John Widdifield, Joiner

John Widdifield (1673-1720) was an English furnituremaker who immigrated to Philadelphia in first years of the eighteenth century. He was listed in William Macpherson Hornor’s Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture in the “…astonishing roll comprising nearly one hundred” woodworkers working in in the Delaware Valley between 1682 and 1722. Cathryn McElroy in her Master’s Thesis, Furniture of the Philadelphia Area: Forms and Craftsman Before 1730. University of Delaware, 1970 provided more information on Widdifield’s life in Philadelphia. McElroy found that Widdifield was received by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting in 1705 where he presented a letter of removal from the Monthly Meeting at Thirsk, Yorkshire, England dated September 14, 1703. His name appeared in several account books including those of Isaac Norris and James Logan who purchased an oval table and a walnut screen from Widdifield in 1717. McElroy accessed Widdifield’s will dated 1720 where he describes himself as a “joyner” but was unable to locate his estate inventory at the time of her thesis and believed it had not survived.

No further account of Widdifield turned up in the years after McElroy’s thesis and he was destined to remain one of the shadowy tradesmen working here during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Until 2015 that is, when a manuscript notebook kept by Widdifield came to auction in rooms of Swann Auction Galleries, New York, NY. Not since the rediscovery of John Head’s (1688-1754) account book in 1999 had a manuscript of such significance produced by an early Philadelphia joiner surfaced. Unlike Head’s account book, Widdifield’s notebook does not enlighten us as to who his clients were (with a few possible exceptions). It does not reveal the types of objects he sold to them (though it can be assumed he was prepared to make the objects he describes in the notebook) nor does the notebook allow us to attribute any extant furniture to him. Widdifield does, however, speak directly to us in his writing. He is at times autobiographically, as when he tells us he made his woodworking planes and gives their dimensions. Other times he is instructional, explaining the importance of keeping edge tools “very sharp” and chronicling how that is to be achieved. Perhaps most astonishing to most who viewed the notebook prior to its sale were Widdifield’s measured drawings, including a spice box, a “Little Scruetore”, and a “Chest of Walnutt Drawers upon a frame” among others. Are these the earliest measured drawings produced by a Western furniture maker? Certainly they are the earliest surviving made in Philadelphia

The sale generated considerable interest among collectors and institutions with Winterthur Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art pooling funds in an effort to bring the notebook back to the mid-Atlantic region. Estimated by the auction house to sell for $15,000 to $25,000, the notebook ultimately sold for $75,000 to a private collector. That collector allowed the Chipstone Foundation to publish a facsimile of the notebook in American Furniture 2015 along with an accompanying article which provided details of Widdifield’s life and background. (No author credit is given for the article.) The re-emergence of the notebook prompted furniture historians to see what else might be uncovered concerning Widdifield and in short order Jay Stiefel located Widdifield’s will, and more importantly, his inventory taken on February 2, 1720, that McElroy had been unable to locate. A transcription of the inventory is included in the article.

The Chipstone Foundation announced that a “keyword searchable transcription would be available on the both the foundation’s website,, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was also reported that “Widdifield’s notebook will also be designated as an ongoing research project on Chipstone’s website, thus allowing scholars, students, and others to publish work related to that manuscript. This introduction to the book is intended to begin that dialogue.” 

I have not been able to locate the keyword searchable transcription on either the Chipstone or University of Wisconsin-Madison websites. The entire notebook manuscript was scanned by the University and is now available to the public. It can be found here. I’ve not located a research project devoted to Widdifield on Chipstone’s website and do not know where the process of creating, what could be an interesting and instructive project, stands. Perhaps we can forge an alternative place to discuss the manuscript here that might be incorporated into Chipstone’s drop-down “Research” tab on their website in the future if that is still an interest of theirs.

For this initial entry about Widdifield, I want to add to the article’s discussion of page 21 of his notebook which has drawings of a spice box and a “Little Scruetore for Tho: Lyfords.” The article’s description, “A page with the heading “spice boxes” has a sketch with the notation, “A little Scruetore for Thomas Lyfords” is slightly misleading. There is no heading that reads “spice boxes.” At the top of the page Widdifield writes “A spice box,” draws a picture of a nearly square spice box with measurements for the heights of the drawers. To the left of the drawing are measurements for the “Breadth before” (width), “height,” and “backward and forward (depth) of the spice box. Underneath this, separated by a dashed line, is a measured drawing of “A Little Scrutore for Tho: Lyfords” which resembles a spice box on stand. The article speculates that “it was a tabletop form—possibly having a fall front—patterned after a spice box.” But there is no need to speculate, Widdifield’s drawing clearly shows that it is designed for a fall front. The arrangement and measurements of the drawers would be obscured if he represented a fall in the closed position. 

The line the arrow points to represents the upper edge of a board that the fall is hinged to. It could also represent the top edge of the fall at eye level when it is open. A thickness dimension for the board is provided. With this board incorporated into the design, the lower drawer in the carcase can be opened when the fall is down.
This is the top section of a full size scruetore or scriptor made in Philadelphia c. 1710 that is missing its fall which was located behind the pair of paneled doors. The fall was half the height of carcase. Scratches are visible on the inside of the doors from the fall being raised and lowered.
The arrow points to the upper edge of the board represented by the line in Widdifield’s drawing. The missing fall was hinged to this board. With the fall lowered and flush with the hinge board, the drawers of the lowest tier of the carcase could be opened and accessed.
The lower drawers of spice boxes or full size chest of drawers sat just above either the mid or bottom mouldings as seen on this chest of drawers on a frame made in Philadelphia c. 1715. In Widdifield’s sketches of the spice box and a chest of drawers on a frame there is no indication of a hinge board as there is in the sketch of the scruetore, evidence that the sketch was intended to accurately portray a writing desk with a lockable fall.

Although Widdifield writes that the Little Scruetore was for Thomas Lyford we do not know if the scruetore was ever made and no table top writing desk of this sort made in Philadelphia in the first quarter of the eighteenth century survives. But what an interesting and challenging project this could be today. After all, John Widdifield left us a complete blueprint allowing us to re-create or maybe create for the first time, this object that would have been lost to history had not Widdifield put it down in his notebook. It would also give us a chance to understand how the little desk would have been used and just how practical an object it was.

3 thoughts on “John Widdifield, Joiner

  1. Hi Christopher. Thanks for a fascinating post.

    I haven’t seen one illustrated before. Is it a recognised type of furniture in the USA?

    Were they designed with a stand so the writer could write more comfortably while standing? The fall would obviously be too tall to sit at, if it was1’4″ above a table top.

    Do you know if the name is always spelled like that, or would it be a derivation of escritoire or secretaire etc? Also why would the fall be hidden behind doors when the fall itself can be made to be an attractive and effective closure (as per an escritoire); and what supports the fall when it is down?

    Sorry for so many questions, but its great to lean about new (old) things.

    Kind regards

    • Many good questions here. I plan on doing follow up posts on Widdifield’s notebook so some of the questions I will answer in more depth later.

      This is not a recognizable form here. Spice boxes on stands survive but nothing of this size with a fall is known. We do have small writing desks in the form of slant-lid desks without the lower case of drawers.

      I suggested making one of these little scruetore to Widdifield’s dimensions just to see how it would be used. You can sit at a plain table and write. Why would this form ever necessary? I don’t the answers to these questions. It does seem like it would be awkward to use. That may be the reason we don’t see them.

      This form has a variety of spellings. The ones you mention as well as scriptor, all having to do with writing.

      I have not seen a scriptor of this size and form in person and am not sure if there was a single way the fall was supported. Having a drawer in the frame below the fall may have been required and standard so the fall could rest on the pulled out drawer. The full size scriptor illustrated had a fall that was only half the height of the carcase so doors were needed to lock the interior drawers and cubby holes. Full size falls are quite large and make it very difficult to access drawers in the case below the fall. I think the half height fall was an attempt to design a desk so the lower drawers could be used while the fall was down.

      On full size scriptors the fall is supported by long folding iron hinges. Photos and more discussion of this in later posts.


  2. Dear Warwick,

    More information on the “Scruetore” form, including variations in the spelling of that term, may be found in this article on Barnard Eaglesfield:

    And thanks to Chris for current and future efforts to interpret Widdifield’s notebook. (Widdifield’s name also appears in the accounts of Christ Church, Philadelphia.)


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