APS Library Bulletin headline
New Series, vol. 1, no. 1, Winter 2001


Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753:
The Account Book of John Head, Joiner

 
by Jay Robert Stiefel
<jrstiefel@att.net>
© 2001. All Rights Reserved.



I. Introduction: Discovering an Elusive "Joyner"

Such facts may be deemed too minute for preservation, but who can foresee that even such facts may not be requisite to illustrate other needed points of information.... It is by such incidental facts that more important ones are sometimes explained.

John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia.1

The Franklin table, attributed to William Savery
Fig. 1: The "Franklin table," attributed to William Savery

Private collection, Philadelphia
Enamored as he was with the minutiae of Philadelphia's past, John Fanning Watson would have been irrevocably smitten with the contents of an otherwise unattractive, dog-eared, vellum-covered volume, recently accessioned by the Library of the American Philosophical Society.
2 Inside its cover, faintly titled "John Head his Books of accounts," are 231 pages of densely written entries, under hundreds of account names, chronicling the daily transactions of an active commercial enterprise over a thirty-five-year period: 1718-1753.3 They establish John Head as one of Philadelphia's principal cabinetmakers. The account book is essential reading for anyone interested in early Philadelphia furniture and the activities and identities of those who made it, or who bartered labor and commodities to acquire it.

Concealed from public view for most of its existence, the account book had descended through seven generations of Quaker relations. It was donated, in 1991-1992, to the American Philosophical Society, as part of an extensive collection, the George Vaux Papers.4 The account book's significance, however, was not discovered until May 7, 1999, during research on other material in that archive. The subjects of that inquiry were two pieces of furniture that had descended in the Vaux family. One was a curled maple, intaglio-knee dressing table with a Benjamin Franklin provenance, and attributed to the shop of William Savery [Fig. 1].5 The other was a curled walnut, slant-front desk on ogee bracket feet with serpentine interior, which had been originally owned by John Head, Jr., one of Philadelphia's wealthiest merchants at the time of the Revolution [Fig. 2].6


The desk of John Head, Jr.
Fig. 2: The desk of John Head, Jr.

Private collection, Philadelphia
There was little reason for anyone to have suspected the ledger's importance, even after it had found its way to APS. John Head was not known as a cabinetmaker of prominence. Indeed, not much was known about him at all. Like most Philadelphia joiners of his era, Head existed "in little more than name."
7 Moreover, as joiners often worked as carpenters, there was no particular reason to conclude that Head made furniture.8

John Head's will, proved October 18, 1754, identified him only as "Joyner." His furniture was referenced solely in terms of its disposition with other of his household goods. Only one article of furniture was even mentioned, "a Clock & Case." Regrettably, the originals of Head's will and probate inventory are lost. Nor were they preserved on microfilm, as the Register of Wills's microfilm of early wills and inventories indicates that they were determined lost as of the time of filming. All that survives of Head's will is the so-called "Index copy," the contemporaneous transcription made for the Register.9 The original or a copy of the probate inventory appears to have been extant circa 1964, when it was cited, as follows: "A joiner, John Head, whose inventory was taken by two fellow joiners, Thomas Maule and Joseph Chatham, on November 11, 1754, possessed fourteen rush-bottom chairs valued at three pounds two shillings."10

Unlike many other Philadelphia joiners, Head's name did not appear as an appraiser of probate inventories. (Presumably, joiners were chosen for such tasks because of their familiarity with furniture, often the costliest asset in an estate. At other times, they may have been picked because their work related professionally to that of the decedent.) Nor was Head's name among those known to have been admitted as freemen of Philadelphia.11 Nothing in other public records readily suggested the extent of Head's business dealings or his property holdings.12 The only reference to him in contemporary Philadelphia newspapers was a posthumous one, to a lot of ground he had owned while alive.13

Secondary sources provided little more. In Hornor's Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture, John Head was but one of a hundred joiners, chair-makers, turners, and cabinetmakers, listed as working during the period 1682-1722. Head was accorded only a single line: "John Head, joiner, removed from Mildenhall, Suffolk, England, 1717; died 1754."14 No citation for such information was given. Nor was there any indication as to what Head produced, to whom he sold it, or his relative importance to other Philadelphia cabinetmakers.

In the articles of The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, John Head was identified once, as a "joiner of Philadelphia," but only in his capacity as father-in-law to the prosperous Revolutionary merchant Jeremiah Warder, nothing more.15 Indeed, in a pamphlet history of the Warder family, while mention was made of his mercantile stature, John Head was not even identified by name: "Jeremiah [Warder] married Mary Head, the daughter of a leading merchant of Philadelphia."16

No reference whatever may be found for John Head as a joiner, either in on-line genealogical databases, or in the relevant volume of that monumental compendium of early Pennsylvaniana, Lawmaking and Legislators in Pennsylvania, A Biographical Dictionary.17

Once within the George Vaux Papers, further biographical detail begins to emerge. Family trees prepared by George Vaux VIII show John Head as born in England on April 8, 1688, the son of "Samuel (?) Head" and "Sarah Jackley(?)." In 1717, Head was "of St. Edmondsbury," a reference to today's Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. Head married "Rebecca Mase," at "Baybon Suffolk England 3/15 1712." Rebecca was listed as born in England in 1688, and dying in Philadelphia "6/4 1764."18

Vaux's information appears to have come from John and Rebecca's marriage certificate. The original certificate was in his possession on November 28, 1874, when Charles Caleb Cresson called at his office, at the back of 1700 Arch Street, according to a November 30, 1874 letter from Cresson to Thomas Stewardson. Cresson enclosed for Stewardson his "memoranda," based on that certificate and other information given him by Vaux. They clarify and expand upon Vaux's genealogical data. Cresson noted that the marriage took place at the "Meeting place at Bayton (or Baybon) [on] the 15th of 3 mo. (May) 1712." Whereas there is no "Baybon," the seat and parish of "Bayton," or "Beyton" as it is sometimes spelled, does show up on Suffolk county maps approximately 5 1/2 miles east of Bury St. Edmunds. Thus the marriage took place in a Quaker house of worship in that town. Cresson further noted that the newlyweds were described as "John Head of Edmonsbury - in the County of Suffolk, Joyner, and - Rebekah (she signed Rebeckah) Mase - daughter of Richard Mase - of bury aforesaid."19 Thus Head must have completed his apprenticeship by the time of his marriage. As both he and Rebekah were of Bury St. Edmunds and their marriage had taken place nearby, this suggests that Head practiced joinery and underwent his apprenticeship in Suffolk, in or around Bury St. Edmunds.20 A search of the records of the Joiners' Company of the City of London has turned up no record either of his having been bound as an apprentice there or admitted to the freedom of the Company.21

An endorsement on a fold of the marriage document, "John Head - 8 day of 2 mo. 1688," was Vaux's source for Head's date of birth, April 8, 1688. Other endorsements on another fold gave [birth] dates of "1 mo. 1 1713," March 1, 1713, for Rebecca, and "14 of 2 mo. 1714," April 14, 1714, for [their daughter] Mary. Cresson's remaining "memoranda" regarding the joiner cast light on his arrival in Philadelphia and where he lived: "The first John Head - had 11 children - 4 at the time he landed at Philad.[,] the two youngest he & his wife carried in a tub from the landing to their dwelling - means of conveyance being scarce in those days -*** J.H. lived and died - on the N. side of Arch St. - 40 ft. E. of 3rd - lot 20 x 110 - his house is gone - [.]"22

A bit more information about Head was mounted inside the cover of his account book, in a typescript, signed "George Vaux [VIII]," and dated March 1, 1904:23

This book is mainly in the hand-writing of John Head who was born in England, in 1688, married there in 1712, came to America in 1717, and died in 1754. There is reason to believe that he was a minister among Friends, but if not[,] certainly an elder. By trade he was a cabinet maker. His son John was my maternal great-grandfather, and one of the few wealthy merchants in Philadelphia before and at the time of the American Revolution. His second daughter Mary, my paternal great-grandmother was the wife of my paternal great-grandfather, Jeremiah Warder, also a wealthy merchant at the same period. His oldest daughter Rebecca was an ancestor of Johns Hopkins who founded the great University and Hospital in Baltimore, which bears his name. Another daughter was ancestor of Chief Justice Sharswood, of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and still another was ancestor of the Cresson, Biddle and Garrett families in Philadelphia.

Many of the most prominent Friends families in England were descended from his brother and probably his sister.24

Even in these biographical notes, Head appeared more celebrated for his genes than his accomplishments. Part of the reason Head may have remained so obscure, is that he suffered the "curse" of having such better-known, and often illustrious, descendants. Their proximity to the events of the Revolution or their associations to great institutions, public and private, may have held greater appeal to later family members doing genealogical research on papers then in private hands, including his account book. A century after Head's death, diarist John Templeton Strong wrote: "We crave a history, instinctively, and being without the eras that belong to older nationalities...we dwell on the details of our little all of historic life, and venerate every trivial fact about our first settlers and colonial governors and revolutionary heroes."25

Only through an examination of Head's account book can Head be more fully appreciated. It reveals his pivotal role in the artisanal and mercantile life of the city, the rich diversity of his business, and his significance to the history of early Philadelphia furniture. Discovery is also made of the wares and activities of other Philadelphia craftsmen and merchants, many of whom have remained nearly as elusive as Head.

II. The Value of the Head Account Book.

a. The Scope of the Head Account Book

The Head account book's thirty-five years of entries, dated 1718-1753, afford a first-hand and detailed record of a variety of artisanal and commercial transactions.26 "We know very little about the business activities of the artisans, retailers, and other small businessmen who composed Philadelphia's amorphous middle class...."27 Head's account book gives voice to the "historically inarticulate," those individuals often overlooked in more traditional histories.28

As Head emigrated to America in 1717 and died in 1754, the account book encompasses his entire professional career in Philadelphia. Here are the names, goods and activities of virtually the entire hierarchy of the community, including Penn's secretary, James Logan; Receiver General and Proprietor's agent, James Steel; Assembly Speaker Isaac Norris, Jr.; Philadelphia Mayor Thomas Masters; wealthy merchants such as Alexander Wooddrop and John Leacock; State House master carpenter Edmund Woolley (c.1695-1771); brass button manufacturer Caspar Wistar (1696-1752); ironmaster William Branson; glazier turned mathematician and inventor Thomas Godfrey (1702-1749); "John Roberson, ye Lawyour;" dyer turned property speculator Lodwick Christian Sprögel; clockmakers John Wood, John Hood, and Peter and William Stretch; six chairmakers, including Solomon Cresson, Alexander Foreman and Benjamin Trotter; pewterer Simon Edgell (c.1688-1742); brickmakers Abram Cox and the Coates family; "Thomas Shut[e] sope biler;" "Thomas Pars [Pearse] plasterer;" and, not least, "Ladwik Sipel, the Dutch Loksmith." Emerging from these entries are their everyday lives, their successes and tragedies: everything from the substantial amounts earned by Edgell for his pewter, to the three coffins he ordered for his children.29

Many of these individuals, like Edgell and William Stretch, had only been known by the quality of the small number of surviving pieces bearing their names. In other instances, those without extant ledgers or marked work had been relegated to obscurity. Even worse was the fate of John Hood, whose very existence was doubted, because no clocks by him are presently known and it was thought that his name was a misspelling of that of John Wood.

Head's would appear to be the earliest account book of any cabinetmaker in America. The account book's entries for furniture cover twenty-five years: 1718-1744.30 That length of time and the breadth of the furniture-making activities encompassed render the Head account book of even greater value to furniture scholarship than the 1708 probate inventory of joiner Charles Plumley, considered "one of the key documents of American furniture history." That inventory, the earliest of any American cabinetmaker, provides a unique opportunity to view the materials, components, tools and unfinished furniture remaining in the stock of a locally trained joiner in Philadelphia's first quarter century.31

B. The Limitations of Existing Records

However, the Plumley inventory suffers the limitations of every probate inventory. Such inventories provide a slice in time, rather than a span. They list appraised values, rather than the actual prices at which goods were sold. They are also often incomplete. It has been suggested that this may be the result of "[i]ndifferent or hurried appraisers" overlooking goods, or appraisers aggregating goods in single less descriptive entries or altogether ignoring items of lesser value.32

The Head account book complements probate inventories, making up for many of their deficiencies, and augmenting their advantages.33 Head recorded: the names of those who purchased/received or sold/provided goods or services; what was transacted; what was purchased/received or sold/provided at the same time; what they paid and with what they paid; when they ordered it; and the names of those responsible for providing goods and services when not received directly from Head. Having all of these data for one transaction, or a series of them, provides a fuller, less static context than can be derived from an inventory. Moreover, the account book's thousands of interrelated entries are of sufficient number, scale, range, and consistency to permit the creation of a large database, from which macro-economic data may be drawn, hypotheses formulated, and conclusions reached, all at levels of statistical validity and circumstantial trustworthiness not ordinarily available from often disparate and inconsistently valued probate records and other existing documentation.34

Prior to the discovery of Head's account book, no similarly comprehensive Philadelphia joiner's account book of the first half of the 18th century was known, posing a major impediment to research.35 The lack of comprehensive records for furniture manufactured by Philadelphia joiners, and particularly for case pieces, forced earlier researchers to rely on extant furniture as the primary basis for their hypotheses. Some of their conclusions are now subject to challenge, particularly given new and more detailed information available from the Head account book.36 Thus, not everyone will concur that "[s]urviving examples prove that the most important furniture form produced by Philadelphia craftsmen during the period 1730-1760 was the chair."37

Diminutive chest of drawers on ball feet, signed E. Evans
Fig. 3: Diminutive chest of drawers on ball feet, signed "E. Evans"

Chalfant collection
Unlike the Parisian Guild Statute of 1741 mandating that every Maître Ébéniste register a personal mark and then place it on all of his furniture, there was no legal requirement for English cabinetmakers to do the same.
38 Maker's labels or stamps are, therefore, rare on English 18th century cabinetwork.39 Likewise, Colonial Pennsylvania furniture is rarely signed, marked, or otherwise labeled. Early exceptions to that practice, slightly before Head's arrival, include a fall-front desk, stamped "EDWARD EVANS 1707;" and a ball-foot chest of drawers, inscribed "William/Beake 1711."40 Two other exceptions are contemporaneous with Head's production. One is a walnut two-over-one drawer, ball foot, diminutive chest of drawers, c. 1720, possibly by Edward Evans, as "E Evans" is inscribed in chalk on the back of its upper right drawer [fig. 3].41 The other is a ball and claw foot, Philadelphia high chest with ogee-shaped top, inscribed in chalk "Jos. Claypoole 1743" on the underside of a drawer bottom in the upper case.42 After mid-century, labeling must have become more common, given the numbers of extant examples.43

Joiners' bills for the sale of furniture in Head's period are rare, as are such references in the accounting papers of their customers.44 Cabinetmakers' advertisements in contemporary newspapers provide snapshots of what goods they were offering at particular times. But even when woods are listed, the furniture is so generically described, that attributions of surviving examples are not possible, absent other documentation.45 Also, many successful craftsmen, such as John Head, may not have needed to advertise and, as a consequence, remain little known.46 Probate inventories of cabinetmakers' shop goods are more helpful. Apart from finished goods left in stock, descriptive listings of tools and components can suggest what types of furniture they made.

Nor are owner records necessarily reliable. Family papers which may have identified the maker and, in some instances, the original owner, if not lost, are often incomplete. Moreover, if separated from the pieces to which they pertain, they may be misleading. Unless such pieces were uniquely described, they can easily be confused with ones of similar form, which may have descended from other family branches or were acquired outside the family.47 Needless to say, oral family tradition, without supporting documentation, is least reliable.

Chest of drawers on ball feet, attributed to William Beake
Fig. 4: Chest of drawers on ball feet, attributed to William Beake

Chalfant collection
Attributing unmarked furniture to the maker of a marked piece is often a hazardous undertaking. It can still be attempted, especially where a combination of identical features are present: appearance, construction, woods (primary and secondary), and the profiles of mouldings and turnings. Three such pieces are unsigned, walnut, two-over-three drawer, ball-foot chests of drawers, which appear similar in design and construction to the chest of drawers signed by Beake in 1711, right down to their unusually sloped ball feet. One is illustrated [fig.4].
48 The smaller the number of similarities between a known piece and an unmarked one, the greater potential for attribution error.49

Applying such techniques to a greater universe of objects of like form or decoration, has enabled furniture consultants and conservators, such as Christopher Storb and self-described "furniture taxonomist" Alan Miller, to identify particular groups of furniture as coming from common shops.50 One such group is comprised of some seventeen clockcases, identified by Storb and Miller over the course of twenty years of examination. But, even with the name of Peter Stretch on many of their clock dials, without documentation, the identity of the cabinetshop remained a mystery.


C. The Attribution of Furniture to John Head's Shop

Peter Stretch tide dial clock with arched face Square face clock with William Stretch clock and oculus

Chalfant collection

Mones collection
The Head account book facilitates attribution of furniture previously ascribed to a common shop, such as the group of clockcases. There is sufficient detail in Head's entries regarding his cases for Stretch clocks, that Storb is now able to attribute certain of the cases in the group to Head's shop.
51 Two cases which appear to be by Head are an arched dial case with a Peter Stretch tide dial movement [figs. 5, 5a, 5b, 5c] and a square dial with a bolt and shutter maintaining power movement by William Stretch, his son [figs. 6, 6a].52

A curled walnut Philadelphia high chest and dressing table has also been attributed to Head's shop by Andrew J. Brunk.53 Such a pair was made at the time of the marriage of Palatine German émigré Caspar Wistar and Catherine Johnson or Jansen, daughter of a wealthy Quaker family, on May 25, 1726. It was later inventoried as the "Chest of Drawers & Table £4-0-0" in Wistar's Market Street house at the time his death in 1752.54 The basis for the attribution was a contemporaneous debit in Wistar's account found by Brunk: "14 - 4 mo 1726 To a Chest of drawers and a Chamber Table and an oval Table £10-0-0."55 Thus, the Head account book may also be used to corroborate provenance previously supported only by family tradition.

An English arch-dial clock in a Head-style Philadelphia case, c. 1730, given by the same donor as the Wistar high chest and dressing table, carries a less firm line of descent from the Wistars.56 If Caspar Wistar already had the movement, this might explain why he was debited £4-0-0, for a clockcase, on 2/30/30, but no corresponding clock was noted for it, as Head sometimes did.57


Richardson family high chest on turned legs
Fig. 7: Richardson family high chest on turned legs

Formerly in the collection of the late Robert Simpson Stuart
Photograph courtesy of Wintherthur Museum
Richardson family dressing table on turned legs
Fig. 8: Richardson family dressing table on turned legs

Formerly in the collection of the late Robert Simpson Stuart
Photograph courtesy of Wintherthur Museum
Beatrice Garvan and Benno Forman have noted the similarity of the Wistar high chest to one which is thought to have been owned by silversmith Joseph Richardson, Sr. (1711-1784), Wistar's neighbor at his earlier residence on Front Street.
58 That high chest, also of walnut, has an accompanying dressing table, but with a straight, rather than tripled-arched front skirt and only one drawer [figs. 7 & 8]. As there is no account for Joseph Richardson, Sr. in Head's account book, and the account of his brother, Francis Richardson, Jr., lists no chests of drawers or tables, there is no direct link to Head through that side of the family. However, as the biography of the Richardson family only goes so far as to state that these pieces stood in the house of Richardson's son, Joseph Richardson, Jr. (1752-1831), they may yet have been produced by the Head shop, but have come into the family through a different route.59

Based on similarities in construction and moulding profiles to the Wistar chest, Alan Miller has attributed a high chest entirely of cedar to the Head shop. Miller also believes the cedar chest to be earlier in date than the Wistar chest.60

Head lists no individual chests of drawers of cedar, but does list three with companion dressing tables. Was one of those chests of drawers the one that Miller attributed to the Head shop? An obvious candidate would be from Head's earliest cedar pair, which were debited to pewterer Simon Edgell, on 4/15/19, at £10-0-0.61 Another possibility is from the second pair, the "Sader Chest And Table of drawers," debited to James Steel, on 3/13/24, at £9-10-0.62 The "1 Cedar Chest of Drawers" bequeathed to Steel's widow Martha in 1741 may have survived from that pair.63 A third cedar high chest and dressing table pair is probably not in the running, if one accepts Miller's conclusion that the extant cedar chest of drawers predates the Wistar pair. The third pair was debited to Anthony Morris, on 10/6/32, at £13-10-0, and delivered to Samuel Powel, Jr.64 However, it is very likely that may be the pair described in Hornor: "The second Samuel Powels owned 'One red Cedar Table' (lowboy), and 'One D[itt]o Chest of Drawers' in 'the front Chamber.'"65

Thus, Head's shop can be viewed as a prime candidate for the origination of Philadelphia furniture, made c. 1718-1744, that may have only "survived" in the entries of the probate inventories and papers of its original owners. Many names of those owners appear in Head's account book as purchasers or recipients of similarly described furnishings.

The inventory of Steel is rich in entries which appear to tie in with those in Head's account for him. Only one "Spice Box" is listed in each. Valued at £0-15-0, together with a bedstead, it was likely that which cost Steel £2-10-0, on 2/15/35. The sole "Clock & Case" in each, appraised at £10-0-0 in 1741, was probably that for which Head charged £15-0-0, on 6/29/32. The movement was almost certainly by Peter Stretch, as his account was credited £12-0-0 by Head that very same date, "By a Clock." The complementary nature of the Steel inventory and Head account book is further demonstrated by the "Desk & Book Case w[i]th Glass Doors," valued at £15-0-0. Head's account for James Steel listed two bookcases in combination with desks. On 2/7/36, Head debited Steel £14-0-0, "Left to pay for a Desk and Book Case and - 2 paken Cases By his order was sent to marriland [Maryland]." On 7/3/36, Head debited Steel £15-0-0, "To a scrudore and Bookcas [secretary desk and bookcase] apon a Chest of drawers."66 If the appraised one was that sent to Maryland, the packing cases were no doubt needed to protect its glazed doors.

It is hoped that other documentary "reunions" with the account book will continue to be made. For the present, here are a couple more. The "Comperst Rods," i.e., the compassed or arched tester, which brickmaker Abram Cox purchased from Head, on 7/9/22, at 0-16-0, to go along with his "Badstad," may very well refer to Cox's "Canopy Bedsted" in Hornor. The four "picttur frames," two of them "Larg," which Head sold to Alexander Wooddrop, on 6/21/21 and 6/26/21, are likely the "3 gilt Family Pictures, 1 other Picture," which Hornor states were in the "back Parlour of his Dwelling Home.67

Another source of possible reunions with Head's account book will be any furniture which turns up bearing the name of one of his customers. One possibility is a walnut ball foot chest of drawers with a chalk signature that has been deciphered as a variant of the name of Solomon Cresson. Cresson was Head's principal supplier of chairs and purchased several case pieces from Head, including "a chest of Drawers dd [delivered] to his house."68

Stretch family scale box
Fig. 9: Stretch family scale box

Mones Collection
Another object possibly made by Head is a labeled Philadelphia walnut scale box for the weighing of coins and precious metals, which descended in the Stretch family [fig. 9.].
69 Head sold twenty-five scale boxes to Stretch and this example is distinguished from most of those that survive in being made of walnut rather than oak, the latter wood commonly appearing in those imported from England.70 See the discussion on scale boxes in section pertaining to Head's dealing with the Stretches.

The account book will also facilitate our general understanding of furniture of Head's period. The serendipitous survival of certain objects over others has led to erroneous conclusions, because of the dearth of relevant written material to place them in context. Just because one form may have survived in greater number than another does not mean that that form was more popular or more important. The latter may have been discarded for reasons of obsolescence, fashion, or instability of construction. Nor does the survival of more ornate objects, passed down in wealthy estates, mean that plainer ones did not exist in even greater numbers.71 The same has been generally true for many Philadelphia objects of the William & Mary and Queen Anne (Baroque) periods which, until recently, were not as well appreciated or cared for as their Chippendale (rococo) counterparts.72

The Head account book will also enable research of a more general nature into the personal and economic activities of early Philadelphians. Surviving papers of those mentioned in the Head account book can now be examined for further information as to those specific transactions and their relationship to others. Contemporary newspaper reports and advertisements regarding those same individuals, their businesses and their lives, can now be understood in greater depth, as they lacked the level of detail provided by Head.


[ Foreword ][ Section 1-2 ][ Section 3-4 ][ Section 5-9 ][ Section 10-10d ][ Section 10e-Conclusion ]
[ The Account Book as Artifact ][ Acknowledgments ]
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