Published: December 23, 2013
By: Gary Albert
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On a bright Saturday morning in the winter of 1993, Jim and Harriet Pratt of Estate Antiques were having a cup of coffee with some friends at their shop on King Street in Charleston, S.C. They were appreciating an Eighteenth Century walnut desk that the Pratts had recently purchased at a New Hampshire auction.
The desk had been cataloged by the auction house as being made by an unknown cabinetmaker working in Tidewater, Va., based on the walnut primary wood and the desk’s adherence to British furniture designs often found in that area. There was no reason for the Pratts to question the auction catalog — that is, until Harriet’s sharp eye spotted a name stamped onto one of the document drawers. A telephone call to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), to research MESDA’s Craftsman Database, instantly changed everything they thought they knew about the desk.
The mark that Harriet discovered read “W/CARWITHEN” and looked to have been struck with a cabinetmaker’s tool stamp. The Pratts investigated the desk’s other document drawer and found the same W/CARWITHEN mark there as well. The marks had gone unseen by the desk’s original owner and the auction house. Maybe it was the brilliant Charleston morning light that revealed the marks. Maybe it was the caffeine in the coffee. Either way, the W/CARWITHEN mark proved to be an important discovery.
Who was W/CARWITHEN? Come Monday morning, Jim called the MESDA Research Center to see if the museum had recorded the name in their Craftsman Database. Indeed, MESDA did have a “William Carwithen” recorded as working as a cabinetmaker from 1730 to 1770. But William Carwithen did not work in Tidewater. His shop was in Charleston.
MESDA found Carwithen first documented in 1730, when a William Carwithen married Mary Bisset at St Philips Church. Three years later, he advertised in the South Carolina Gazette that despite a “maliscious report,” he had not left the city and continued to offer desk and bookcases, chests of drawers, clock cases, tables of all sorts and other furniture forms that reflected a successful cabinetmaking shop. MESDA’s Craftsman Database documented Carwithen 15 more times over the following 40 years, until his death in 1770 at age 66 years. The records cited included land purchases, court records, several notices about the Charleston Library Society (where Carwithen served as librarian for a time) and his probate inventory (valued at £1,261).
Carwithen was certainly capable of making the desk that the Pratts had purchased. Revising the desk’s place of origin to Charleston fit neatly with the fact that in Charleston mahogany only began to be used after 1735 and before that date walnut was the favored primary wood. In addition, the desk has cypress secondary wood, rare in coastal Virginia but a hallmark of Charleston furniture. With that simple search of the MESDA Craftsman Database, a Virginia desk made by an unknown cabinetmaker instantly became the earliest known piece of signed Charleston furniture. Less than six months later, the Pratts sold the desk to MESDA and today it enjoys a prominent place in the museum’s collection.
What exactly is this amazing MESDA Craftsman Database and how can it be used for one’s own research? The MESDA Craftsman Database contains information about artisans gathered through primary research in public and private records. The purpose of the database is to collect and make accessible data on the lives and working habits of artisans working in the South before 1861. Focusing on Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, the museum’s research associates scour newspapers, city directories, court records, probate inventories, wills and private papers in search of information pertaining to Southern craftsmen working in 127 trades. The records for the craftsmen vary from simple directory listings to complex descriptions of work produced, land transactions, vital statistics and how products were produced and sold, to name just a few examples.
On January 1, MESDA will launch the full-text, online Craftsman Database. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection will be able to search and browse this invaluable resource — for free. There one will find the online Craftsman Database that is not only keyword-searchable, but also has advanced search features that allow for researching in ways not possible with the original “analog” index cards. And new information is being added to the database as MESDA’s research associates continue reading primary documents from the antebellum South.
I can personally attest to the power of the Craftsman Database. Coincidentally, my experience also involves an object made in Charleston. The year was 2007 and I had found a photograph of an ink on silk print of Charleston’s second St Philip’s Church (the same church where cabinetmaker William Carwithen wed Mary Bisset in 1730). The print had been recorded by MESDA in a private collection sometime in the 1970s. The image was quite important because there are precious few depictions of the second St Philip’s Church building, which burned in 1835 and was replaced in 1838 with the structure that stands on Church Street today.
A few days later, I called Michael Coker at the South Carolina Historical Society and he told me that their archives contained a pencil on paper drawing of the second St Philips Church. Michael emailed a snapshot of the drawing and it obviously was the source for the engraving from which the ink on silk print was struck. More research was certainly warranted. I wanted to know the identity, or identities, of the artist and engraver of these rare images.
My next step was to search the MESDA Craftsman Database looking for engravers working in Charleston during the period that the second St Philips Church building existed. Using a basic index that had been created for the database, I was able to identify 66 candidates. It took a weekend to read through all of their cards and I did not find anything of note until I reached those of Thomas You, my last potential engraver. Thomas You was well known to me as the maker of MESDA’s iconic silver repoussé covered dish. His role as an engraver was a surprise: On July 8, 1766, Thomas You placed an ad in the South Carolina Gazetteer that he “has drawn and engraved a south prospect of St Philips Church, which he intends for sale, with pictures of the same.”
Both the drawing and print showed St Philips from the south and, after some further research into the architectural features of the church, I ascertained that the drawing and print were most likely made sometime before 1770. The Craftsman Database provided the crucial evidence to establish Thomas You as the most likely candidate for the artist and engraver of the drawing and print.
As valuable as the Craftsman Database was for me in 2007 — and for the Pratts in 1993 — the online version is incalculably more powerful. It originally took a full weekend in the research center to read through the cards of all 66 engravers that I had found in the database. With the online database, it took less than a minute to do the same search. And I could have done my research from home or on the road. It also works well on a smartphone or tablet.
Digitizing the approximately 250,000 index cards in the database was not a simple process. To accomplish the task, MESDA partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Digital Library and Archives to assess the project and follow through with its completion. Funding was provided through a grant from the MARPAT Foundation and a generous gift from David and Martha Rowe. The online Craftsman Database allows for keyword searches as well as advanced searches to filter by artisan name, geographic location, trade and dates. The scans of the original cards are presented in chronological order.
The Craftsman Database is a significant resource that offers unparalleled access to documentation about women and African Americans, both enslaved and free, because the records are read without regard to race or gender. And because each craftsman’s record is linked to a specific geographic location and date, the database enables a clearer understanding of the migration of craftsmen in the South.
MESDA has several other resources it has digitized or is in the process of making available online. MESDA’s scholarly journal, the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, became an online publication in 2012 and is available at www.mesdajournal.org. The catalog for the museum’s Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library is now searchable through MESDA’s website. The museum’s collection will be available in the coming months. And we are currently working to make the approximately 20,000 records of Southern-made decorative arts that comprise the MESDA Object Database available online. Scanning and processing the nearly 200,000 images in the Object Database will take a couple of years, but MESDA’s goal is to have that resource ready in 2016.
Online tools have changed the way we learn about antiques and the people who made them. The online Craftsman Database is one example of how MESDA has leapt into the Twenty-First Century to bring digital resources to one’s fingertips. Check it out next time you run into a name you have not encountered before. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Just ask Jim and Harriet Pratt.
To view the MESDA website, visit www.mesda.org and click on the “Research” navigation button.
Editor’s Note: Gary Albert is editorial director at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, N.C., and editor of the MESDA Journal.
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