Thomas Spencer

The Spencer desk-and-bookcase shares some construction and inscription similarities with the Goddard desks. For example, the feet of the desk section are similarly reinforced with horizontal blocks that abut the case bottom with vertical blocks below them; and the top rail is dovetailed to the case sides, while the bottom rail fits in slots in the case sides. The numbering system for the drawers is like that on Goddard’s 1754 desk, except that on the large drawers, instead of small numbers Spencer inscribed large looplike symbols on the interior front corners of the sides. The construction of the drawers themselves also differs: the bottoms are chamfered on three sides and fitted into grooves in the front and sides and are attached to the bottom of the drawer back with three rosehead nails. The rear brackets on the back feet simply butt the sides of the feet and are not fitted into slots as on Goddard’s desks. In addition, the Spencer desk has a partial vertical wooden brace behind the desk interior, which is secured to the backboards with a nail driven from the back. Case furniture documented to Job Townsend (1699–1765) and Thomas Townsend (1742–1827) of Newport employs vertical braces the full length of the interior case, but this technique has not been found in Goddard’s work.8 Since the presumption is that apprentices followed the shop traditions of their masters, these significant differences in construction indicate that Spencer probably trained with one of the other more than thirty cabinetmakers Yale’s database records in Newport at the time of his apprenticeship, rather than with his uncle.

No other furniture by Spencer has been identified, perhaps because his career as a furniture maker was short-lived. He was still a shop joiner in East Greenwich in 1776 when he married his first cousin Mary Stafford (1753–1797), but he soon turned to shopkeeping and was identified as a retailer in Providence by 1783.9 As was true for other Rhode Islanders, New York State offered the promise of greater economic opportunity, and in July 1783 Spencer signed an indenture to rent two lots in Lansingburgh, New York, on the east side of the Hudson River north of Albany.10 He is documented as a merchant in Albany from 1786 into the early nineteenth century and died in Athens, New York, in 1840.11

Partially legible inscriptions on two of the interior drawers of the desk-and-bookcase allow us to reconstruct its probable history of ownership. It presumably traveled with Greene, who after the war was presented with Mulberry Grove, a plantation near Savannah, by the State of Georgia. Greene died there in 1786, and Phineas Miller (1764–1803), a Yale graduate who had been hired as a tutor for the Greene children, took over run--ning the plantation, and in 1796 married Greene’s widow. Following Miller’s death in 1803, the desk probably passed to his sister Lucretia Miller Hubbard (1784–1857) of Middletown, Connecticut, who married first Charles Hubbard (1785–1818) and second, in 1825, Marvin Thomas (d. 1853).12 The inscriptions in the desk record that it was owned at one point by an Anna Thomas, possibly a relative of Marvin Thomas, but her identity is unclear. The inscriptions also note that the piece was owned in New York Mills, New York, for some sixty years; it may have been brought there by Lucretia Miller who died in New York Mills in 1857. The next owner was probably her daughter Hannah Coe Hubbard (1817–1905), who had married William D. Walcott of New York Mills in 1837.13 Following Hannah Hubbard Walcott’s death in 1905, the desk-and-bookcase likely passed to her grandson William Stuart Walcott Jr. (b. 1871), of Litchfield, Connecticut, whose son William S. Walcott (1913–1997) of Middlebury, Connecticut, is the last owner recorded in the inscription.14

Since the desk-and-bookcase was originally owned in the Greene family, it may seem odd that it became Phineas Miller’s property. However, since he had taken up the responsibilities of administering the Greene family plantations, first at Mulberry Grove and later at Dungeness on Cumberland Island, and had probably used it as it had been intended—to keep important papers organized and secure—it is likely that it was considered “his.” Happily, we have now been able not only to confirm its original ownership by Greene but also to identify it as the work of a previously unknown Rhode Island maker.

The author is grateful to Katherine Farnham of Atlanta and Benjamin C. Colman, a Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow, Yale University Art Gallery, for their contributions to this article.

PATRICIA E. KANE is the Friends of American Arts at Yale Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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