Visiting Kentucky, 1807-1809

October 14, 2010

Period accounts of Kentucky (or anywhere else) can’t always be taken at face value. Often their authors had ulterior motives. John Filson’s famous The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784) was, shall we say, rather optimistic in its descriptions. If Filson could get settlers to the state, he could make money from his land investments.

Fortunately, Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country (1810) offers a more objective view. His very readable travel journal traces his roundabout trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, back to Pittsburgh, back down the Ohio, and on to the Mississippi.

For those interested in Kentucky life during the early nineteenth century, it makes for great reading. There’s information, too, for those interested in Kentucky antiques. Lately, I’ve been working on a research project involving the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Why? The state pen’s workshops produced chairs for many decades. The pen also produced stone slabs, some of which may have been used atop furniture.

Cuming provides a detailed description of the Kentucky pen as it existed in 1807. Along with a description of the facility, he notes the presence of “twenty-four miserable wretches” imprisoned there…and also gives a list of the work they did as “nailors, coopers, chair makers, turners, and stone cutters, the latter of whom cut and polish marble slabs of all sizes…”


Sweet Desk

July 9, 2010

There’s nothing sweeter in Kentucky furniture than sugar furniture–that is, pieces like sugar chests, sugar boxes, and, yes, even sugar desks. Made in the state between the 1790s and the early 1850s, sugar furniture has enticed collectors for decades. Long-time collectors Bob and Norma Noe recently gave The Speed Art Museum a magnificent sugar desk made between 1810 and 1840, surely in the north-central part of the state (more on its geographic origins below).

Mason-Fleming-Nicholas County sugar desk, The Speed Art Museum, photo by Bill Roughen

Though small in size (it measures 31-5/8 h. x 29-1/4 w. x 13-7/8 in. d.), the desk’s visual presence is huge. A grid of figured veneers decorates its facade, an unusual feature among surviving Kentucky pieces. An inlaid star on the skirt below adds to its elegance.

The bulbous profile of the skirt along with the desk’s spidery, curved legs associate it with a group of furniture made in the Mason-Fleming-Nicholas County area. Mason County sits along the Ohio River and served as a major entry point for goods and migrants headed into the central Bluegrass region and its capital, Lexington.

Sugar desk showing interior, photo by Bill Roughen

Marianne Ramsey and Diane Wachs, in their landmark study, The Tuttle Muddle (2000), associate the furniture group with the cabinetmakers Gerrard Calvert, Peter Tuttle, and John Foxworthy. The three men, ultimately related through marriage, came to Kentucky from Prince William County, Virginia. Like so many others, they probably arrived via the Ohio.

Sugar also came to Kentucky off of the Ohio, arriving from the Caribbean and Louisiana via New Orleans. It was a costly commodity in early nineteenth-century Kentucky. Specialized, equally expensive pieces of furniture like this desk provided secure storage for the sugar.

The desk also reinforced sugar’s value as a status symbol. By itself, refined sugar was visually mundane–it usually was sold in cones wrapped in blue paper. Placing the sugar in a fine piece of furniture, though, proclaimed its importance. It also added a ritual dimension when the sugar was used: it had to be removed from its princely storage; bits were cut off and used to sweeten the social consumption of tea, coffee, and other drinks; and then the sugar disappeared again into the desk.

To see more Kentucky sugar furniture and related objects, visit the Kentucky Online Arts Resource and use the search term, “sugar.”