Red Cedar in Philadelphia

I had a question about the spice box in the last post and why surviving red cedar furniture from the Delaware River Valley is so rare.

It’s true that there are very few extant objects with red cedar used as a primary wood species made in the Delaware River Valley during the eighteenth century.

Juniperus bermudiana or Bermuda Cedar is native to the island of Bermuda.  Juniperus virginiana or Eastern red cedar, is native to much of the eastern United States. Both species belong to the genus Juniperus and are not true cedars. Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus bermudian are indistinguishable microscopically, making it difficult to determine whether an object from the Philadelphia area is made of local or imported wood. However, the substantial logging of red cedar in Bermuda through the first half of the seventeenth century resulted in the depletion of the best trees on the island and restrictions regarding its logging and exportation. Adam Bowett writes that is “… unlikely that much, if any, was exported after 1700” and that “… it is notable that 18th-century references to red cedar, if they cite a place of origin, mention Virginia but not Bermuda.” American red cedar was praised by English authors and great quantities were imported where it was used for furniture making and interior paneling. It is therefore likely that the red cedar used in the Philadelphia area was not imported but was logged and milled locally.

Belair, built 1717-1720, in what is now south Philadelphia has a fully paneled parlor, a partially paneled secondary room, and a stair of red cedar.

Belair. Philadelphia. Built for Samuel Preston (1665-1743). Parlor with red cedar paneling.
Belair, Philadelphia. Entry hall and stair of red cedar.

Fairhill, was built north of the city about the same time as Belair by a good friend of Preston’s, Issac Norris (1671-1735). Fairhill had one room on the first floor paneled in red cedar and another in oak. Fairhill does not survive, having been burned to the ground by the British in 1777 during the battle of Germantown. A plan made in the mid-eighteenth century by a family member does survive in the Norris family papers showing the location of the cedar paneled room in the north-east corner.

Plan of Fairhill. Norris Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 

In “Travels into North America,” the naturalist Peter Kalm wrote of the red cedar paneling at Fairhill: “I saw a parlor in the country seat of Mr. Norris … wainscoted many years ago with boards of red cedar. Mr Norris assured me that the cedar looked exceedingly well in the beginning, but it was faded when I saw it, the boards looked very shabby, especially the boards near the window had entirely lost their colour; so that Mr. Norris had been obliged to put mahogany in their stead: however, I was told, that the wood will keeps its colour if a thin varnish is put upon it whilst it is fresh, and just after it has been planed, and if care is taken that the wood is not afterward rubbed or hurt. Since it is a very pleasant smell, when fresh, some people put the shavings and chips of it amoung their linen to secure against it against being worm-eaten. Some likewise get bureaus, &c. made of red cedar, with the same view. But it is only useful for this purpose as long as it is fresh, for it loses its smell after time, and is no longer good for keeping off insects.”

A tabletop desk that descended in a Philadelphia family before it was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is made entirely of red cedar. It cannot be determined which species of red cedar it is made of or it was made in America, England, or Bermuda. The museum has a confusing entry for the desk, stating its maker is unknown and that it was made in America though there is no way this can be determined with certainty today. In the “Object Details” the museum claims it was possibly made in England, Europe. The potential for a Bermuda origin is not mentioned.

Table top desk. 1680 – 1700. Bermuda or Philadelphia, Red cedar. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
High chest of drawers, attributed to the shop of John Head, Philadelphia. Private collection. Red cedar, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Photo: Gavin Ashworth.

A high chest attributed to the Philadelphia joiner John Head (1688-1754) is only the second object made of red cedar that can be attributed to early eighteenth century Philadelphia. (I assume there must be additional surviving examples, if you know of others I’d be happy to hear.) Head records the sale of three red cedar high chests paired with dressing tables in his account book. It is possible other entries in a similar price range but with no wood species designated may also have been made with red cedar as a primary wood.

Head also produced four clock cases in red cedar. If any of these still exist, they have not come to light.

John Head account book. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. Account of John McComb, Jr. McComb had a “Sedar” clock case from Head at 5 pounds on 4/11/1720. Head priced his arch-dial clock cases of red cedar, maple, cherry and mahogany at 5 pounds and his black walnut cases at 4 pounds.
Caleb Ranstead’s account was debited 5 pounds for a “Sedar” clock case on 5/115/1721.

Red cedar appears in some inventories of Philadelphia joiners. Joiner William Till (b.England – d. Philadelphia 1711) had a diverse selection of wood species including “Red sedar,” “Cherry Tree Board,” and “Pear Tree Board” as well as a substantial stock of mahogany boards.

In early eighteenth century Philadelphia, red cedar was as much a popular option to black walnut as black cherry, maple, and mahogany. That it did not retain its bright reddish color over time and was highly susceptible to photo-oxidation due to UV exposure likely contributed to its discontinued use for furniture and architectural paneling by the early 1730s. Its rot resistance qualities caused it to continue to be logged and sawn into boards locally for fencing and coffins.

Invoice from cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck to John Cadwalader, 1776. Nicholas B. Wainwright. “Colonial Grandeur in Philadelphia,” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964. On February 16, 1776, Cadwalader was debited 17 pounds for a fully trimmed red cedar coffin and 4 pounds for a case for it of cedar plank for his wife who had died the day before.

As the door of the red cedar spice box would have greatly reduced or virtually eliminated the effect of photo-oxidation to the drawer fronts, we can peer into the past to catch a glimpse of this “sweet wood and fine timber” as it appeared when new and discover why red cedar became a desirable wood species to some Philadelphians in the first quarter of the eighteenth-century.

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