Stringing Inlay Designs, Part I

The simplest designs of line and dot inlay on Southeastern Pennsylvania furniture are found on framed, or wainscot, chairs. Several surviving chairs, possibly from the same set, have stringing in the form of a quarter of a circle inlaid in the corners of the back panel. 

Side chair. Black walnut. Southeastern Pennsylvania. Possibly Philadelphia. Winterthur Museum.

A single chair has pairs of arcs ending in three dots springing from the corners of the back panel. Initials and a date are inlaid in lightwood on the crest rail. The inlaid date is 1704 or 1714. Furniture historians disagree on whether the zero was changed to a 1 or vice versa. I have not personally examined the chair. In either case, this is likely one of the earliest dated inlay with stringing ending in a cluster of three dots.

Simple stringing designs appear on a few surviving early eighteenth-century joined chests of drawers made in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The designs consist of straight lines and sections of circles, it’s easy to discern how the designs were laid out. 

Chest of drawers with lightwood stringing. Black walnut, red cedar, Atlantic white cedar. Southeastern Pennsylvania, possibly Philadelphia. Private collection.
Chest of drawers with lightwood stringing. Black walnut, red cedar, Atlantic white cedar. Southeastern Pennsylvania, possibly Philadelphia. Private collection. Drawer from previous chest.
Chest of drawers with lightwood stringing. Black walnut, oak. Replaced feet and brass pulls. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One chest of drawers has the lightwood initials “PG” with a single dot between them inlaid on the top. The early date may have been added later. It has hard pine drawer sides and backs and Atlantic white cedar drawer bottoms. The chest could date to the first decade of the eighteenth century. 

Chest of drawers with lightwood stringing. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Southeastern Pennsylvania, possibly Philadelphia. Private collection.
Chest of drawers with lightwood stringing. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Southeastern Pennsylvania, possibly Philadelphia. A drawer from the “PO” chest. Private collection.

Three black walnut framed chests of drawers with turned feet may have been produced by the same shop in the first or second decades of the eighteenth century in Chester County, Pennsylvania. They have a distinctive horizontally oriented bi-lateral inlay pattern. A singular motif fits on the short drawers and the motif is doubled on the long drawers. The designs have either a central oval or diamond device that surrounds the brass pulls. (Other chests attributed to this shop survive, an unpublished chest is in the collection of Winterthur Museum.)

Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. Circa 1711. Black walnut, yellow poplar. Replaced feet and brass pulls. Private collection
Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. 1710-1720. Black walnut, yellow poplar. Replaced feet and brass pulls. Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, University of Texas, Austin, 1989, pp. 2-3, cat. 1.
Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. 1710-1720. Black walnut, yellow poplar, chestnut. Replaced brass pulls. Dietrich American Foundation.

The elaborate line and dot inlay designs present on the drawer fronts of these chests has long been associated with central and southeastern Chester County. Similarities of the chests include overall dimensions, joinery, inlay, moulding profiles, secondary wood species, and the use of single-pull brass fittings. The chest in the collection of the Dietrich American Foundation is the only chest that survives with its original front ball feet. 

An auction catalogue entry suggests the “SO” initials inlaid in the top of the first chest above refer to Sarah Ogden (b. 1691), a member of the prominent Ogden family of Chester County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of David Ogden (1655-1705) who immigrated from England with William Penn in 1682. He later settled in Middletown, Chester County. (Middletown remained part of Chester County until 1789 when Delaware County was created from the southeastern portion of Chester County.) David and his wife, Martha Houlston (married 1686) had 9 children. Sarah married Evan Howell (died 1734) in 1711 in Whiteland, Chester County.  A related chest of drawers with the initials “MO” has a history of descent in the Ogden family of Chester County and may have originally been owned by Sarah’s sister, Martha (born 1689).  That chest is in the collection of the Gloucester County Historical Society in Woodbury, New Jersey (acc. No. 1916.41). If this information about the ownership of the chests is correct, we can assume the chests were made around the time of Sarah and Martha Ogden’s marriages. Incised lines made with dividers on an interior surface of the “SO” chest shows the joiner working out a drawer front stringing design. Interestingly it does not correlate with the drawers of this chest as closely as it does with others produced in this shop which employ diamond shapes at the center of the pattern where they surround the single-drop brass pulls. The incised vertical lines are very much a part of how these designs are constructed. The radii and divisions of the circles they create are used to locate the fixed leg of dividers when creating the designs. As I mentioned previously, dividers are used to design stringing inlay patterns, but a different tool is used to cut the channels for the stringing in the wood surface.

Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. 1710-1720. Black walnut, yellow poplar. Detail of the top.
Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. 1710-1720. Black walnut, yellow poplar. Interior of the above chest of drawers.
Chest of drawers with line and dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. 1710-1720. Black walnut, yellow poplar. Manipulated image of above.
Tall chest of drawers. Black walnut with line and dot inlay. Chester County, circa 1740.
Tall chest of drawers. Black walnut with line and dot inlay. Chester County, circa 1740.

The layout of type of stringing design seen on these chests begins with a horizontal line drawn through the center of the drawer and a vertical line where the brass pull will be placed. One leg of the divider is placed where these lines intersect, the other leg is placed at the determined height of the central element as the first step in creating the design. Various means are used to deal with the graduated heights of the long drawers. The center element is typically enlarged, the other elements may or may not change in size. At times the two lower drawers have inlay designs of the same size, the ones above slightly smaller.

Only two radii are needed to generate this design. The diameter of the central element is divided into to seven equal segments. Combinations of 3, 3 1/2, 5, and 6 of these segments determine the placement of the fixed leg of the dividers to complete the design. Drawn by the author.
Again, only two radii are needed to generate this stringing design. The height of the central diamond is divided into four equal segments. Combinations of one or more segments are used to determine the placement of the fixed leg of the dividers. Though this design is seemingly more complex than the one above, it is simpler to generate. Drawn by the author.

Several objects attributed to Chester County, Pennsylvania in William “Bill” du Pont’s collection have related line-and-dot inlay on their facades.

Tall chest of drawers. Black walnut with line-and-dot inlay. Chester County, Pennsylvania. Circa 1745. Lot 285, The William K. du Pont Collection.
Desk and bookcase. Black cherry with line-and-dot inlay. Nottingham area, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Circa 1745. Lot 217. The William K. du Pont Collection.

3 thoughts on “Stringing Inlay Designs, Part I

  1. Hi Christopher

    It seems to me this line and dot decoration bears resemblance to a combination of both a simplified or understated form of the Dutch/English ‘seaweed’ marquetry decoration popular during the William & Mary period at the turn of the 18th C (especially in orientation and location), and simpler forms of ‘Boulle work’ or inlaid brass stringing seen from the mid 17th C.

    Perhaps it evolved under influence from these preceeding/contemporary forms of decoration…?

    Kind regards, and thanks for the post.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      It’s precisely that. The pieces with simple stringing mimic the reserves that would contain marquetry or veneers in London cabinets and chests 1665-1700. The bolder line-and dot inlaid pieces were imitative of more complex British veneer work. This is British colonial work after all and is not just influenced by British work – it IS British work, albeit done at a distance and in a predominantly – in the late 17th/early18th century – Quaker colony. It was not to all consumers taste, but for the one’s who desired it, joiners and cabinetmakers in Southeastern Pennsylvania were more than ready and able to provide it.

      Chris

  2. Pingback: Stringing Inlay Designs, Part II | In Proportion to the Trouble

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