Cabinetmaking, or the production of furniture ranging from the highly decorative to the utilitarian, in South Carolina generally followed logical patterns of immigration, settlement, and consumption. The prevalent styles within any given city or community have reflected a combination of the desires of the patrons and the abilities and training of the artisans.
In the earliest period of the state, the epicenter of cabinetmaking was Charleston. Influenced by importation of objects, ideas, and artisans, cabinetmaking followed evolving lines of commerce between England and its wealthiest North American colony. The earliest furniture to survive in Charleston and the lowcountry was the work of Huguenot artisans, who were among the first settlers, working in the Baroque idiom. This style was to remain prevalent until the end of the proprietary period in the 1730s, when an influx of British artisans, combined with a patronage that sought to establish an aristocracy based on that of Great Britain, caused a dramatic shift in taste. Looking to Great Britain, patrons desired and artisans emulated and adapted that which was fashionable in London. This overtly British style was to remain in fashion until the 1760s, when immigrant German speaking artisans arrived to establish an Anglo-Germanic style that had virtually no parallel in colonial America. After the Revolutionary War, and with the evolution of intercoastal trade, the sources of influence (artisans as well as objects) tended to come from the North, primarily New York, Philadelphia, and Salem, Massachusetts.
The final period of stylistic transition occurred at the end of the eighteenth century with the arrival of skilled artisans from Scotland, many of whom had worked in the North prior to settling in Charleston. Their influence is readily recognizable in the finest Neo-classical cabinetwork in Charleston in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and was to be disseminated throughout the state during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Following this period, the cabinetmaking industry in Charleston went into decline as the economy destabilized and less expensive and more fashionable imports began arriving from northern cities, primarily New York. The materials utilized by cabinetmakers in the lowcountry tended to be imported woods, such as mahogany and satinwood, in the primary (visible) areas and indigenous woods in the secondary positions. Utilitarian furniture was made of indigenous woods. After the middle of the eighteenth century, imported woods such as northern white pine arrived from New England and, due to its low price and ease of working, became the secondary wood of choice.
Patterns of migration and settlement in the lowcountry outside of the urban coastal ports such as Charleston and Georgetown generally followed navigable waterways. These settlements contained numerous cabinetmakers who provided a broad range of decorative and utilitarian cabinetwork. With respect to the decorative work, they often adapted and reinterpreted the design and decoration of cabinetwork that was fashionable in the coastal ports, resulting in the establishment of a vernacular style. The materials utilized were much the same as those seen in the port cities since the numerous navigable waterways facilitated their distribution.
Above the fall line, transportation via waterways was difficult, resulting in a differentiation of materials utilized for cabinetwork and the approaches artisans took. With the settlement of the upcountry, there was a convergence of artisans and patrons from varying ethnic backgrounds, and the cabinetwork tended to reflect these ethnicities, particularly among the utilitarian pieces. Once settlements were established and attached to the various lines of commerce that produced wealth, a market arose for the more decorative cabinetwork, both imported and locally made. The more decorative locally made objects were largely composed of indigenous woods such as walnut, cherry, river birch, yellow pine, and poplar in the primary positions and yellow pine, poplar, and oak in the secondary positions. An awareness of the fashionable cabinetwork being produced in the urban coastal areas is readily apparent not only in the style of the work but also in the application of finishes to the various woods. Work composed of yellow pine and poplar in the primary position typically was painted in a vernacular fashion that emulated the color and grain patterns of more expensive imported woods such as mahogany. The cabinetwork utilizing birch in the primary position was almost exclusively finished with a semitransparent tinted finish, unless being used for contrast with a darker wood, to give the work the appearance of the more desirable mahogany. Work utilizing walnut and cherry typically had a transparent finish, which allowed the color and grain of the woods to serve as the primary visual experience.
After the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the expansion of South Carolina’s transportation system greatly facilitated the importation of cheaper, more fashionable furniture from the North, resulting in a gradual disappearance of South Carolina cabinetmakers. Well into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, limited numbers of cabinetmakers continued to work throughout the state, often reinterpreting earlier styles. Surviving works by South Carolina cabinetmakers can be found in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Other examples exist in various house museums and in private hands.
Burton, E. Milby. Charleston Furniture 1700–1825. 1955. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Rauschenberg, Bradford L., and John Bivins, Jr. The Furniture of Charleston 1680–1820. Vol. 3, The Cabinetmakers. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 2003.