Thomas Spencer

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

  • Figs. 1,1a. Desk-and-bookcase probably by Thomas Spencer (1752–1840), East Greenwich, Rhode Island, 1775. Mahogany, chestnut, yellow poplar, and white pine; height 91 ½, width 41 ¾, depth 19 ¾ inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift in loving memory of Nancy Fraser Parker by her husband William A. Parker Jr., and her children William A. Parker III, Isobel P. Mills, and Richard C. Parker; photographs by Peter Harholdt.

  • Fig. 2. Desk-and-bookcase open. Harholdt photograph.

  • Fig. 3. Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) by John Trumbull (1756–1743), 1792. Oil on mahogany, 4 by 3 ⅛ inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Trumbull Collection.

  • Fig. 4. Detail of a page from Nathanael Greene’s bill of expenses from June 12, 1775, to November 1776, showing payment of £15.6 on June 12, 1775, to Spencer for “a Mehogane Desk & Book Case.” Society of the Cincinnati, Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection, Washington.

  • Fig. 5. Desk-and-bookcase, Newport, Rhode Island, possibly by John Goddard (1724–1785), 1761. Mahogany, maple, red cedar, white pine, and yellow poplar; height 97, width 45 ½, depth 26 inches. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, bequest of Martha B. Lisle.

In 2007 a desk-and-bookcase with a history of having been owned by the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene (Fig.3) was given to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Figs. 1, 2). At the time, Ronald T. Labaco, the curator of decorative arts at the museum, an expert in late twentieth-century design, asked my opinion about the desk-and-bookcase, particularly whether it was made in Newport, Rhode Island. I told him that it was certainly evocative of Newport, but that the plainness of the interior and the simplicity of the carved shell on the prospect door were not as robust as Newport work. Since Greene, before his legendary career in the American Revolution, had lived in Kent County, Rhode Island—on the west side of Narragansett Bay, first in Warwick and then in Coventry—it seemed possible that the desk-and-bookcase was made there. However, no furniture from the area had yet been identified, and so the investigation came to a temporary halt.

It was revived the following year when Katherine Farnham, a former curator at the High Museum, who had played a key role in seeing that early American furniture was included in the collection, and her husband, Clayton, who had a keen interest in Greene as the architect and leader of the Continental Army’s southern campaign, were alerted by her sister to a lecture to be presented by Dennis M. Conrad, a contributing editor of the thirteen-volume Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Katherine contacted Conrad, who directed her to a list of Greene’s expenses from the 1770s, which included the June 12, 1775, purchase of a “Mehogane Desk & Book Case” from Thomas Spencer (Fig. 4).

With that tantalizing clue in hand, Katherine called me and asked if I had ever heard of Thomas Spencer in my role as project director of the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery—which comprises information about more than two thousand woodworkers culled from the land, probate, and court records of all the towns in Rhode Island between about 1640 and 1800. I put down the phone and searched the database, discovering that a Thomas Spencer was indeed working as a shop joiner in East Greenwich in 1773. East Greenwich neighbors the towns of Warwick and Coventry where Greene had lived. While it was only circumstantial evidence, Katherine and I both realized that in style and materials the High’s desk-and-bookcase corresponded perfectly with this information.

Born on April 23, 1752, in East Greenwich, Spencer came from a long line of woodworkers. He was the youngest child of Thomas Spencer (1717–1753), a shipwright, yeoman, cordwainer, and (at the time of his death) high sheriff of Kent County, and his wife Margaret Goddard Spencer (1718–1765).1 His paternal grandfather, John Spencer (1693—1774), was a carpenter; his maternal grandfather was Daniel Goddard (1697–1764), a housewright and shipwright. His uncle, John Goddard (1724–1785), was the renowned Newport cabinetmaker.

Spencer’s father died when he was only a year old. His mother sold the family’s property in East Greenwich in 1755 and moved back to Newport, where she supported her children as a shopkeeper, selling dry goods and provisions such as sugar and tea.2 Thomas and his older brother, Daniel, who also became a shop joiner, were almost certainly trained in Newport. Thomas’s apprenticeship probably took place between 1765 when he was fourteen and 1772 when he reached his majority. In 1773 he was described as a “shop joiner” when he bought a small plot in East Greenwich, “where he now dwells.”3 There were five or so shop joiners living in East Greenwich at the time Thomas was trained, so it is conceivable that his apprenticeship took place there. But given the similarity of his desk-and-bookcase to the work of Newport cabinetmakers the likelihood seems remote.4

The most elaborate Rhode Island desks-and-bookcases have scrolled pediments with applied plaques, tripartite blocked facades—with the blocking on both the desk and the bookcase sections capped by carved shells—and interiors with block and shell decoration. About nine such examples survive and have been studied in depth (see Fig 5).5 Spencer’s is plainer. It has a flat facade and two fielded panel bookcase doors, a semi-blocked interior with a single carved shell, a scrolled pediment with applied plaques, and a central finial whose ball element lacks the fluting found on the more opulent examples. It is one of fewer than two dozen Rhode Island desks-and-bookcases with these particular details logged into Yale’s database, and its interior is among the least developed.

Next to tall-case clocks, desks-and-bookcases were the most complex and expensive pieces of furniture an individual could own in the late colonial and early Federal periods. With a locking bookcase configured to hold ledgers and other volumes, the form was emblematic of the owner’s business activities, intellectual accomplishments, and wealth, since books themselves were an expensive commodity. The interior compartments of the desk section, arranged for the organization of correspondence and the safekeeping of jewelry, coins, and notes in additional locking compartments, further underscored the material success of its owner.

In the case of Nathanael Greene the ownership of books and ledgers was an important aspect of a life occupied with the oversight of his family’s business. He was born in 1742 in Warwick, the town just to the north of East Greenwich. He is said to have read voraciously, even though he had little formal education, on subjects ranging from military science to history and mathematics, and amassed a private library of some two hundred volumes. In 1770 he moved to the neighboring town of Coventry to supervise the family’s iron foundry business, and four years later he married Catherine Littlefield (1755–1814) of Block Island who was living with her aunt and uncle in East Greenwich. Greene commissioned the desk-and-bookcase just before he was appointed a brigadier general of the Continental Army on June 22, 1775. Rather than purchase furniture in Newport or Providence, he evidently patronized a local furniture maker, and the £15.6 he paid for the desk-and-bookcase, modest compared to the cost of the most elaborate examples, indicates that he decided against the additional expense of having a fully blocked and shell-carved interior.

That Spencer was John Goddard’s nephew prompts the question of whether he was trained by his uncle. The answer can be ascertained by comparing Spencer’s construction techniques to those on the three known slant-front desks documented to Goddard.6On those desks the drawer bottoms carry across the sides, are fitted into a groove in the drawer fronts, and are nailed to the other three sides with running strips added to the edges of the sides. On the two Goddard desks with ogee-bracket feet, the rear brackets on the back feet fit into slots in the sides of the feet. The vertical blocks for the feet abut the horizontal blocks, which are mitered together at the corners and glued to the bottom board. The top rails are dovetailed to the case sides, and the bottom rails fit in grooves in the case sides.

While Michael Moses, in Master Craftsmen of Newport, notes a general paucity of construction related inscriptions on Goddard case pieces,7 two of the three documented desks bear relevant notations. On one, the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 are inscribed in graphite from top to bottom on the large drawers (on the inside of the sides near the dovetail joints with the drawer fronts); the eleven interior drawers are each inscribed three times with a numeral—from 1 through 11—in graphite (at the front interior corners and the center of the interior); and the valance drawers are numbered, from left to right, 1 through 6 in graphite (at the front interior corners and center of the interior back). The other inscribed Goddard desk, dated 1754, has the same numbering sequences on the interior and valance drawers, but letters (A through D in chalk) instead of numbers on the large drawers (on the inside of the backs).

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.1 Thomas Spencer’s birth in 1752 is from a family genealogy, but has not been independently documented. Margaret Spencer was appointed to administer the estate of Thomas Spencer, son of John, on April 27, 1753, inventory taken April 13, 1753, East Greenwich [Rhode Island] Probate, vol. 2, pp. 50–56, microfilm number 0926804, Family History Library, Salt Lake City. For Thomas Spencer’s death see James N. Arnold, Vital Records of Rhode Island, 16361850, 21 vols. (Providence, 1891–1912), vol. 2, p. 116. 

2 East Greenwich Land Evidence, vol. 7, pp. 287–288, East Greenwich Town Hall. Margaret Spencer’s activities as a shopkeeper are documented in Newport County Court of Common Pleas, session of May 1768, cases 225 and 226, vol. H, pp. 123, 124, Rhode Island Judicial Archives, Pawtucket. 

3 East Greenwich Land Evidence, vol. 9, pp. 212–213. 

4 The following were working as shop joiners in East Greenwich at the time Thomas Spencer would have been apprenticed: Benjamin Dexter (d. 1774), see East Greenwich Probate, vol. 3, p. 167, East Greenwich Town Hall; Gideon Myers (active 1772), see Washington County Court of Common Pleas Record Book, vol. H, p. 388, Rhode Island Judicial Archives; Comfort Searle (active 1774–probably 1783 when he was in Sturbridge, Massachusetts), see East Greenwich Land Evidence, vol. 9, pp. 289–290, 531–532; James Searle (active 1764–1777, d. 1778 or 1779), brother of Comfort and also in Providence, see East Greenwich Land Evidence, vol. 9, pp. 370–371, and Providence County Court of Common Pleas Record Book, vol. 5, p. 291, Rhode Island Judicial Archives; and Caleb Weeden (active 1763), see Washington County Court of Common Pleas Record Book, vol. F, p. 374.  5 Brock Jobe, “The Lisle Desk-and-Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon,” American Furniture 2001, pp. 120–151. Jobe concluded that he could not attribute the Lisle desk-and-bookcase to John Goddard because its construction features were not consistent with those of Goddard’s documented desks. 

6 Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (MMI Americana Press, Tenafly, N. J., 1984), pp. 212–213, 216, 221, pl. 14, figs. 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2, 5.9a–d. Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, American Furniture at Chipstone (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984), p. 56. 

7 Moses, Master Craftsmen, p. 210 

8 See ibid. for a discussion of the construction of Job Townsend’s desks. The chest-on-chest labeled by Thomas Townsend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has vertical braces at the back of the cases. 

9 Daniel Spencer, shop joiner, and Thomas Spencer, retailer, both of Providence, sued John Lasells of Providence, December 1783, Providence Court of Common Pleas Record Book, case 166, vol. 7, p. 520, Rhode Island Judicial Archives. 

10 Albany Book of Deeds, vol. 10, pp. 351–53, Albany County Hall of Records, Albany, New York. 

11 See Newport Mercury, December 28, 1786, p. 4; Albany Gazette, August 6, 1789, p. 4; December 16, 1790, p. 3; June 21, 1790, p. 4; January 27, 1791, p. 1; New-York Daily Gazette, October 25, 1793, p. 3; Albany Register, January 13, 1794, p. 1; January 20, 1794, p. 4; February 3, 1794, p. 4; July 14, 1794, p. 3; November 10, 1794, p. 4; December 15, 1794, p. 1. See also Albany Book of Deeds, vol. 14, pp. 111–123, and vol. 16, pp. 177–178, 199–202, Albany County Hall of Records. Spencer’s will was written January 14, 1835, and proved April 27, 1840, Greene County Wills, vol. F, pp. 95–97, Vedder Research Library, Greene County Historical Society, Coxsackie, New York.

12 See 2005–05/1117508436 (accessed December 19, 2009). Katherine Farnham provided the information that in Phineas Miller’s will, dated 1797 and proved in 1803, he bequeathed half his personal and real property to his siblings, including his sister Lucretia; see Book A: 1795–1829, pp. 77–79, Camden County, Ordinary, Estate Records, Wills and Index to Books A, B, C, drawer 71, box 23, Georgia State Archives, Morrow. 

13 E. Marguerite Lindley and Juanita Leland, “The National Society of NE Women,” New England Magazine, vol. 34, no. 6 (August 1906), pp. 775–776. 

14 For information on the elder Walcott, see and United States Federal Census for 1880, 1900, and 1910 (online database, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo). For the younger Walcott, see the United States Social Security Death Index at (accessed December 20, 2009). In 1968 the desk-and-bookcase was offered for sale by the Woodbury, Connecticut, dealer Kenneth Hammitt; see The Magazine Antiques, vol. 94, no. 3 (September 1968), p. 263.