Editorial Staff Exhibitions, Furniture & Decorative Arts

Sometimes you have to move every object in a collection to fully appreciate it.  In January the curatorial team at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts did just that.  We moved virtually every exhibited object in the museum’s galleries and opened our new 45-minute guided tour, called Southernisms: People and Places, in one week’s time.  Exhausted, and with sore muscles, I had a newly intimate relationship with many of the heavier objects—and some new favorites.

Court cupboard, probably York County, Virginia, 1660-1680. White oak, yellow pine, and walnut. Gift of Frank L. Horton.

This is probably the most iconic object in MESDA’s collection, and the first thing visitors see when they begin the new Southernisms tour. It is one of only two southern court cupboards known-the other is at the Wadsworth Atheneaum in Hartford, Connecticut-and one of only a small handful of 17th-century objects that survive from the American South.  MESDA is lucky to own more than half of those objects, many of which are displayed in the museum’s first gallery.  The woodwork in that gallery—installed when the museum first opened in 1965—is a reproduction of the hall at Criss Cross, a 17th-century house in New Kent County, Virginia.

The craftsman responsible for this court cupboard masterfully used different woods to create contrasts between the oak stiles and rails, the yellow pine panels with vibrant bacon-stripe grain (yes, we are a southern museum!), and the ebonized walnut bosses.  It descended mother-to-daughter through the Vines, Collier, and Hicks families of York and Brunswick Counties, Virginia—a pattern of matrilineal descent we see repeated with a number of objects in our collection.

Coffeepot by Alexander Petrie (c. 1707-1768) and shop, Charleston, South Carolina, 1750-1760. Silver and wood; height 10 3/8, width 9, depth 4 inches. Gift of Frank L. Horton.

MESDA owns not one, but two coffeepots by the Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie-this one with plain sides, and the other with chased and repoussé rococo ornament.  MESDA also owns a salver and a marrow spoon by Petrie, a Scottish-born craftsmen, is one of the few pre-Revolutionary southern craftsmen for whom a sizeable body of material survives (sizeable in this case meaning fewer than twenty).  He was one of the first American silversmiths to work with sheets of silver rolled mechanically, rather than hammered from an ingot.  This laborsaving choice allowed him to “mass-produce” objects like our two coffeepots, and then offer them with, or without, additional decoration.

I am always careful when I talk about Petrie to include “and shop” after his name in the label, because we know his objects are the results of many hidden hands: business partners, apprentices, journeymen, and also enslaved craftsmen.  When Petrie died in 1768 an enslaved silversmith named Abraham was the most valuable part of his estate.  Abraham was one of the many enslaved craftsmen whose stories we told in “Black and White all Mix’d Together”: The Hidden Legacy of Enslaved Craftsmen, a 2009 exhibition and online feature at our new website.

Tea table, Norfolk, Virginia, 1765-1775. Mahogany; height 28 ¾, width 29 ¾, depth 30 ¼ inches. MESDA Purchase Fund.

This is one of those objects in the collection that rarely gets the notice and respect it deserves.  Not because it isn’t masterful, not because it isn’t rare, and not because it isn’t important.  But because it is usually overshadowed by another 18th-century Virginia carved tilt-top tea table in the collection made in the workshop of Robert Walker—a table that has graced the cover of The Magazine ANTIQUES.

This carved tilt-top mahogany tea table is attributed to Norfolk based on the similarity of its cabriole legs and pedestal construction to an example with a Norfolk family history in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.   Its top, nearly identical to the Williamsburg example, is carved from a single piece of mahogany.

Even more remarkable, this tea table is part of a very small group of surviving pre-Revolutionary Norfolk furniture.  Norfolk was among the most important colonial American port cities, but suffered at the beginning of the American Revolution after a British naval bombardment and subsequent fires destroyed hundreds of buildings and much of Norfolk’s earliest material culture.

Table by Thomas J. Maxwell (1804 -1869), Elbert County, Georgia, 1830-1840. Birch, walnut, lightwood inlay, yellow pine; height 29 ¼, width 21″, depth 16 5/8 inches. MESDA Purchase Fund.

In May 2009 MESDA more than doubled the number of Georgia objects it owns.  Many of those objects came from the pioneering Georgia decorative arts collection of the late Florence P. and William Griffin, including this small one-drawer table, which descended in the family of Thomas J. Maxwell of Elbert County, Georgia.  In 1953 Maxwell’s granddaughter recalled, “Grandpa was a cabinetmaker as well as a farmer.  When his children married there was a reserve of things he had made. It must have been that he considered it part of his duty to have some of his handiwork in their hope chests.  Mother had a chest, five chairs, a wardrobe, a small table, and a rolling pin.”  This object may be that “small table” she referred to.

It and many of the other newly acquired Georgia objects are on view through March 30, 2010, as part of a special exhibition “A Land of Liberty and Plenty”: Georgia Decorative Arts, 1733 – 1860 in the G. Wilson Douglas Jr. Exhibition Gallery at MESDA and online at

Fish bottle attributed to Rudolph Christ (1750-1833), Salem, North Carolina, 1800-1810. Lead-glazed Earthenware; length 5 inches. Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Purchase Fund in memory of John Bivins, Jr.

MESDA, the Historic Town of Salem (a Moravian planned community founded in 1766), and the Old Salem Toy Museum make up the three museums of Old Salem Museums and Gardens.  One of my favorite objects spans all three collections: this press molded fish bottle made by the Salem, North Carolina, potter Rudolph Christ.  Its provenance can be traced all the way back to Alethea Fluke (1798 – 1891), a five year old non-Moravian girl in Guilford County, North Carolina.  Alethea married into the Quaker Coffin family of Guilford County, and her son Addison Coffin (1822 – 1892) became a leader in the Underground Railroad.  The bottle was discovered in Reno, Nevada, on the Antiques Roadshow in 2005, and was acquired for the Toy Museum’s collection soon afterwards.

The Moravian pottery of Salem, North Carolina, is among the most important early American ceramic traditions.  My colleague at Old Salem, Johanna Brown, has been doing groundbreaking research on the subject along with Rob Hunter, Luke Beckerdite, and Mo Hartley.  The 2009 issue of Ceramics in America is dedicated to their research. And in the fall of 2010 a traveling exhibition based on their research, in partnership with the Chipstone Foundation, will open at the Milwaukee Art Museum and travel to Old Salem, and Colonial Williamsburg.

Daniel Kurt Ackermann is the associate curator of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and Old Salem Toy Museum collections at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  He was the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Curatorial Intern in American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Daniel studied history and material culture at the College of William and Mary and architectural history and preservation at the University of Virginia.