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The Fix on Colonial Philadelphia Furniture: A Secret Guide to Cabinetmakers' Prices

July 3, 2008–February 22, 2009

In 1772, a group of Philadelphia master cabinetmakers published Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work, a 36-page book listing furniture forms and their decorative variations, retail prices for furniture in mahogany and walnut, and the wages to be paid to the journeymen who made the furniture. This book was known to twentieth-century furniture scholars and collectors through two incomplete manuscript (handwritten) copies until the discovery in 2003 of the single surviving copy of the printed book, pictured here. This exhibition features furniture from the Museum's permanent collection that is delineated in the book of prices, including three large case pieces with the three types of tops, or "heads", from least expensive to most expensive: flat, pitch pediment, and scroll pediment. In the Powel Room (gallery 287), the Museum's Cadwalader set of furniture is featured with a copy of its original bill, showing how the prices Philadelphia cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck charged the Cadwaladers in 1770 for furniture on view matches the prices set forth in the 1772 price guide. In colonial Philadelphia, master cabinetmakers (shop owners) used this secret publication to fix furniture prices and set the wages they paid to the journeymen, highly skilled cabinetmakers who plied their trade at a number of shops. The currency given was in the British pound of colonial Pennsylvania: £ for pounds, f for shillings*, and d for pence. Currency values fluctuated often and varied between colonies, but the typical wage for a skilled laborer in Philadelphia in 1772 was about ten shillings per day. The printed Philadelphia price book appeared sixteen years before a similar one was published in London. The necessity for a furniture price book in Philadelphia in 1772 reveals the complexity and competitiveness of the cabinetmaking trade in this city, then the second largest in the British empire after London. Facsimiles of the book are on view in this exhibition. * f was often used in eighteenth-century script and printing for the letter "s."

Deciphering the Secret Code

Deciphering the Secret Guide

Establishing the prices for popular furniture and their decorative options, the Philadelphia price book served as a guide for colonial cabinetmakers for decades. The left side of each page delineated furniture (by form and size), drawer types, leg styles, and standard embellishments. The first column priced the furniture when using imported mahogany as the primary wood, and the second showed the cost using local walnut. The wages paid to the journeyman for his labor were listed in the last column. These prices were noted in pounds (£), shillings (f), and pence (d). Formal and elaborate furniture like commode dressing tables, china tables, and frames for marble slabs were priced only in mahogany; cabinetmakers must have determined that patrons ordering such ornate forms wanted them in this expensive wood. Imported red cedar, an aromatic wood that cost the same as mahogany, was listed for bed cornices, storage chests, and coffins. Prices for household furniture in pine were also indicated. Secondary woods (usually yellow poplar, white pine, or oak) for elements like drawer sides and blocks were included in the cost and were the preference of the cabinetmaker or, if using mahogany, cedar, or walnut for decorative purposes, the patron commissioning the furniture. Costs for turned elements (such as those for a tea table, stand, fire screen, or bedpost), some carved details (like plain shells, acanthus leaves, and ball and claw feet), and basic upholstery (such as leather bottoms) were included. More sophisticated turned and carved ornamentation and additional upholstery work required specialists who either peddled their skills to cabinetmakers or were hired individually by the cabinetmaker or patron.

Main Building


This exhibition was funded by a grant from The Getty Foundation.


Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley • Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts

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