Last summer we had the chance to examine the first oval table that can be attributed to the workshop of John Head (1688-1754). According to entries in his account book, John Head sold approximately fifty-five oval tables between 1720 and 1737. Prices ranged from £0-18-0 for a pine table to £3-0-0, of which six were debited. Head debited the greatest number of oval tables, fifteen, at £2-5-0. Until July 2019, no oval tables that could be attributed to Head’s workshop had been located. This was surprising as oval tables made in the Delaware River Valley in the first part of the 18th century, made by numerous unidentified joiners, survive in great numbers.
The overwhelming majority of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture is anonymous. Nearly all objects are unsigned by the maker or have had no other form of labeling applied. Furniture is “movable”; therefore, objects can seldom be traced indisputably to either an invoice or an entry in an account book of a maker. In fact, most pieces of historic furniture have no reliable provenance that reaches any further back then several generations of family history, an earlier collector, or a dealer who handled it.
Much historic furniture survives, as do the names of many joiners working in the trade. It has perhaps been unavoidable that over the last century, attribution of furniture to a maker has been a specific pursuit of many furniture historians. Unfortunately, in the field of furniture studies, attributing an object to a specific maker tends to be an imprecise pursuit. There is not a generally agreed to criterion or rigorously applied set of standards for what constitutes an adequate and acceptable attribution. Attributions are often made without a clear statement from an author about the criteria used to make an attribution.
John Head developed a novel way of marking drawer parts for identification during construction, he made use of a series of specifically placed white chalk slashes and swirls. A detailed description of Head’s drawer-part marking system can be found here. This marking system has not been found on any other documented cabinetmaker’s work or on any objects from an undocumented maker with features significantly different from Head’s work. As such they can be considered distinctive individual characteristics, permitting objects that use this drawer marking system to be attributed to the workshop of John Head. This marking system is found on the Wistar family high chest and dressing table documented to the Head shop through account book entries that corroborate other documentation, including family tradition. http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=910
I thank Alan Anderson for directing me to the table after he observed the chalk markings on the drawers and the tables current owner for allowing me to examine, photograph, and publish our findings.
Photographs with captions follow.
 Michael Moses used the terminology “distinctive individual characteristics” and articulated a similar system of attribution in his work Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and the Goddards, Russack and Loto Books, LLC, 1984.