Md., 1794. Oil on canvas, 421/4 x 381/2 inches. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society Museum; The Dr. Michael and Marie Abrams Memorial Purchase Fund.1985.2.1. This is the only known eighteenth century portrait of a Baltimore cabinetmaker. Lawson trained and worked at Seddens & Sons, the largest cabinetmaking manufactory in London, before establishing Baltimore’s largest shop in 1785. Richard Lawson left the business in December 1792, and subsequently achieved success as a merchant and distiller.
Although most cabinet shops were still fairly small, some began to employ a variety of specialized craftsmen, including inlay makers, veneer makers, turners, and decorative painters. At the same time retail businesses specializing in pianofortes, upholstery, looking glasses, and Windsor chairs emerged.
The MdHS recently purchased a fall- front desk or secrétaire à abattant, circa 1792 (Fig. 2), likely made at the shop of John Bankson and Richard Lawson (Fig. 3), cabinet and chair makers in partnership in Baltimore from 1785 to 1792. Bankson and Lawson operated the largest shop in late-eighteenth-century Baltimore, succeeding through Lawson’s London training at Seddens & Sons and Bankson’s Revolutionary War service connections. The desk features distinctive inlays of classical flutists and a red bird, possibly by inlay maker Thomas Barrett who worked in the shop.
The largest cabinetmaking shop in Baltimore in the early nineteenth century belonged to William Camp, who was recognized in his own time as the city’s leading cabinetmaker. His shop trained at least fifty-three apprentices and accommodated thirty-seven workbenches for journeymen cabinetmakers. Camp advertised that he stocked “the most extensive and elegant assortment of articles in the cabinet line that ever existed in Baltimore.” The exhibition includes a wing wardrobe attributed to Camp and a copy of the design from Thomas Shearer’s The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices. When this book was stolen from Camp in August 1807, he valued it so highly that he offered a five-dollar reward for its return.
Between 1800 and 1850 thirty-seven manufacturers are listed in Baltimore city directories and newspaper advertisements as “fancy chair” makers. In addition, those listed as “chair makers” and “Windsor chair makers” may have produced “fancy” furniture also. Baltimore produced the largest quantity and best designed examples of these enormously popular furnishings, with brothers John and Hugh Finlay leading the industry.
Fig. 4: Painted Windsor side chair (one of three) by unknown maker, Baltimore, Md., ca. 1820–1840. Unknown woods. H. 311/2, W.18, D.16 in. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society Museum; gift of Louise Virginia Cummings Dorcas.1998.37.1. “Fancy” furniture was owned by rich and poor, and used in every room in the house. Painted chairs with wooden seats were typically sold for one dollar in the early 1800s. This chair is one of three passed down through five generations of the Cummings/Dorcas family. Esther Hall, a former slave, manumitted by Harry Dorsey Gough in 1808, originally owned it.
The city’s furniture manufacturers, especially those making painted chairs (Fig. 4), shipped thousands of locally made pieces to cities up and down the East Coast, into the deep South, and as far as Central and South America, the Caribbean, and South Africa. They also sent furniture by the wagonload over the mountains and into western Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and farther west. In contrast to these city cabinetmakers, a handful of rural and small town cabinetmakers continued to produce simple pieces in small shops for local customers.
By the 1850s many Maryland furniture makers were employing steam-powered technology, which enabled them to produce much larger quantities of cabinetwares and sell at lower prices. In 1855, Baltimore manufacturer Meachum and Heywood advertised that it had in stock over 8,000 pieces of furniture.
The large number of German immigrants who came to Maryland in the mid-1800s provided inexpensive labor for these ever-larger manufactories. So many German-trained cabinetmakers immigrated to Baltimore that the meetings of the local journeymen cabinetmakers’ association were conducted in German.
As more furniture became available, firms emerged that made only chairs or cottage furniture or ship cabin and steamboat furnishings. Others made only one component of furniture such as turned legs. Still others billed themselves as specialty firms producing custom-made goods to distinguish themselves from cheap machine-produced goods for the masses.
By the end of the century, Baltimore was a thriving, industrialized metropolis with a population of 509,000. The furniture industry kept pace with the growth of the city until the 1890s when furniture dealers, manufacturers and cabinetmakers dropped in number from the previous decade. This decline resulted from the buyout of smaller firms, increased competition from the North and Midwest, and the rise of department stores that sold mass produced furniture.
The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 helped to popularize the furniture of our founding fathers. Firms in Baltimore, such as Henry W. Jenkins & Sons, began making Colonial Revival pieces in the style of furniture produced during America’s colonial period. By the 1890s a number of firms were selling and repairing antiques and producing reproduction antique furniture. This part of the furniture industry dominated the local manufacturing market through the twentieth century. Charles Knipp, like the Potthast Brothers and Enrico Liberti, made custom-built Colonial Revival style furniture (Fig. 5) in Baltimore in the early part of the twentieth century.
Today, American furniture is primarily made in North Carolina, Virginia, and California, although Maryland is still home to a number of furniture manufacturing companies. Continuing the Colonial Revival tradition, custom production and artist-made furniture thrives and often reflects earlier Maryland designs. Thomas P. Miller (1945–2000) is one Maryland artist whose work with furniture (Fig. 6) is a continuation of the painted furniture tradition.

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Fig. 6: Pair of stacking tables entitled “A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush,” by Thomas P. Miller (1945–2000), Baltimore, Md., 1995. Acrylic on two wooden tables originally made ca. 1930–1940, with bells, covered in custom polyurethane developed by artist. H. 28, W. 18, D.12 in.; H.17, W.12, D.12 in. Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society Museum; designated Purchase Fund. 2004.1. With its birds, contrasting colors, and black and white pattern, this is an example of Miller’s “Afro-Deco” style. The bells at each corner are a playful addition, and the literal decoration of “a bird in the hand” on the larger table and “two [birds] in the bush” on the smaller table exemplify Miller’s witty approach. His work is a continuation of the painted furniture tradition—a fusion of fine and decorative arts.
Fig. 5: Armchair by Charles J. Knipp (1867–ca.1935), Baltimore, Md., 1902. Applewood. H. 39, W. 23, D.193/4 in. Maryland Historical Society Museum; bequest of Washington Perine. 1944.55.3. This unusual armchair has a view of a house at Homeland, an estate owned by the Perine family in northern Baltimore City. The armchair was part of a large dining room set made in 1902 for Elais Glenn Perine from applewood salvaged from the Homeland orchard. The 391-acre estate was sold to the Roland Park Company in 1924. Photographs of these chairs at Homeland are in the MdHS Library’s Perine Family Papers (MS 645).

Jeannine Disviscour is curator at the Maryland Historical Society. In her decade-long tenure she has curated many exhibitions including most recently, Furniture in Maryland Life.

Furniture in Maryland Life may be viewed at the Maryland Historical Society’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Gallery in the Carey Center for Maryland Life. In addition to the furniture, the exhibition includes paintings, books, and numerous supporting documentary illustrations. For information, visit www.mdhs.org, or call 410.685.3750.

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