Printer Friendly

A new day for 19th c. furniture.

Born in the South in 1801, a black man learns his craft well, leaving an enduring furniture legacy.

In 1801, the year Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States, Thomas Day was born a free black in Virginia. It was a time in history when thousands of Americans were pouring across the Appalachian mountains, or moving to cities to seek better opportunities.

African-Americans made up one-fifth of the new nation's population, but most blacks were denied the opportunities opening up out West or in the cities. And so Day's family remained in the deep South. There, in his lifetime of threescore years that ended before the Civil War, Thomas Day made his own opportunities:

* He moved to Milton, NC, to learn cabinetmaking.

* He became a homeowner, prominent business man, board member of the state bank and elder in the Presbyterian Church.

* He built and sold furniture of his own design, including commissions for Governor David Reid.

* He earned a reputation as North Carolina's finest antebellum cabinetmaker.

This month, a special exhibit of Thomas Day's furniture opens at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, and will continue through February 1997. Twenty-three pieces, the most extensive collection of Day's work ever assembled, will be shown alongside pieces made by other cabinetmakers of the period for comparison. Patricia Phillips, chief curator and curator of furnishings, said the exhibit will examine Day's common furniture, as well as his master works, which embody a variety of styles - Late Empire, Gothic Revival, Louis XV and Elizabethan.

Craftique's reproduction program

In April, Craftique of Mebane, NC, a division of Pulaski Furniture Corp., introduced the Thomas Day Collection of solid mahogany reproduction furniture after months of research and collaboration with the museum, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration Committee. Pulaski President John Wampler described Day as one of the 19th century's best-known furniture makers and cited the endeavor as the company's most important undertaking.

Three designs copied from museum pieces and 15 taken from furniture in private homes make up the initial phase of Craftique's Thomas Day reproduction program. Many of the pieces have long family histories, and have been handed down for generations. A piece like the Douglas bed summons up further American history.

Now owned by Robert Dick Douglas Jr. and his wife, Ruth, the bed was commissioned in 1849 by Douglas' great-grandfather, Robert Dick, a Greensboro, NC, district court justice. Dick's daughter, Jessie, born in the bed in 1853, married Robert Douglas, the son of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (best remembered for his spirited presidential debates with Abraham Lincoln).

In a personal footnote to history, Douglas Jr. confided that his father was born in the bed in 1875, and he himself was born in it in 1912. "That was the last birth. From then on, women went to the hospital to have babies."

'A genius with design'

"You won't find Thomas Day in the history books," declared John Wiltshire, Craftique production manager. "This piece of history has been missed by a lot of people over the years. We don't know why Day has been skipped over, but we are trying to get the story out about a marvelous man and his marvelous furniture. He was a genius with his designs."

Day may have begun to learn cabinet-making as a child watching his father, Wiltshire said. "He hauled and stacked lumber, and turned a flywheel to rotate the lathe in his father's shop." After moving to Milton in 1823, Day became known for his own design and woodworking skills. According to Wiltshire, Day became one of the largest furniture manufacturers in North Carolina, employing both black and white woodworkers.

"Day was a man without limitations," Wiltshire continued. "He could work in so many different styles - designs from grandiose to plain and simple." Day incorporated characteristics of Empire, 18th century and Federal styling even in furnishings like church pews and coffins. He also made millwork - doors, casings and outside house trim.

Thomas Day built plain furniture to sell from his shop - functional, everyday furniture for anyone who wanted it. But sometimes he had clients for whom money was not the main concern. That is when Day's imagination went into high gear, Wiltshire said, and he designed masterpieces.


An Empire-style sideboard built in 1838 is distinguished by four crotch mahogany veneer doors, four elaborately turned front legs, rounded colonnettes and rounded pillow drawer across the top. Its massive size and unusual design made it one of the most challenging pieces to reproduce, Wiltshire said.

"When I first looked at the drawings, I had a difficult time figuring out how we were going to reproduce the sideboard and the secretary," he said. "There is a lot going on in these pieces, and the sheer mechanics are formidable," Wiltshire said.

Thomas Day had done a great job of engineering. Frames were built, sized, trimmed, then other frames attached. Columns come up under drawers. Tops are offset. "Apparently Day didn't like flat front furniture," Wiltshire continued. "We don't know if he drew plans or just dreamed up his furniture and went about building it. I've never heard of any original sketches being found.

Complicated turnings

Master carver George Kosinski, who was asked to reproduce faithful carvings for the collection, said he was surprised by the quality of the originals. The hairy paw feet on the Holmes secretary were difficult and challenging beyond the capacity of a novice, Kosinski said. "And the pair of rope pilasters is incredible. Here was a man in the 1800s, with no formal education, figuring out the proportions of a rope twist to make it come out even."

Kosinski said he had to map out and plot a special grid to plan that particular spiral. The ratio of the rise (how fast the twist goes up) to the run (how far to the side it goes) has to stay constant and, Kosinski said, the carver needs to determine at what angle it rises and the number of starts, or twists, to come from the bottom.

Kosinski made the set of pilasters as one big turning, glued up from two separate boards, so it could be split down the middle. Since Kosinski's master copies will be used for limited mass production, they in turn will be reproduced by multi-spindle carving. "In this case, you need to exaggerate certain places on the model to allow for flutter sanding," Kosinski said.

"Day built furniture 150 years ago that is classic in design and style," added Craftique designer Jeff Blaesing, who spent weeks taking measurements of furniture in private homes and making to-scale drawings. Blaesing said he had never heard of Day until this project, but now considers Day one of his greatest teachers.

Preserving mahogany

The first cutting of Honduran mahogany was in July and shipping of reproductions to dealers began this month. Craftique asks its lumber brokers to work only within the concept of renewable tree planting programs. Wiltshire said this may require that wood be purchased up to two years in advance to ensure that the finest mahogany will be available. Solid mahogany is used throughout the Thomas Day Collection, including drawers and inner supports.

After the rough-sawn wood has been selected and dried, Craftique matches color and grain and sizes each board for individual items. Every piece in the collection uses boards of different size and thickness, Wiltshire said. This process allows craftsmen to conserve up to 30 percent more hardwood than by other methods of production, which is especially important in furniture that requires a great deal of lumber footage, like the massive poster bed. Craftique builds furniture in a piece-oriented process and manufactures "to order," not to a warehouse.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Design Lines; Thomas Day, North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, North Carolina
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Previous Article:Location, location, location.
Next Article:Boxwood: the early engraver's best friend.

Related Articles
The design connection.
Meetings become a work of art in North Carolina.
Take your pick of cities.
Take Your Pick of Cities.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters