“To a Square walnut Table”

Table. Made in the Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, c. 1735. Brunk Auction

Jay’s comment in the previous post described a unique debit entry in James Steele’s account with the joiner John Head on 12/13/1735, “To a Square walnut Table – £1-0-0.” Jay suggested that if Head made the Brunk Auction table it may be this entry, or alternatively it might be the “frame for a slat Table” Head debited to Steele on 1/11/1724.

John Head (1688-1754) Account Book 1718-1753. American Philosophical Society Library. Detail of the page of James Steele’s debits. A square walnut table was debited the 12th month, 13th day, 1735.

Since we have yet to document the table to Head’s shop, we risk getting ahead of ourselves, but I’ll add my comments to Jay’s. A “square walnut table” is exactly the appropriate title for the table featured in the last post – if indeed it did not originally have a slate top. In the “Worldly Goods” exhibition catalogue the Brunk Auction table was described as a “Dressing table, c. 1700-1720” and was included in the section of “case furniture” rather than the “tables and stands” section. But there is no reason to think this form is anything but a sideboard table, a common feature of British dining rooms since the Restoration. The courtly version, today called a “Triad” was the suite of table, stands, and a looking glass placed on a pier between windows or against a long wall. Provincial joiners, including those in the Delaware River Valley, made their own, less opulent versions, eliminating the stands, and often the looking glass as well.  The table could serve multiple functions and might be moved to different rooms in the house. It could be used for food and drink service, a spice box or bible could be set on top, or chairs could be placed at the ends, transforming it into an impromptu desk. In the last quarter of the 17th century and the first of the 18th, a single drawer, as seen in this table, was a consistent feature.

Table. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1720. Walnut. Photo-Sotheby’s.

If there were originally a slate top, the table would be used in the same manner, as a sideboard, or a table for display of worldly goods. To Jay’s point about examining the table for evidence that there might be construction features that would have helped support the weight of a slate top, I would first look to see if there were bored holes in the tops of the legs for pegs that would have attached a wood top. If the current top cannot be removed, x-radiographs would provide this evidence. There are approximately a dozen tables and frames made in Boston in the first half of the 18th century with slate tops in an imported wood surround. None of the ones I’ve examined have bases that are modified in any way to take the extra weight. In fact, these tables are the most fragile and exacting objects to deal with. The Brunk Auction table could easily handle a slate top and do it more robustly than any of the Boston tables. I don’t expect we will find evidence any modification for support of a heavy slate or stone top.

Dressing table. Table frame made in Boston c. 1720. Imported slate top from Europe, possibly Switzerland.

“Square”, used in the 18th century to describe tables, can be misleading to those unfamiliar in the use of the term. It did not describe the shape of the top. Instead, it refers to the right angle of the corners, they are “in square”, referring to the joiners try-square, an essential woodworking tool. The term “square top” or “square table” distinguishes the table from one with a “round top”. 18th century tables with tops that are the same dimension in width and depth – square – are exceedingly rare, nearly all “square” tables have rectangular tops.

If you went looking for related tables after reading the last post, especially with an eye for the unusual stretcher placement, you would have been in for a surprise. There are abundant examples of this form of joiners table found in Britain and dozens in the American colonies, mostly made in New England, primarily Boston, but all published examples that I am aware of with a high stretcher at the front legs have a corresponding high stretcher at the back. An H-stretcher at the bottom typically completes the joinery of the frame. 

Table. Probably made in Boston c. 1690. Maple. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Table. Made in Boston c. 1700. Maple. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Table. Probably made in Boston, c. 1700. Maple. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

With a high stretcher spanning the front legs and a low stretcher at the same level as the H-stretcher at the back of the frame, the Brunk Auction table may be a unique design. This unusual design approach to what was a standardized form, necessitates two different leg patterns. It is unexpected, unfamiliar, and also – to date – not found on another contemporary turned table frame. (I would be happy to see a similar table if a reader comes across one). The question then is why? Four identical legs with high stretchers front and back would have made a perfectly fine table, particularly given the attention to the design of the profiles and the execution of the turning. There is nothing structurally to be gained by this unusual stretcher placement. Is it purely a design consideration? Could the rear legs have been destined for an oval able commission that didn’t happen? Or did the maker desire a more complex baluster-turned design for rear legs? Joined Delaware River Valley joined chairs, which were plentiful in and around Philadelphia at this time might have provided an inspiration.

Side chair. Made in the Delaware River Valley c. 1720. Dietrich American Foundation.

I’m enjoying the mystery of this table but am still thinking.

7 thoughts on ““To a Square walnut Table”

  1. “Square”, used in the 18th century to describe tables, can be misleading to those unfamiliar in the use of the term.”
    Yes, I remember talking about this in a previous post. It’s weird reading documents from the 17th-18th centuries, they need to be translated even if written in your own language as the terms used are very confusing. Square means rectangular usually in those old documents.
    I purchased a perfectly “square” early table at the Vogel sale a couple of years ago simply because “square” is so rare, provenance was good as well. Although the top is replaced, the original top had to be square as the fame is perfectly square.
    https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/collection-anne-h-frederick-vogel-iii-n10003/lot.822.html
    “There is nothing structurally to be gained by this unusual stretcher placement.”
    I wondered about that on this Brunk table, the usual configuration is the Hi-Lo stretcher configuration on front & back, I have never seen one like this either where the Hi stretcher is “missing” in the back.

    • Since this table came back to my attention in December I have pored over the books and museum websites and I also have not found another table with this hi-low stretcher placement, nor a turned leg table with two different designs for the legs. Expediency was the rule of the day, and while I don’t necessarily think the two different leg designs and additional work in laying out the mortises and tenons would have added much additional time in the making of the table, the consistency of the design of this form of table over decades and across continents must mean there a reason of some importance to go this direction.

  2. Chris,

    This is a suggestion in reply to your query as to why the patterns of the rear turned legs of the Brunk table do not match those in front.

    In addition to the “frame for a slat[e] Table” previously bought, Head debited Steele sixteen shillings, on the 12th day of the 12th month 1725 (February 12, 1726), “To a walnut Table.” The Cabinetmaker’s Account, 196, citing Steele account in the John Head Account Book, 9.

    Might the pattern of the rear legs on the Brunk table differ from those in front as they were intended to match those on the slate-top table, the walnut table, or another turned piece already owned by Steele?

    Steele had already bought other furniture from Head that presumably had en suite turnings, “a Sader Chest of drawers and table of drawers,” for nine pounds and ten shillings, on the 13th day of the third month 1724 (May 13, 1725). Id., 179, citing the Steele account in the John Head Account Book, 9. (I am not suggesting that the rear turning on the Brunk table matches the turnings on that pair, as no high chest or dressing table from the shop has been found with such pattern.)

    Jay

  3. I would guess the maker of this table did the stretchers intentionally, the construction seems too good for a “mistake” and, is in keeping with a grand early American tradition, quirky, to be different and loud & proud about it.

  4. Chris

    To argue against my own suggestion, one would have thought that, to look en-suite with other furniture, the maker would have put the matching turned legs in front where they would have been more conspicuous, rather than in back.

    I therefore have two other theories to explain why the back legs have a pattern different than those in front:

    1. The back legs were already in hand and could be incorporated, thereby saving labor and material; or

    2. The maker turned the two back legs first and then decided that the table needed the structural support of a crosspiece halfway up the front, necessitating a different turning pattern there.

    Jay

    • Jay, I mention the possibility that rear legs might have been made for previous table and were not used in such. They are visually very similar in design and layout as the legs of the oval table attributed to John Head. But you have to think like a joiner and decide if the mortises are cut in turning stock before the turning is done, in which case there would be unused mortises in the legs of the present table which I do not believe are present.
      To the second point, any joiner making this table form would have been conversant with the form of high stretcher table and the structural needs of the form. Really, these tables are over-built, they would be structurally sound with just the lower H-stretcher in place and no high or hi-low stretchers at the front and rear of the table.

      • Chris

        That it is “overbuilt” and also so singular in design causes me to wager that it is the “frame for the slat[e] table,” notwithstanding other possibilities. The high stretcher in front argues for it being a serving table as inconvenient for use with a chair. I look forward to what can be further determined once the table is examined by you.

        Jay

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