“Conformable to that of the Waters”: The search for the origins of an early Kentucky furniture group

Daniel Kurt Ackermann Furniture & Decorative Arts

The French invented a word, terroir, for describing how the unique qualities of a place affect the flavor of foods. Terroir is what makes wines, cheeses, and other foods made in a particular place distinguishable from those grown and made elsewhere. This same concept can also be applied to objects and extended beyond the environment and climate to include cultural, social, and economic factors.1 The terroir of things can help us to answer a key connoisseurial question: “why does an object look the way it does?” Too often in the decorative arts we take a top-down approach to answering that question: style moves with particular craftspeople from place to place; or it trickles down from the royal court to the commoner. Not only do these approaches often oversimplify the forces at play on an object by its maker and consumer, but they also sometimes fail to answer the fundamental question at hand. Kentucky’s iconic “bandy legged” furniture provides an example of a style that requires this kind of larger context to fully understand its origins and importance (Fig. 1). By understanding the place where it was made— the terroir of one corner of the Bluegrass—it becomes clear that these cabriole-legged case pieces are in fact a creolized style that reflects a distinctive regional identity tied to the area’s status as a crossroads between the Anglo-Atlantic coast and the Gulf South.

Fig. 2. Map of the state of Kentucky by Luke Munsell (1790–1854) and Hugh Anderson (1790–1830), Frankfort, Kentucky, 1818. Ink on paper, 38 5/8 by 90 1/8 inches. Mason County is highlighted. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Geography and Map Division.

In 1947 The Magazine ANTIQUES published its first example of this regional style in an issue dedicated to the arts and architecture of Kentucky. Though the cutline incorrectly suggested that the legs on the chest were common in Clark County, near Lexington, it noted correctly that its “distinctive short cabriole leg” was found on many pieces in the region.2 Four years later, Edna Talbot Whitley, citing the scholar-dealer Eleanor Hume Offutt, published an article noting that these pieces were actually from the region surrounding Mason County, about sixty-five miles northeast of Lexington (Fig. 2).3 In 2000 decorative arts scholars Marianne Ramsey and Dianne Wachs cemented the group’s status as an iconic Kentucky form with an exhibition and catalogue produced in association with the Headley- Whitney Museum.4 Today, more than a hundred examples associated with this group are known.5 Though chests of drawers are most common, desks, desks-and-bookcases, blanket chests, sugar desks (Fig. 4), and footstools also exist. The sheer number of known examples, as well as differences in construction, suggest that this was a popular regional style made in a number of shops in the northeastern corner of the Bluegrass over a period spanning roughly a quarter-century.

The group has historically been associated with the cabinetmaker Peter Tuttle based on an early example with a fitted top drawer that includes a till with the name “P. Tuttle” carved into its lid (Figs. 3, 3a). Tuttle was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1787. Family history records that he came to Mason County as a young man.6 In their catalogue, Ramsey and Wachs were the first to observe that the 1810 census-taker in Mason County went beyond the stated instructions and recorded the occupations of the county’s heads of households in the margins of the tally (Fig. 5). Peter Tuttle was one of three cabinetmakers recorded in Lewisburg, a small community just outside of the county seat, Washington. The others were Gerrard Calvert and John Foxworthy. The three men were all related: Tuttle’s wife, Elizabeth Calvert, was Gerrard Calvert’s niece, and John Foxworthy was Calvert’s nephew by his sister, Clarissa.7 Based on their ages and the relative value of their property in the census, it is clear that Gerrard Calvert was the senior man in this family community of cabinetmakers. Calvert was born in Prince William County, Virginia, about 1771.8 Given his age, he probably completed his apprenticeship about 1792, roughly five years before he moved to Kentucky. Based on their ages, the other men may have trained in Calvert’s shop once they arrived.

Fig. 4. Sugar desk, Mason County, 1800– 1815. Black walnut, tulip poplar, cherry, holly, and maple; height 39 7/8, width 35 ¾, depth 18 inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia, Sara and Fred Hoyt Furniture Fund and other generous donors.

The extended Calvert-Foxworthy- Tuttle family was attracted to Mason County by economic opportunity. Not only did Kentucky promise fertile land, but new settlers needed new furniture. To attract skilled tradesmen, leaders in the county seat of Washington formed the “Washington Emigrant” Society in 1796 and published a series of “advertorials” in the city’s newspaper, the Mirror, that were subsequently copied by other newspapers throughout the United States (Fig. 7). These newspaper columns gave sample bills for a number of trades, including cabinetmaking. According to the society, desks in Mason County could be sold for between $33 and $50 and chests of drawers commanded from $26 to $50.9 By way of comparison, in 1801 the Salem, Massachusetts, Articles of the Salem Cabinet-Maker Society listed prices of just $15 to $40 for a desk and $11 to $27 for a chest of drawers.10 Moreover, the Massachusetts cabinetmakers would likely have been working with imported woods, like mahogany and satinwood, that would have further eroded their profits. The society was apparently successful in its efforts. By 1810 Mason County was home to nearly twenty men for whom cabinetmaking was recorded as their primary occupation, according to the US Census.

Fig. 5. Detail of the 1810 US Census for Mason County, listing Jerrard [sic] Calvert, John Foxworthy, and Peter Tuttle as cabinetmakers in Lewisburg.

Calvert carried the tools, training, traditions, and styles he learned during his apprenticeship with him to Kentucky. However, the objects he and his family crafted would be heavily influenced by his new environment in many ways. At the most basic level, this manifested itself in the materials he used. Cherry and tulip poplar were more readily available than the walnut and pine he would have used in Virginia. Exotic imported woods like mahogany were used sparingly if at all. He also no longer had easy access to imported inlay or specialist inlay makers. Relying on his own hands and tools for these embellishments had its advantages. On one chest of drawers from the Calvert shop the quarter fans were scaled to fit the proportions of the drawers, and the thirty-six bellflowers on the chamfered sides of the case were graduated in size (Figs. 1, 1a). The sizes of the fans and flowers were based on the arcs of the chisels in the shop. Had the chest been made in Baltimore, it would have been far more practical to use ready-made bellflowers and quarter fans of a single size.

Fig. 6. Armoire, New Orleans, 1770–1790. Black walnut and bald cypress; height 94 ¾, width 52 ¾, depth 25 ¼ inches. Classical Institute of the South at the Historic New Orleans Collection, Holden Family Collection.

Of equal importance, Mason County craftsmen were also influencing each other. Brought together in a new environment, craftsmen from different places could not help but be influenced by each other and the various regional styles they carried with them as well as by the expectations of their consumers, who themselves were brought together in a new place from diverse origins. In the Bluegrass region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the concept of a “United” States of America was not abstract. People from those states were now your neighbors and you were united with them into a new community.

Fig. 7. Advertorial from the Washington Emigrant Society, published in the (Lexington) Kentucky Gazette, November 15, 1797. Kentucky Digital Library.

There was nothing in Calvert’s eastern training— or that of the other known Mason County craftspeople thus identified—that suggests an obvious origin for the cabriole-legged furniture in the region. However, short cabriole legs, often called pieds-debiche, are commonly found on armoires made in New Orleans during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Figs. 6, 8). It has long been argued that the arrival of Anglo-American craftsmen in New Orleans during the early nineteenth century was responsible for the introduction of elaborate neoclassical inlay to the repertoire of ornament found on armoires made in that city.11 By observing the social, cultural, and economic orientation of Mason County, an important possibility emerges: that this cabriole-legged furniture represents the other side of this transfer. This group represents a creolized form, with Louisiana-style cabriole legs grafted onto an Anglo-American chest of drawers.

Fig. 8. Armoire, New Orleans, 1800–1820. Mahogany, tulip poplar, yellow pine, satinwood, holly, and maple; height 91, width 61, depth 23 1/8 inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Sara and Fred Hoyt Furniture Fund.

Identifying a possible origin for the form, however, does not explain its popularity. Bespoke furniture is a negotiation between craftsman and consumer. It is a test of the craftsperson’s skill and the consumer’s wallet. It’s important to note that members of the Calvert family and others in the region did produce furniture with more traditional Anglo-Atlantic flared French feet. These include a chest of drawers surveyed by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts that has the same skirt and construction techniques as the marked Tuttle chest, as well as a later desk-and bookcase (Fig. 9) signed by Isaac Evans—who was married to Calvert’s niece Delilah Foxworthy—and a sugar desk (Fig. 10). That these more traditional Anglo-American objects are in the minority suggests that the miniature cabriole leg was not just a possibility, but a popular choice among consumers in the region. Why?

Fig. 9. Desk-and-bookcase by Isaac Evans (d. 1817), Mason County, 1805– 1815. Signed “Made by my hand / Isaac Evans / Mayesville KY” on bottom of one of the small interior drawers. Cherry, poplar, dark- and lightwood inlays; height 96 ½, width 42, depth 22 ½ inches. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

One of the challenges in studying this group is that, because it was recognized by collectors from an early date, few examples survive with histories of ownership. One important exception is a chest of drawers that was made for Dolly Wood sometime before her marriage to Ezekiel Forman in 1808 (Fig. 12).12 The Wood-Forman chest, the marked “P. Tuttle” chest, MESDA’s highly inlaid example, and several others, all share the same similarly idiosyncratic drawer construction method, in which two-part bottom boards are divided by a medial brace that is dovetailed into the front rail (Fig. 13). With the exception of top-tier British cabinetwork, and its direct competition in places like Charleston, South Carolina, or Norfolk, Virginia, this technique is rarely found on American furniture. Where it is recorded in the period, for example, as an option in price books, it is done so as an upcharge. For example, the 1796 New York cabinetmakers book of prices offered “munting . . . in drawer bottoms” for an additional nine shillings per drawer.13

Fig. 10. Sugar desk probably by Evans, Mason County, 1800–1820. Walnut, cherry, and poplar; height 29 ½, width 25, depth 16 inches. Private collection.

Mason County was situated at an important American crossroads. The main road from Natchez, Mississippi, to Cumberland, Maryland, via Nashville, Tennessee, and Lexington, Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River at Maysville. The port at Limestone, later renamed Maysville, was both the primary gateway to the Bluegrass and the major port of export for Kentucky produce to New Orleans. In 1806 John Gaitskill Stuart, then in his early twenties, recorded one such journey aboard a flatboat carrying “315 barrels of flour whiskey & tob[acco] [stacked] in triple & quadruple tiers” to New Orleans.14 The entire journey took about four months. As he approached New Orleans, Stuart recorded that they passed “some of the handsomest seats I ever saw. . . . We [passed] several houses where they were dancing in full glee. . . . fine plantations & handsome houses surrounded with beautiful orange & fig trees.”15 Stuart’s journal recorded the indelible impact that the wealth and way of life in Louisiana had on him. After selling their cargo, Stuart and his companions began the long walk home along the Natchez Trace and Maysville Road, their minds filled with visions of what they had seen.

Fig. 11. Chest of drawers, Calvert workshop, Mason County, 1795–1805. Walnut, cherry, and poplar; height 37 3/8, width 42 ½, depth 19 ½ inches. Private collection; photograph courtesy of MESDA Object Database.

This annual flow of people to and from New Orleans was one way that ideas about style and culture moved. In addition to the Kentucky-New Orleans cycle, there was another cycle whereby proceeds from the sale of Kentucky produce flowed from New Orleans to Philadelphia or Baltimore, where they were converted into imported goods that were shipped by land to the Ohio River and downstream back to Mason County and the Bluegrass. In both cases, Kentucky—and Mason County in particular—was at the center of these cycles and their flows of goods and ideas.

Fig. 12. Chest of drawers, Calvert workshop, Mason County, 1800–c. 1808. Cherry, poplar, and pine; height 44 ¾, width 42 ½, depth 22 ½ inches. The chest belonged originally to Dolly Wood (1786–1872), who married Ezekiel Foreman in 1808. Albert Sidney Johnston Museum, Washington, Kentucky; photograph by Daniel Kurt Ackermann.

Dolly Wood and her husband, Ezekiel Foreman, like their neighbors, were participants in both cycles. The 1810 census lists Foreman as a merchant and miller whose household included nine enslaved individuals. As a merchant and miller, Foreman was intimately connected with the agricultural, credit, and transportation networks that were the basis of the Kentucky economy. Dolly Wood’s father was similarly intertwined in these flows. His most significant business was a tannery that sold its goods on the global market through the port of New Orleans.16 Gerrard Calvert, the cabinetmaker, was also a participant in these flows. As a tradesman he benefited from the wealth generated through the sale of his customers’ crops at New Orleans. He was also personally connected to the river trade through his wife’s family, the McIlvaines. A family history claims that her father established lead mines in Missouri under Spanish rule and engaged in “mining and . . . flatboating between Ste. Genevieve and New Orleans . . . until the American Revolution broke out in 1775,” when they returned to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Gerrard’s brother-in-law, John McIlvaine, moved from Baltimore to Mason County, Kentucky, in 1798, where he engaged in shipping produce from Kentucky to New Orleans as conditions allowed. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, he moved to Missouri, where he reestablished the family’s lead mines, “ship[ping] lead and produce in a line of keel boats from St. Louis and St. Genevieve to New Orleans and Fort Pitt.”17

Fig. 13. Detail of Fig. 1, showing the unusual drawer construction of several Mason County chests of drawers, in which two-part bottom boards are divided by a medial brace that is dovetailed into the front rail.

The goods that filled Dolly Wood’s chest of drawers were the result of these connections between Mason County, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Ohio River. Portraits of her sister and brother-in-law painted by the itinerant artist John T. Turner around 1817 provide a peek into the kinds of goods her chest of drawers may have held (Figs. 14, 15).18 Kentucky farmers produced flax, wool, and cotton, and the vast majority of this was exported to New Orleans and beyond in its raw state. Wood and her family were more likely to fashion their clothes from imported cloth, brought back from New Orleans or across the mountains from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A Washington, Kentucky, merchant by the name of Stephen Lee advertised in 1815 that he had an extensive range of imported fabrics for sale, including “fancy dress silk . . . Chinese and Canton Crepe for dresses . . . [and] Cotton and Silk Laces, assorted”19 of the kind seen in Wood’s sister’s dress. Dolly Wood’s chest of drawers was itself metaphor for the cultural, social, and economic forces that shaped the identity of the region.

Fig. 14. Portrait of Captain Benjamin Bayless (1774–1839) by John T. Turner (active 1811– 1817), Mason County, 1817. Oil on canvas; 29 7/8 by 25 inches. Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

The observation that both the Gulf South and the Atlantic Coast influenced early Kentucky decorative arts contradicts the notion that American expansion was an unbroken flow of people and culture from East to West. In fact, the place itself, and its unique environmental, cultural, social, and economic milieu, argue against any attempt to understand it and its objects though the simple lenses of craftsman and consumer origins or purely Atlantic Anglo-American exceptionalism. The Frenchman Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, summed up this change in perspective at the end of the eighteenth century when he wrote that he found “the Western Country, or basin of the Mississippi,” was referred to by “the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast. . . [as] the Back Country, thus denoting their moral aspect, constantly turned toward Europe, the cradle and the focus of their thoughts and interests.” However, he “had scarcely crossed the Alleghenies, before I heard the borderers of the . . . Ohio give in their turn the name of Back Country to the Atlantic Coast; which shows, that their geographical situation has given their views and interests a new direction, conformable to that of the waters, which afford them means of conveyance toward the Gulf of Mexico.”20 Understood within this context, the cabriole-legged furniture of Kentucky is the result of the region’s particular environmental, cultural, social, and economic forces, a kind of terroir, made manifest in wood. With its cabriole legs it looked downriver to New Orleans where the wealth that filled its drawers was made. With its stacked drawers and neoclassical inlays it looked to Atlantic port cities like Baltimore. Combined into single objects, the cabriole-legged furniture of Kentucky makes visible the unique regional identity of an American crossroads, a place in between the old America of the Atlantic colonies and the newly expanded America of the Gulf Coast and the Louisiana Purchase.

Fig. 15. Portrait of Elizabeth (Wood) Bayless (1780–1767) by Turner, Mason County, 1817. Oil on canvas; 29 7/8 by 25 inches. Filson Historical Society.

1 I am indebted to my dissertation advisor, Bernard L. Herman, for encouraging the idea that terroir can be productively applied to things as well as foods. This article is distilled from Daniel Kurt Ackermann, “Becoming Kentucky: Cultural Confluence and Middle Ground in the Material Culture of the Trans-Appalachian West” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2019). 2“Living with antiques in Kentucky: The Coke Home in Lexington,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, November 1947, p. 339. 3 Edna Talbott Whitley, “Some Early Cabinet Makers,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 49, no. 169 (October 1951), pp. 337–348. 4 Marianne P. Ramsey and Diane C. Wachs, The Tuttle Muddle: An Investigation of a Kentucky Case-on-Frame Furniture Group (Lexington, KY: Headley-Whitney Museum, 2000). 5 This count is based on the work of Kentucky decorative arts scholar J. Macklin Cox. I am indebted to him for access to his research materials. 6 History of Bourbon, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Kentucky, ed. William Henry Perrin (Chicago: O.L. Baskin and Co., 1882), pp. 769–770. 7 Ramsey and Wachs, The Tuttle Muddle, p. 16. 8 Ella Foy O’Gorman, Descendants of Virginia Calverts (Los Angeles: n.p., 1947), pp. 115–116. 9 “From the Mirror: Washington Emigrant Society,” (Lexington) Kentucky Gazette, November 15, 1797, p. 2. 10 Dean Thomas Lahikainen, “A Salem Cabinetmakers’ Price Book,” in American Furniture 2001, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2001), pp. 206–209. 11 Jack D. Holden, Cybèle T. Gontar, H. Parrott Bacot, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1835 (New Orleans: Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010), p. 166. 12 Dolly Wood was twenty-two when she married. While her chest of drawers may have been commissioned when she was younger, it was not uncommon for a major furniture commission of this sort to coincide with a wedding or other major life event. 13 The Journeymen cabinet and chairmakers’ New-York book of prices (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1796), p. 10. 14 John G. Stuart, “A Journal [of] Remarks or Observations in a Voyage Down the Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi Rivers &c.,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 50, no. 170 (1952), p. 6. 15 Ibid., p. 21. 16 Lucy Coleman Lee, “Biographical Sketch of the Wood Family of Mason County, KY.,” ibid., vol. 4, no. 12 (1906), p. 64. 17 Bryan Obear, “A Brief Sketch of the McIlvaine Family,” 1916, p. [3], Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. Obear’s sketch of his ancestors almost certainly contains some apocryphal anecdotes, but the portion that deals with the family’s genealogy and later business interests in Missouri can be corroborated with other sources. 18 For information on the attribution of these works to Turner, see Estill Curtis Pennington, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802–1920: Featuring Works from the Filson Historical Society (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), pp. 20–21. 19 “New Store,” Union (Washington, KY), April 21, 1815, p. 3. 20 View of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America, trans from the French of C. F. Volney (London, 1804), pp. 20–21.  

DANIEL KURT ACKERMANN is chief curator and director of collections, research, and archaeology at Old Salem Museums and Gardens and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.