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Carving Out a Life

Against all odds, African-American cabinetmaker Thomas Day became an entrepreneur and a tastemaker in antebellum North Carolina.

Thomas Day, Lounge, 1858, walnut with yellow pine (upholstery not original).

Thomas Day, Lounge, 1858, walnut with yellow pine (upholstery not original).

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The curve of an ogee on the arm of a sofa. A serpentine newel at the end of a straitlaced staircase. Intricately carved paws, complete with claws, supporting a sewing stand. Little thumb-like projections sprouting from the armrests of a rocking chair. By these and other exuberant, sinuous signs, you can recognize the works of Thomas Day. But you won’t come across these gems of ante-bellum Southern furniture and architectural design in an antique shop or on the auction block. Until very recently, they were to be seen only in North Carolina museums or in situ in historic houses in that state, where the cabinetmaker worked for his whole professional life, from the 1820s until the eve of the Civil War. Now, through July 28, 36 major pieces by Day, as well as photographs of his architectural work, are on view at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, where the nation can get acquainted with the work of this innovative, imaginative designer. And in learning about Day’s craft, viewers will also learn about one of the country’s most unusual business success stories—for Day was an African-American, a free man who rose to become the most sought-after cabinetmaker in the South during the heyday of slavery.

Day’s life illustrates vividly many of the strange contradictions and ambiguities of the “Southern way of life” that prevailed before the Civil War. In an environment where most people of African descent were chattels and the few free blacks were treated with utter contempt, Day was accorded respect by the white community and amassed significant wealth and holdings of property—including 14 slaves of his own. Most unusually, he was addressed as “Mr. Day” rather than as “Tom,” worshipped with his family in a white Presbyterian church, and counted many business and political leaders among his clients and even friends. His skill, business acumen, integrity and respect for white cultural standards were important factors in establishing his status, but there was one other thing about Day that was indispensable: he was a man of mixed ancestry who looked almost—or perhaps more than almost—white. There are no surviving portraits of Day, but a photograph of his older brother John—a missionary to Liberia—taken around 1850 shows a man with fair skin and wavy brown hair, with no visible inheritance from his African forbears. In antebellum North Carolina, where one black ancestor within the past four generations defined someone as a “person of color,” shades of color still mattered. The fact that Day looked and acted like a white man made it easier for whites to accept him, not as an equal, of course, but as a near-equal—an uncomfortable situation that rankled Day and his family even as it allowed them to prosper. As a “free man of color” he would never cross the color line and would always live with a measure of fear born of insecurity, but he had one priceless advantage—access to elite white clients, without which all his skill and business ingenuity would have amounted to very little.

Born in 1801 near Petersburg, in southeastern Virginia, as a teenager Day migrated to North Carolina with his parents. The family settled in the town of Milton, in the Piedmont region, by 1821. The father, John Day Sr., was a cabinetmaker and taught his younger son to repair and make furniture. Thomas Day was lucky to be able to apprentice at home; in North Carolina, apprenticeship had been mandatory for free people of color since 1762, when the legislature passed a law stating that all “base-born” free children be “bound out” (sent away from home) until the age of 21 to learn a trade. The law on apprenticeship stipulated that a master had, in addition to providing room and board, to instruct his apprentice in the “art and mystery” of his trade. The word mystery, presumably, referred to trade secrets, but perhaps the prosaic legislators, in this moment of poetry, also instinctively recognized that the sources of creativity will always remain obscure. In any case, it’s something of a mystery just how an art as refined and individualistic as Day’s could have arisen in a rural environment where taste was relatively crude and certainly very derivative.

In fact, for that reason it’s hard even for experts to identify pieces from Day’s earliest period, the 1820s. At that time, North Carolinians wanted furniture that looked just like it was made in London, New York, or Philadelphia, in the neo-Greco-Roman “classical” style. Day, ever the astute businessman, had already learned to give the people what they wanted. Though he never stopped satisfying his customers, he soon gained enough confidence to give them what they wanted, yes, but then a little bit more. The earliest pieces than can be definitely attributed to Day are a pair of dining tables made for the planter and physician John Garland around 1835. They closely follow a design by the contemporary French-born Philadelphia cabinetmaker Anthony Quervelle, who in turn took his cue from an English artisan, George Smith, whose 1808 design manual provided the drawings. Day copied Quervelle but made the piece his own in several ways: He cleaned up the design by opting for less carving on the pedestal and base, and then personalized the paw feet by giving them claws and subtly incised lines to suggest fur.

One of Day’s hallmarks throughout his career, consistent despite stylistic evolution over the year, was an abiding sense of symmetry. That is interesting not only aesthetically but also from a cultural point of view. In their 2010 book Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (University of North Carolina Press), Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll write, “The emphasis by Day on a symmetrical arrangement is quite the opposite of any asymmetry—the one quality most scholars find inherent within and attribute to the African American craft tradition.” (Marshall, who died in 2010, was a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and laid the groundwork for the current Smithsonian show.) Regardless, in Marshall and Leimenstoll’s view, Day’s was no bleached epigone—“Day’s furniture,” they write, “is unique in its vernacular interpretation of nineteenth-century Anglo urban designs…As an artisan and master of his own shop, Day remained unconstrained by the dictates of tastemakers who worked in distant northern cities.”

As his career advanced, Day became bolder not only in his design conceptions but in his business ambitions. In 1827 he bought a lot on Milton’s main street and built a combined shop and house for himself there. During the 1840s he diversified his investments by buying farmland to cultivate tobacco, the very same crop that provided his clients with the wealth that enabled them to patronize hi shop. In 1848 Day bought the Union Tavern, a luxurious landmark building in Milton that he took over to house his operations and later enlarged considerably. By 1850 his shop ranked first in the state. He had black men, slave and free, working for him, as well as several whites. During the 1850s, Day automated some of his production, acquiring steam-driven machinery that made it possible to fabricate in large quantities pieces of architectural trim for interior detailing, as well as such furniture forms as required little detailing.

Architectural work became more and more central to Day’s enterprise in the 1840s and ’50s. in 1847, David Lowry Swain, president of the University of North Carolina and a former governor of the state, solicited bids to refinish the interiors of two library rooms and two debating halls on campus. Day’s bid was accepted, despite the fact that it was $100 higher than the other bidder’s. “For my justification to them [the other contractors] and to the Trustees,” Swain wrote to Day, “ I must rely upon the superior manner in which I expect you to execute the work. For the present you need not mention to anyone the amount which you are to receive.”

From the start Day was assertive in his design conception, insisting on a certain kind of chair design and seating arrangement for the debate halls that was at variance with what the university had in mind. “I think you will find it verry much more to your comfort and satisfaction with the Halls to have the floor raised & seats with comfortable Backs,” he wrote in his idiosyncratic spelling. “I will make them so as to sit verry Easy and to become in Every way the rooms as to Elegance and comfort more than in any way. Any thing if you please rather than chairs tumbling about on the rising floors.” The strong yet ingratiating tone is typical of Day’s approach to his clients, and in this case as in most others, it stood him in good stead. The project ran over time and over budget, but it was a success in the end, and Day remained in good standing with the university officials. Unfortunately, later renovations erased Day’s creation, which survive only in illustrations.

Day’s mature furniture designs, made after he had transcended the imitative phase, like his interior architectural elements, revel in curves, scrollwork, clever uses of positive and negative space, and colorful veneers. The one type of piece that Day is best known for, the so-called Day lounge, is an adaptation of a Grecian design popularized by Thomas Sheraton in England that was characterized by a partial back and one end being lower than the other. Day’s version, true to his conception of symmetry, had both ends the same height, but the sense of playing with space and the gentle curviness of the forms ensure that it is in no way plodding or plain. According to Marshall and Leimenstoller, this lounge is the one form whose design was unique to Day’s shop.

A pedestal bureau with looking glass made in 1855 for Gov. David Settle Reid epitomizes Day’s late, exuberant, self-confident style. He based the design on a drawing in John Hall’s popular manual The Cabinet Maker’s Assistant, published in Baltimore in 1840. He lightened Hall’s design by recessing the two pedestals and by adding a white marble slab to the front, creating a bright space in between two expanses of dark mahogany. He added curved decorative elements such as the frame around the mirror, which is held by outward-curving supports. The scrollwork is spontaneous-looking and gives an overall feeling of motion. Even when working from patterns such as Hall’s, and producing pieces in large quantities, Day took care to slightly vary the designs, so that each customer was getting something unique.

During the 1850s, Day’s shop was working literally at full steam, because the massive investment he had made required him to take on a great deal of work to make it pay. When he was at the height of his powers as a business owner and a creative artist, the Panic of 1857 hit Wall Street and the nation. Day had many debts, and as when the crisis caused them to be called in, he had to declare bankruptcy. A trustee—a white man—was placed in charge of his operations by the court, and the business was restructured and allowed to continue in operation. Nevertheless, many of Day’s best clients also had their wealth decimated and could no longer afford his products. After four years of this, Day died at the age of 60.

Day was in many ways an anomaly in his time, but he laid the foundation for the mechanized North Carolina cabinetmaking tradition that persists to this day. After the Civil War, the position of mixed-race North Carolinians became even more precarious, and the Day family found it impossible to continue in the business. Piece of Day furniture remained, however, as prized heirlooms among prominent families fallen on hard times. In 1941, Day’s great-grandson, William A. Robinson, visited some of these homes and gathered accounts of his ancestor’s relationships with the families. When Robinson tried to buy a piece from one owner, he was rebuffed with the firm statement, “We got to hold onto the past.”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: May 2013

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