Thomas Day: Master Craftsman And Free Man Of Color At Renwick Gallery

Photo: Tim Buchman

Some of Day’s finest work was done with S-shaped newel posts, as exemplified by this graceful 1855 example. Making a visual connection between newel shape and stair brackets reflected his idea that they were integral parts of a larger architectural composition. Glass-Dameron House, North Carolina.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the antebellum South’s most successful furniture craftsmen and cabinetmakers, Thomas Day (1801–circa 1861), was a free African American who produced beautifully designed furnishings for prominent white citizens.

Regarded as a father of North Carolina’s furniture industry, Day’s distinctive style is characterized by undulating shapes, fluid lines and spiraling forms. Combining his own unique motifs with popular designs of the day, he created works that were admired then and now.

Day’s achievements are documented in “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” based on an exhibition organized by the North Carolina Museum of History, which has the largest collection of Day furniture, and on view at Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery through July 28. Robin Kennedy, chief of the Renwick, is coordinating the Washington display.

Showcased are 36 pieces crafted by Day and photographs of his architectural work. The show also explores the saga of an African American artisan and entrepreneur who flourished during a time when most blacks were enslaved and free blacks were subject to racial and social restrictions.

Day was born to free black parents in Dinwiddie County, Va., near Petersburg. His father was a farmer and skilled woodworker. Thomas and his brother were educated privately and apprenticed with their father.

Day was fortunate to grow up near Petersburg, where there was a “very international scene…in furniture making,” according to Laurel Sneed, director of the Thomas Day Education Project. As a consequence, Day “comes out of a very sophisticated furniture making tradition that his father was grounded in.”

The family moved to North Carolina when Thomas was a teenager. Around 1825 young Day began a cabinetmaking business in Milton, N.C., on the Virginia border near Danville, an area becoming wealthy because of a booming tobacco trade.

After his enterprise became successful, he married and had three or four children. Although Day owned slaves, he sent his children to Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Mass., run by abolitionist sympathizers and was friendly with radical abolitionist leaders.

Having established his residence and built a brick addition containing his workshop in Milton’s historic Union Tavern, in 1827 Day advertised his goods in the local newspaper: “Thomas Day, Cabinet Maker, returns his thanks for the patronage he has received, and wishes to inform his friends and the public that he has on hand, and intends keeping, a handsome supply of Mahogoney [sic], Walnut and Stained Furniture, the most fashionable and common Bed Steads, & which he would be glad to sell very low.”

Flush with wealth generated by tobacco, people in and around Milton were building additions to their homes or constructing new houses. For furnishings, they turned to Day, who was creating high-quality furniture locally.

Most North Carolina cabinetmakers were one- or two-man shops. Day’s operation became the largest furniture and cabinetmaking business in the state, at one time employing 12 to 20 laborers; historians are divided on the figure.

His skilled labor force included Moravian craftsmen, who may have introduced Germanic motifs in some pieces, such as a sturdy mahogany washstand. Day was one of the first furniture makers to use steam-powered tools, like jigsaws, and mass production techniques in North Carolina, making him a founding father of the modern Southern furniture industry. “None of [the cabinetmakers] reached the level of productivity of Day’s shop. In 1850, it was producing one-sixth of all furniture produced in the state,” says Sneed.

Day achieved a unique economic and social position. He was a freed black, but owned at one time 14 slaves. (Free black slave-owning offered protective cover for Southern African Americans seeking to show solidarity with the white supremacist status quo.) His social position was below whites, but he hired white apprentices. He was the only African American allowed to sit on the main floor of the Milton Presbyterian Church, sharing with the white congregation beautifully crafted pine, poplar and walnut pews that he crafted. He was a major stockholder in a local bank and owned considerable real estate.

In addition to carrying a standard line of furniture in Milton, Day built handcrafted, classically inspired custom furnishings for affluent patrons, including two governors, plantation owners and universities. He furnished the interior woodwork for one of the original buildings of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, who produced carpentry and milling as separate entities, Day’s creations were crafted as unique pieces, each of which played a role in holistic architectural compositions.

Rather than having one man make each piece from the ground up, Day instituted a division of labor where one craftsman did one part and another a different part, thus increasing productivity. It was, Sneed observes, a “precursor to what we saw 30–40 years later, in the total industrialization of furniture making.”

Treating parlors as centerpieces of his projects, Day designed millwork around them that harmonized with the style used in the space. He achieved dramatic effects with distinctive woodwork that often included an elaborate mantel between two arched niches. This unique characteristic of Day’s work is documented by a photograph of the James Malone parlor in Leasburg, N.C.

The effect created by imposing mantels and receding niches was extended into woodwork details — fluted casing often accompanied niches, with a focal point at the keystone at the highest point of the arch. Day also created stairs, newel posts, window and door frames and other decorative and functional trim. An exceptionally attractive, gracefully curving newel from North Carolina’s Glass-Dameron House reflects Day’s skills.

His shop was prolific in volume and variety, creating pieces in Federal, Gothic Revival, late Classical, Empire transitional, early Victorian and Rococo Revival vernacular styles. Widely emphasized were well-proportioned curves and masterful use of negative spaces, often expertly veneered with mahogany and walnut.

Identifying Day pieces offers a challenge; he rarely signed his name on objects. Among other features, experts look for curves and S-shapes as both decorative and functional elements, such as in a Grecian-style open-pillar bureau in the exhibition. That bureau and numerous other pieces, like a handsome sofa, demonstrate how Day used imported mahogany veneers on less expensive woods, like pine and poplar. His veneers were cut unusually thin for the times — sometimes as thin as 1/16th of an inch — and are also distinctive for the way he expertly matched wood grains. Day’s joinery — skillfully cut, thin and not concealed — reflects his fine cabinetmaking talents.

One of the earliest objects on view is a sewing table, fashionable enough for women to use for decorative needlework while entertaining guests in a parlor. It conveyed both the hostess’s accomplishments and refinement.

Sometimes Day combined traditions and improvised Grecian and rococo elements, as in a high-backed bedstead, replete with mahogany veneer over yellow pine and poplar.

From time to time, Day employed Moravian woodworkers, who influenced production processes. Thus, the design of a walnut chest is English, but the construction techniques are German. It “aptly illustrates the transference of cultural designs and construction techniques that occurred frequently in the back country,” write Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, in Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.

Day embraced new styles growing out of the surge of national interest in the 1840s in designing classical furniture along the lines of Greek Revival architecture involving a variety of decorative devices. He created an assortment of Grecian seating furniture in various woods, most with subtle ogee curves. Whether a walnut armchair or a rosewood side chair, their style was personalized to the taste of prospective owners, ranging from minimal to fanciful.

Day also turned out a variety of rocking chairs. No two were alike, from plain to ornate, with embellishments including curves, scrolls and foliage, and generally featuring low seats and high backs. Day’s “unique concoction of ogee curves and sinuous scrolls, all gently moving back and forth, is the ultimate expression of creative freedom he enjoyed” in the 1850s, say Marshall and Leimenstoll.

Day’s penchant for imaginative use of fanciful woodcarving found full expression in several versions of “whatnots.” A must for proper midcentury parlors, their graduated shelves were used to display curiosities, delicate porcelains and family mementoes. Using a jigsaw to cut boards into serpentine outlines, Day was able to “create fantastical rear gallery designs that were sure to suit a client’s personal tastes yet meet the standards of Day’s aesthetic visions,” Marshall and Leimenstoll observe.

Around the mid-1850s Day produced an imposing wardrobe, made of poplar and yellow pine with a scroll interior, in which he softened the angles favored by many East Coast cabinetmakers. A combination of hand and machine construction techniques, the wardrobe “possesses a commanding presence well suited for a house with large rooms and high ceilings,” write Marshall and Leimenstoll.

Toward the end of his life and as the Civil War approached, Day fell victim to a major economic recession and increasing restrictions on what he could do as a free black. By the time he died on the eve of the war, his business was in receivership. His son, Thomas Jr, paid off the debts and operated the business for a decade before selling out.

Thomas Sr was buried under a pile of stones near Milton on private property that he once owned. A suitable monument now memorializes his resting place.

Thomas Day left behind a proud legacy in his finely designed furniture, cabinetry, architecture — and his remarkable success as an African American businessman. Today, his pieces can be found in fine houses and museums throughout North Carolina, notably the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. A statue outside the museum represents a guess as to what he looked like, since there are no photographs or other images of him.

His Union Tavern, now a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored as a house/shop museum.

As his biographer, Rodney D. Barfield, has written, what has kept Day’s name alive in the annals of Southern history is “his incomparable craftsmanship and the refusal of his adopted home to let his merits go unnoticed. His furniture and interiors stand as irrefutable evidence of an expert artisan of character and grace….Thomas Day’s accomplishment are too exceptional and too tangible to ignore.”

Marshall and Leimenstoll’s Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color serves as the exhibition catalog and sells for $42, hardcover.

The Renwick Gallery is at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW. For information, www.americanart.si.edu or 202-633-1000.

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