Lines and Dots

A spice box with line and dot inlay sold recently at a local auction.

Spice Box sold at Pook and Pook, September 30, 2021
Top of the Spice box in the previous image.

Various regions in Southeastern Pennsylvania have traditions of inlaying furniture with a combination of lightwood stringing and round elements. (Often called “berries” today but the term “dots” may have been in use in the eighteenth century. More on this in the next post.) Objects made of black walnut having line and dot inlay made in the first half of the 18th century have traditionally been attributed to Chester County, Pennsylvania. Groups of objects have even been attributed to specific Chester County townships and individual makers. Rarely have any of these inlaid objects been attributed to Philadelphia. However, a small group of objects from several different makers showing a fundamentally different approach to line and dot design from the objects documented to Chester County are constructed with secondary woods of hard pine, red gum, and Atlantic white cedar. These are secondary wood species used in furniture made in there Delaware River Valley/Philadelphia region. Objects documented and attributed to Chester County are typically constructed with yellow poplar and oak secondary wood species and the drawer linings are most often thicker than Philadelphia work. I believe we need to consider the possibility that some of these line and dot inlaid objects were produced by Philadelphia or West Jersey cabinetmakers.

There are several distinctive characteristics of this group of line and dot inlaid furniture that may have originated in the Delaware River Valley. First, dots are inlaid singularly or in clusters of four. Dots inlaid on objects documented and attributed to Chester County are typically inlaid in clusters of three and it is rare to see single inlaid dots. Second, the stringing is laid out with numerous compass point settings used to generate the compound curves of increasing or decreasing spirals which evoke volutes. Just two or three compass settings are used to create an inlay element on most Chester County objects.  

This chest of drawers has line and dot inlay typical of furniture documented and attributed to Chester County. There are clusters of three dots, often slightly overlapping. the stringing is laid out with few compass settings. There are no single inlaid dots. The secondary wood species is yellow poplar. Winterthur Museum and Gardens.

Researching these objects is an on-going project. As they don’t exist in great numbers I have been able to examine nearly all the objects that might be tentatively attributed to the Delaware River Valley/Philadelphia region (clusters of four dots in combination with single dots, designs made with numerous compass settings, increasing and decreasing radii spiral stringing, and secondary woods seen in documented Philadelphia furniture – hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, red cedar, gum.) Many more examples of work from Chester County cabinetmakers survive, many are dated, and numerous examples have been attributed to makers. More need to be examined to determine secondary wood species and construction details. Of the Delaware River Valley/Philadelphia group, only one object is dated and none are documented to a maker. The following images highlight key aspects of this fascinating group of objects.

Desk. Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia. 1710-1730. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, red gum, white oak. Dietrich American Foundation.
Detail of the lid and top of the desk in the previous image. Delaware River Valley, 1715-1735. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, red gum, white oak. Dietrich American Foundation. The lid is is inlaid with single and clusters of four lightwood dots. A vase or urn, stylized flowers, and vines are depicted with lightwood stringing. 14 different compass settings are used to generate the design of the lid.
Chest over drawer on stand. Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia. 1710-1730. Black walnut, red gum, Atlantic white cedar, hard pine.
Top of the chest in the previous image.
Top of the chest after restoration. The inlaid design has an urn and flower designs related to the desk seen above.
Chest in the previous images after restoration.
Chest of drawers. Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia. 1710-1730. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Private collection. This is a two-part chest.
Top of the chest in the previous image.This is one of the most complicated inlay designs seen on any of the chests attributed to the Delaware River Valley.
Detail of the top of the chest in the previous images. The central cluster consists of 13 over-lapping dots.
Top of the lower section of the chest in the previous image.
Upper section of the chest in the previous image.
Chest of drawers. Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia. 1710-1730. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Private collection.
Top of a box. Delaware River Valley, 1710-1730. Winterthur Museum and Gardens.
Box. Delaware River Valley, 1710-1730. Black walnut. Sotheby’s image.
Top of the box in the previous image. Sotheby’s image.
Chest of drawers. Delaware River Valley, possibly Philadelphia. 1706. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar.
Top of the chest in the previous image. Single and clusters of four dots.
Oval table. Delaware River Valley, 1710-1730. Black walnut. This table has not been examined. It is inlaid with single dots and changing radii scroll work stringing.

3 thoughts on “Lines and Dots

  1. Good morning, Chris,

    Thank you for posting these differences in inlaid furniture usually ascribed to Chester County.

    To expand the conversation, various patterns of Welsh compass inlay with dots are respectively associated with different areas of Wales. See, for example this chest ascribed to the Vale of Glamorgan: http://www.welshantiques.com/oak-chest-on-stand.html. (I do not know how much data supports such attributions. I first read of Welsh relationships in Lee Ellen Griffith’s work on inlaid furniture associated with Chester County.) It would be interesting to share your research with current researchers into Welsh furniture to see if related designs yield connections.

    Of course, designs from other British regions, such as Cheshire, could also be compared, as has been done with wainscot chairs. Some of the shapes on the crests of local wainscot chairs seem related to inlay designs you depict.

    A fascinating dialogue!

    Jay

    • Jay,

      Thanks.

      If any of the objects in this post (except the third image of the Chester County chest from Winterthur) were without inlay, I believe they would all be attributed to Philadelphia due to the secondary wood species used in their construction. (More properly they should be attributed to the Delaware River Valley.) But current marketplace thought moves the attribution to Chester County when line and dot inlay is present. There are several reasons for this, but I think it is in the interest of furniture history that we examine preconceived opinions to have a greater understanding of furniture making as practiced in the Philadelphia area.

      Inlaid Welsh furniture was one place to start looking for related objects, but in America, until recently, that’s where the looking ended and other regions in Britain have gone unexamined. The reasons for this are more obscure to me, maybe it’s a combination of those preconceived ideas and a bit of a too causal or at times lazy, approach to scholarship.

      I think in keeping an open mind to where these inlaid objects may have been made, we have a chance to deepen our knowledge of Philadelphia’s craft history.

      Chris

  2. Chris,

    I fully agree that the differing construction, secondary woods, and inlay patterns of the pieces suggest a non-Chester County origin and demand further inquiry. Strong provenances for such Delaware Valley pieces would lend weight to your argument.

    Do the woods used for the inlaid lines and dots differ in the pieces that you now associate with the Delaware Valley (that may have been previously ascribed to Chester County)?

    One reason that “line and berry” pieces heretofore have been ascribed to Chester County is that the original owners for several of them are known to have lived there, such as Hugh Boyd (d.1754) of West Nottingham Township. His name is inlaid on a hat box with line and eight-berry inlay. Lee Ellen Griffith related such inlay to a blanket chest with similar eight-berry inlay, bearing the inlaid initials of John and Johanna (England) Townsend of East Nottingham Township and “1741,” the date of their marriage there.

    On the related note that I mentioned, perhaps other areas of Britain may not have been proposed for the origins of these line and dot patterns because regional furniture studies are not as well advanced there as here. Hopefully, the present inquiry will spur your British readers to enlighten the rest of us on possible associations with inlaid furniture from non-Welsh areas.

    Thanks again for introducing new scholarship!

    Jay

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