In May 1999, during research on other material in the George Vaux Papers that in 1992 had been deposited at the American Philosophical Society, Jay R. Stiefel discovered an extraordinary record of the shop production and barter of goods and services of the immigrant joiner John Head (born Suffolk, England 1688 – died Philadelphia 1754.) The vellum-covered volume found by Stiefel contained “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. 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.” Essential reading it is – though you would have to live in, or get to, Philadelphia with plenty of time on your hands to do so. Luckily, in 2001, Stiefel produced for the web-based APS Library Bulletin an in-depth interpretation of Head’s book of accounts titled “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner” along with an associated essay “The Account Book as Artifact”, which, as the editors of the bulletin note, “bring a piece of early Philadelphia to life, situating a productive, but little known artisan, John Head, within the larger context of early colonial society and economy.” I printed my own copy of the APS Bulletin and have used it as an important reference over the years. I was also able to print a facsimile of the account book from micro-film though it is not complete and the sides of the pages are clipped off reducing its effectiveness as a research tool.
In 1717, at the age of 29 or 30, John Head immigrated from Suffolk, England to Philadelphia with his wife Rebecca (m. 1712) and young family. He was then a fully trained joiner who would likely have worked as a journeyman for one or more established joiners in England in the 5 years after his marriage and before his immigration to America. Entries in his account book begin in 1718 and by 1744, at age 56, he was ceasing furniture production. Stiefel tallied numbers of forms made between those years demonstrating Head’s importance in the furniture trade and the building and furnishing of the growing village or town of Philadelphia. 118 chests of drawers, 26 suites of chest of drawers and a table, 55 oval tables, 52 bedsteads, 91 clock cases, 19 cradles, 5 corner cupboards, 11 close-stools, 3 clothes presses, and 73 coffins. Makes me tired just to think of producing that amount of work in just over a quarter century.
An order for a chest of drawers and table debited to Caspar Wistar on June 14, 1726 were the first objects to be documented to Head. In 1999 Stiefel alerted the curators of the exhibition “Worldly Goods” – a celebration of decorative art made in Philadelphia before 1758 that would open later that year – of his discovery of the account book. The high chest and dressing table, long in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had descended from Wistar’s wife Catherine Johnson Wistar and were donated to the PMA in 1928.
In 2008 Stiefel, Alan Anderson and I wrote about the Wistar high chest and dressing table and a clock case debited to Wistar by John Head on April 30, 1730. We had been working for several years to identify work that could be either attributed or documented to Head’s shop through account book entries, family histories, and distinctive construction techniques employed in the construction of the objects. At that time, we had identified over 40 objects. Today the list has grown to over 60 objects covering many – but not all- of the forms cited in the account book including high chests, dressing tables, chest-on-chests, chests of drawers, clock cases, a desk, and a spice chest. Additionally, “Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers” by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III was published in 2013. In it, John Head’s work for Peter and William Stretch was discussed and numerous clocks in cases attributed to Head were illustrated.
We wrote our 2008 article in advance of the tercentenary of Head’s arrival in Philadelphia with the idea that we had almost 9 years to continue our research and create interest among local institutions who might consider some small exhibition or event to commemorate the arrival of an immigrant family who, to all appearances, seamlessly integrated themselves into the day-to-day life of a young American colony.
We have made many discoveries and have continued to collect data since then, and now, in January 2017, the tercentenary has arrived. While I know of no commemorative events planned so far to celebrate Head’s arrival, over the following months I will begin examining the shop traditions and products of his shop, placing them in the context of his contemporary craftsmen. It is believed that Head’s account book might soon be scanned and digitized for the web where it may be used as a resource for historians. Let’s hope that event happens in 2017.
The APS Bulletin on the John Head account book can be found here:
Our article on the documented objects can be found here:
An excerpt from Fennimore and Hohmann’s book on the Stretch family can be found here: