William Penn’s desk is in the Logan Room at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.
British furniture historian Adam Bowett shows that the old foot fits into William Penn’s secretary desk. Photo courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.
The small replacement foot and the original, larger elm foot from Penn’s secretary desk. Photo courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.
When Laura Keim, curator at Historic Germantown, came across a ball foot about the size of a small grapefruit at the Germantown Historical Society, she noticed a small tag on its screw post with the typed words “said to be from the desk of William Penn.” She called Linda August, reference librarian and curator of art and artifacts at the Library Company of Philadelphia, where the desk resides, to tell her about her find. Keim, also curator at Stenton, the house built by James Logan (1674-1751), mentioned it to Jay Robert Stiefel, a collector and supporter of Stenton.
Stiefel, anxious to see if the foot fit the desk, arranged for Keim to bring the foot to the Library Company when British furniture historian Adam Bowett was in Philadelphia to ask his opinion. Bowett is a well-known lecturer on furniture history in the U.K. and author of a number of articles and books, including English Furniture, 1660-1714: From Charles II to Queen Anne and Woods in British Furniture Making, 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary. Bowett had come to the U.S. to give a workshop at the Winterthur forum on Massachusetts furniture and to lecture at MESDA, Historic Charleston, and the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia.
A group of scholars—Laura Keim; Beatrice Garvan, curator emeritus of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and past president of the Library Company; John Van Horne, the Library Company’s director; Linda August; and Jay Stiefel—gathered to hear what Bowett had to say.
“Bowett picked up the foot and said it was made of the right wood, elm, which cracks but does not split and therefore supports great weight,” Stiefel recounted. “Bowett also noted that the top of the ball was cupped, a trick of period turners, so that the foot can fit flush when the ball is screwed on. When one replacement foot was removed and the elm foot inserted, Bowett pointed out that the diameter of the top of the foot exactly matched the witness mark on the underside of the desk, and the post fit exactly in the hole. Moreover, the post stopped a quarter of an inch from the top of the hole, and that section was oxidized, proving that this was indeed the original foot from this desk.”
Based on construction and materials—the desk is made of wainscot oak with spruce as a secondary wood—Bowett said the desk was made in London, 1710-30. William Penn left Pennsylvania in 1700 and lived in England before his death in 1718, so he may have used the desk. No one knows when the desk came to America; perhaps one of Penn’s sons who served as proprietors of Pennsylvania brought it here. It was sold at the Pennsbury Manor sale in 1792 and has been revered as a relic ever since.
Over the years it has been poorly restored. In addition to its feet, the doors and slant lid were replaced, and the case was given a black walnut veneer it never had. Bowett said, “Its guts are all there.”
>According to Linda August, the desk has been in the Library Company since 1873, a gift from former librarian and historian John Jay Smith. The antiquarian John Fanning Watson saw the desk in 1839 in Burlington, New Jersey, when it was owned by silversmith Nathaniel Coleman, who, according to Watson, used it as a shop closet. Coleman acquired it from George Dillwyn, whose family had acquired it from Peter Worrall when the contents of Pennsbury Manor were sold in 1792.
According to Watson, Coleman took off the mirrored doors and hung them on his wall. A sketch of Coleman’s study showing the mirrors is in the collection of the Burlington County (New Jersey) Historical Society and was pictured in Silver Magazine in the January/February 2001 issue. The Library Company has a sketch of the desk and its brass. One of the brasses is among Watson’s relics at Winterthur.
Bits and pieces of Penn’s secretary desk, collected as Colonial relics, give us a better idea of what William Penn’s desk once looked like. What should the Library Company do with this knowledge? Laura Keim will write a scholarly article about it. Jay Stiefel thinks the desk should continue to be displayed as a relic without further restoration. “Given the extent to which it has already been restored, I do not think anything more should be done to it,” he said. “The original foot should be displayed next to it along with the 1896 letter from antiquarian Irving W. Lyon to George Maurice Abbott, later the librarian of the Library Company, advising him on its restoration, and Watson’s sketch of the desk and one of his brasses that he found on the Pennsbury site which is at the Library Company.” That brass is now at Winterthur.
Bea Garvan believes a virtual image could be mounted on the wall next to the desk showing what the desk looked like in Penn’s day.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest