I noticed something interesting several years ago when several of us were asked to examine two highly ornamented 18th century Philadelphia tea tables that are similar in overall form, to see if we could determine whether they were made as a pair of tables for a single client or simply two similar tables made by the same craftsmen for different clients (see the second image above.) It was clear the large mahogany single board tops of the two tables had been “flitch cut”, they were sawn from the same slab of wood. After the tree was sawn the boards would likely have been left to dry maintaining the same orientation they had in the living tree. The grain pattern in the two tops were so closely matched they must have sat immediately next to each other in the tree and in the drying stack.
Examining other “pairs” of tables with similar degrees of elaboration located in institutions and sold in the marketplace, I was surprised to find matching tops occurring again and again. The table that sold this January in New York and its “pair” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art became one more set for me to add to this list (see the first image.) Two other “pairs” of tables are illustrated here (see the third and fourth images above.) It is possible to see, even with the effects of wear and differing surface coatings, that in each case the tops of all the “pairs” were flitch cut and would have been adjacent boards coming off the tree. Furthermore, the size of the top, the number and design of the segments of the scallops, and even the grain orientation when made into a table, corresponds in each “pair”. In addition, the wood of the tops in each “pair” is distinct, each set appears to have been cut from different trees or at least, quite different sections of a large tree. Lavishly embellished 18th century Philadelphia tea tables survive as singular examples and probate inventories do provide evidence that single tables were purchased in the 18th century. But without knowledge of original ownership and the survival of wills, probate inventories or bills, it cannot be determined if a mate to any of those tables has been lost to time or not yet discovered. What does appear relatively certain is there is not a third table that matches any of the pairs. If these tables were not bespoke as pairs, why would this be so? Was the mold broken after each set was made as other furniture historians have implied occurred in the design and production of abundantly decorated sets of 18th century Philadelphia chairs?
Unfortunately, at this time none of the “pairs” of tables illustrated have a clear provenance to the original purchaser for both tables. This new information about the correlation of the wood of the tops will perhaps inspire the owners of the tables to pursue their table’s history though we all know that this often leads to a frustrating dead end. Pairs or not, these tables stimulate many questions about the furniture and wood trades in the mid-18th century Atlantic world. A Philadelphia shop master may have taken the order but a turner had to turn the pillar, a joiner or joiners had to fit the legs to the pillar and the top the base, and a carver or carvers had to carve the legs, pillar, and top. How exactly did that collaboration work? Furniture shops had on hand or were able to purchase over three feet in diameter matching mahogany boards logged, most likely, in Jamaica. If they didn’t have the wood in hand, how did they deal with quality control? And were the logs sawn into boards with slave labor in the Caribbean or exported as squared up logs and sawn here? Aside from these table tops, the largest sawn lumber typically encountered historically are large house timbers where a fourteen by ten inch framing member would be considered sizable. Four feet by four feet squares of high moisture content mahogany facing your saw seems like tempting the fates.