Figure 1. Royal Gazette, June 27, 1778.
Figure 2. Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, April 22, 1773.
Figure 3. Bureau chest of drawers, or Beau Brummel, labeled by Samuel Prince, circa 1770, mahogany, poplar, brass (replaced), mirror glass, height 33¾", width 40", depth 22". Museum of the City of New York, New York City, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Eric Wunsch.
Figure 4. Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 3rd edition (1762, reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1966), Plate 54.
Figure 5. Linen press labeled by Samuel Prince, circa 1770, mahogany, brass, height 85", width 53½", depth 24¼". F.J. Carey, Pennsylvania. Label on inside bottom of second tray from the top.
Figure 6. Label of chest shown in Figure 5.
Figure 7. Chippendale, Director, Plate 129.
Figure 8. Desk-and-bookcase labeled by Samuel Prince, circa 1770. Photo by Jeff Dunn ©WBGH.
Figure 9. Chippendale, Director, Plate 107.
Figure 10. Corner chair labeled by Samuel Prince, circa 1770.
“In the manufacture, likewise, of iron, paper, cabinet-works, &c, Pennsylvania exceeds not only New York, but all her sister states. In times of peace, however, New York will command more commercial business than any town in the United States…Several causes, however, have operated to diminish the sociability of the citizens of New York, particularly the change of inhabitants and the loss of property, during the ravages of war, and the unfavorable state of business since the establishment of peace.”
Noah Webster, 1786
Noah Webster’s assessment was accurate, as New York became arguably the top furniture production center in the United States during the Federal period.
The year was 1775, and tension had been mounting for quite some time between the British military and the residents of New York City. The British-appointed governor of the New York province, William Tryon, had fled to a royal merchant vessel, fearing for his own safety; the king had officially closed all trade to the defiant colonies; and almost half of the population of the city had fled.1 Many of the people who were forced to relocate did not have the ability or opportunity to take many of their assets with them. Only a handful of the city’s evacuees were affluent or wealthy enough to send their possessions, including furniture, to other locations, usually upstate. Philip Livingston, James Duane, and Samuel Verplanck were among the few who had the resources to accomplish this feat.2
Another dilemma of New York’s situation at this time (as with the other colonies) was the lack of a local stable currency, which severely affected commerce. Our young nation did not yet have enough credibility to establish its own line of credit with other countries, and almost all of the money printed by the colonies was deemed virtually worthless.
By 1776, things had become worse in the city. Shortly after Washington’s infamous overnight retreat of the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights in August 1776, the British seized control of New York City and did not relinquish it until 1783. These seven years were the longest continuous control of an American province during the entire span of the Revolutionary War, and its effect on the city’s economy and trade was catastrophic.
Many craftsmen, especially cabinetmakers, whose wares and skills were not needed in abundance during this time, were adversely affected by these events. As the British began to occupy the vacated homes of the residents who had fled, they also began to rapidly consume the resources of the city, such as trees, which were used to construct fortifications for defense, heat their new dwellings, and cook their meals.3 In fact, by 1778 advertisements in a local newspaper offered a “contract for wood” where “ready money” would be paid by the British upon delivery of the wood (Fig. 1). This depletion of a cabinetmaker’s main resource, especially local woods such as pine and poplar, when combined with the local economic woes of the city, caused the furniture industry to shrink into virtual extinction.
The lack of newspaper advertisements by cabinetmakers and turners during the British occupation reinforces this hypothesis. Some of the craftsmen who tried to continue their trade during this period, such as turner James Gautier, finally decided to sell off for cash, amongst other things, a complete set of turner’s tools and some best mahogany household furniture.4
The descent of the city continued during the British occupation with the eruption of several large fires, including a devastating one in September 1776 that destroyed almost 500 residences and the original Trinity Church.5 In all likelihood, the loss of furniture and decorative objects from these homes affected by the blaze was significant.
In conclusion, if we take into account all these facts, we can confidently say that the Revolutionary War and the events that occurred during its tenure offer a compelling argument to support the hypothesis explaining the current scarcity of New York furniture from this period. When comparing the number of extant New York pieces to the number from other major furniture production centers during the Chippendale period, such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, New York comes up noticeably short. Of course this wasn’t always the case. New York City was a bustling port of trade for quite some time before the war broke out, and the furniture trade in the city provided an adequate income for many cabinetmakers and joiners.6
Like many others emigrating from Europe to North America in hopes of establishing a new life, the Prince family had its origins in England in a region bordering Wales and initially settled in America in the 17th century.7 In 1725 two brothers, Samuel and Robert Prince, established America’s first nursery, which was initially located in Great Neck, New York. It was soon relocated to Flushing, New York, where it was commercialized and maintained by five generations of the family as the business flourished for over 130 years.8
Robert’s son William eventually took over the nursery, which offered exotic plants and trees from around the world, including Madeira grapevines, Barcelona filbert trees, and English mulberry trees. As with many other businesses during the Revolutionary War, sales declined dramatically; at one point the nursery offered 30,000 cherry trees, proposing that they be made into barrel hoops.9
Robert’s other son, Samuel, who would go on to become the famed and respected cabinetmaker of New York City, was born on May 20, 1728.10 Samuel went on to marry Ruth Carmen at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan on April 24, 1751, in a service conducted by minister Henry Barclay.11
Little is known of Samuel Prince’s initial entry into the furniture-making trade because extant documentation from this period is scarce. It is also unknown at this time where Samuel received his training and who his master was, but by November 1753, when he was only 25 years old, he was already dealing with the established Quaker cabinetmaker Joshua Delaplaine of New York City, who supplied him with a set of coffin handles, which was in all likelihood for a coffin that Prince was constructing for a customer.12
It was very common in those days for cabinetmakers and joiners to assist each other in producing components of a customer’s order, especially if one shop specialized in a particular skill. In other instances, cabinetmakers would also sell the wares of other artisans, or even share space with them, as noted with organ builder John Sheiuble, who advertised: “JOHN SHEIUBLE, ORGAN BUILDER from Philadelphia, Makes and repairs all kinds of Organs, Harpsichords, Spinners, and Piano, in the best Manner, and with the greatest Dispatch. Any Person that has any thing to be done in the above way, may depend on having it executed in the best Manner, and at the cheapest Rate - - - He is to be spoke with at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinetmaker at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, in New-York.”13
Samuel Prince catered to many patrons of the city. The rich and affluent Evert Banker, a wealthy New York merchant, patronized Prince on several occasions. One receipt lists, among other things, eight mahogany chair frames with stuffing and damask covers, while another lists the purchase of a mahogany wash hand stand.14
Another well-to-do and influential New York City merchant who engaged the services of Samuel Prince was James Beekman. In one instance Beekman purchased eight mahogany chairs, a sofa, and a settee chair.15
During this period in Prince’s career, there were many other active cabinetmakers in the city, such as Gilbert Ash, Thomas Grigg, John Parsons (who apprenticed under Joshua Delaplaine), Willet & Pearsee (Fig. 2), and Robert Wallace.16 However, only a handful of documented, labeled, or marked pieces survive from the New York Chippendale period, making attributions to specific shops or makers extremely difficult.
In order to stay competitive with the other furniture producers in the city, Prince advertised frequently in local newspapers. One ad from 1775 reads: “Samuel Prince, Cabinetmaker, At the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, in William-Street, near the North Church, in New York, Makes and sells all sorts of cabinet work in the neatest manner, and on the lowest terms. Orders for the West Indies, and elsewhere, completed on the shortest notice. He has on hand, for sale, A parcel of the most elegant furniture, made of mahogany, of the very best quality, such as chest of drawers, chest upon chest, cloath presses, desks, desks and book cases of different sorts, chairs of many different and new patterns, beuro tables, dining tables, card tables, breakfast tables, tea tables, And many other sorts of Cabinet works, very cheap.”17
As with many businesses today, the obvious goal was to offer the highest quality of goods at the lowest prices and with the greatest selection of options, delivered to any location a vessel could travel to. It also appears that Prince was a well-respected citizen of the city, since the New York Provincial Congress in the summer of 1776 authorized a committee of two, Samuel Prince and Daniel Dunscomb, to collect all of the lead they could find in the city that could be melted down and molded into bullets for ammunition.18
Although many pieces have been attributed to Samuel Prince, only four extant works are known with his labels. And though they vary in form, they allow us a rare glimpse into the shop of a New York City cabinetmaker operating in the period before the revolution as well as the years leading up to our entrance into the war for freedom.
The first, a bureau chest of drawers, sometimes referred to as a Beau Brummel, is purely English in its origins and represents a very rare American form for furniture of that period (Fig. 3). Although it is relatively plain and with limited embellishments, the most intriguing components of the chest lie in its top drawer, which contains a hinged mirror, possibly for shaving or applying makeup, and compartments of various sizes for writing items such as inkwells, and toiletry articles such as combs. The entire external case is constructed of mahogany (most of which is figured) and has full poplar dust boards between the drawers, which was very common on New York case pieces from this era.
Prince may initially have been given the idea for this bureau from Thomas Chippendale’s popular The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, which illustrates “A Shaving Table” (Fig. 4). This form was not very popular in the colonies and appears to be isolated to specific areas. A few similar examples have turned up in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, where the well-known cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe produced “dressing drawers” and the more costly “Lady’s dressing drawers” for several customers in the early 1770’s.19 Several other pieces of this design with New York origins, some attributed to Samuel Prince, have also been identified.20
The Prince linen press shown here (Fig. 5) was a very popular form in New York during the third and fourth quarters of the 18th century. The Prince label on the linen press is ornately delineated with rococo designs of the period and reads: “Samuel Prince/ JOYNER at the Chest of Draws/ In Cart & Horse Street NEW YORK/ Makes and Sells all Sorts of JOYNERS/ Work on the Lowest Terms” (Fig. 6). New York adhered closer to British prototypes for large case pieces for clothing, such as chests-on-chests and linen presses/wardrobes, while other states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut preferred high chests of drawers or “highboys.”
The outer case of this linen press is constructed of mahogany. It has a label identical to that on the bureau chest of drawers described above and may be an example of the “cloath presses” that Prince advertised in 1775 as being among the items for sale in his shop. Behind the doors of the upper section are a series of trays that probably stored garments, and the large compressed ball-and-claw feet can be seen on other New York case pieces of the period. This style is also derived from English origins and is illustrated in Chippendale’s Director as “A Cloaths Press” (Fig. 7). A good example of a very similar wardrobe made at a later date by Thomas Burling is worth reviewing at this time.21
Thomas Burling became a freeman of New York City on January 31, 1769.22 It is also known that he apprenticed under Samuel Prince, and he made mention of his master in several advertisements upon his return to the city in the mid-1780’s (surely because of the ending of the war). One reads: “Thomas Burling, Cabinet and Chair Maker, Has returned to this city, and resumed his former calling, at the Sign of the Chair, near the Chapel, in Beekman-street, formerly Chapel-street; Where he executes, with neatness and dispatch, the different articles in his branch; and will gratefully acknowledge all favours of his friends and the public in general. He served his time with Samuel Prince, a conspicuous character in his way, and esteemed one of the first workmen in this city; and he means to employ the best hands, flatters himself with encouragement from his former customers and fellow citizens. He has now for sale, various kinds of Mahogany and other furniture. Said Burling sells mahogany for stair case work, and all kinds of stuff suitable for joiners.”23
Burling’s training from Prince paid off, as he went on to produce furniture in the post-Revolutionary War era for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others, and was certainly one of the most respected and patronized cabinetmakers in late 18th-century New York City.24 These wardrobe/presses continued to stay in fashion in New York and New Jersey into the Federal period of furniture production.
The desk-and-bookcase by Prince is by far his most ambitious and aesthetically advanced work that exists (Fig. 8). Constructed of mahogany, it has typical New York gadrooning along the edge of the skirt and a common New York drawer configuration in the upper part of the desk section. The dentil moldings, fretwork on the top pediment, and the ornately carved floral cartouche are exceptional. However, recent analysis of the piece by furniture consultant and expert Alan Miller reveals that the upper bookcase section, though not a marriage of pieces, may possibly have been built on at a later date as an upgrade to the desk. Miller also believes that the cartouche was most likely carved by the renowned Philadelphia carver Martin Jugiez. 25
The label on the desk-and-bookcase is identical to those on the two previously discussed case pieces by Prince, and it is located in the top drawer of the desk, so we can be sure that Prince produced the bottom half of this piece (if, in fact, the desk and bookcase were constructed at separate times). Without any kind of receipts or history for the piece, it would be difficult to prove that the original owners went back to Prince to add to their original desk purchase—if Miller’s theory holds true. Regardless, the desk-and-bookcase stands on its own aesthetic merits, and its level of craftsmanship is testimony to the quality of work that was done in New York during the latter part of the 18th century.
Several comparable New York desk-and-bookcases are known, with some being attributed to Prince’s shop.26 This design was also published in the English furniture pattern books as “A Desk & Bookcase” (Fig. 9).
The final known piece by Samuel Prince is a corner chair (Fig 10). Also called a roundabout chair, this type of chair was quite common in America during the 18th century. This chair is relatively plain, compared to other examples of the period, and the splat design can be seen on other New York corner chairs from this time.27 The label is identical to those on the other Prince examples. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of this chair is currently unknown, so a more detailed analysis of it cannot be performed at this time.
Samuel Prince’s will was proven on October 26, 1778, in Somerset County, New Jersey, with his wife, Ruth, his brother William, and son-in-law Joseph Winter as executors.28 Samuel left his wife “the use of such part of my household furniture as she may think proper, and at her death she may dispose of the same among my children as she may think proper.” Samuel also asked “that each of my children receive an outset of furniture on their day of marriage as nearly equal as possible to each other.” Prince’s children included his sons, Robert and Samuel, and his daughters, Mary, Elizabeth, and Margaret. It is clear from his will that Prince considered his furniture to be an important asset of his substantial estate, which also included real estate and capital.
It is unclear exactly what happened to Prince’s business after his death, but it appears that his son Samuel Jr. may have been a Loyalist and stayed in the city during the war. I came across one revealing newspaper ad from 1779 that reads, “William Stevenson, in William St, next door to Samuel Prince, joiner, No 381—wishes to employ four journeymen shoemakers.”29 The fact that Cart & Horse Street, where Samuel Sr. was known to operate, was renamed William Street only supports this theory. It seems highly plausible that Samuel Jr. would attempt to continue his father’s prospering business even in the war-torn city. Additional research on this topic in the future may unearth some revealing data on Samuel Jr. and his attempt to continue his father’s furniture-making legacy.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest