Collections › MESDA Collection › Chest of Drawers

Chest of Drawers

Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –cypress
HOA: 31 1/4; WOA: 36 1/4; DOA: 20 1/2
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Chest of drawers: Top with molded edge; fluted quarter columns on front corners; the whole upon a molded base and supported by ogee bracket feet; four graduated drawers with cockbeaded edges; top drawer fitted with compartments.

CONSTRUCTION: Case: Corner joinery: Dovetailed at bottom corners; sides glued to full-height one-piece stiles of column recesses at front corners; the stiles are rectangular in plan, rabetted at the outside corner to receive the columns. Top attachment: Case sides run with full-depth half dovetails to receive top. Back joinery: Horizontal boards nailed into rabbets at sides and top. Drawer rails: Glued to dustboards, half-dovetailed into dadoes in 1-7/16″ thick stiles which form inside face of column recesses, the joint concealed with facing strips. Drawer supports: Drawer rails and dustboards. Drawer guides: Replaced; originally glued to dustboards behind column recess stiles. Dustboards: Full-bottom, 3/4-depth, fitted to dadoes in case sides. Base system: One-piece bed blocks at front and sides. Foot block system: Vertical blocks (replaced) resting on horizontal flanker blocks. Drawers: Frame joinery: Dovetailed, back passes sides. Bottom-to-frame joinery: Front and sides dadoed to receive bottom. Bottom section/joinery: Three beveled boards perpendicular to front, nailed at back. Runner system: Drawer sides. Front edge finish: Mitred cockbeads.

STYLE: The drawers are nicely graduated from top down as 4″, 5″, and 7″. All drawers have cockbeaded edges, rabbeted in 1/2 the thickness of the drawer front. An interesting feature of this chest are the quarter columns which are set into a 1 3/8″ square space, a size usually associated with the chest-on-chest form.

TERM : Without the top drawer configuration, this chest would probably be what is referred to in 18th-century Charleston records as a “half drawers,” a “half chest of drawers,” or (rarely) a “set half drawers.” These terms were known as early as 1750, but after about 1789 the terms are rarely used. This chest of drawers has a top drawer outfitted with a small sliding looking glass in the center with several compartments on either side. Generally these compartments were used for dressing paraphernalia.

With the top drawer configuration, this form was often called a “dressing drawers” or a “ladies’ dressing drawers” in 18th century Charleston. One entry from the Thomas Elfe account book (7 September 1774) records an object very similar to this example: “a dressing drawers, fluted colums… [with] three wheel castors.” Thomas Elfe recorded in his account book in May of 1773, that he had made for Humphry Sommers “a Lady’s dressing drawers for daughter,” (45 pounds). A nearly identifical example with its original looking glass is in the collection of Historic Charleston Foundation.

This piece came into the MESDA collection with a history in the Cannon and Fraser families of Charleston. Once thought to have belonged to the successful builder Daniel Cannon (1720-1802), it is now believed to be, based on the exactness of the description, the “Half Drawers…including a small glass” valued at 20 pounds in the 1772 probate inventory of Judith (Warner) Fraser (1698-1772), the widow of Charleston’s wealthy Scottish-born Indian trader and merchant, John Fraser (d. 1754). It is specifically listed among the items in Judith’s estate acquired by her after her husband’s death. It subsequently descended in the family of Judith’s granddaughter, Mary (Fraser) Winthrop (1767-1832).

Considering the multiple mentions of this form in Thomas Elfe’s account book, it is worth noting that their son, Alexander Fraser (1722-1791), was one of Elfe’s routine cusomters, acquiring between 1768 and 1775 furniture valued at more than 200 pounds, including a close stool chair, two elbow chairs, a mahogany bedstead, and a tea table with a chinoiserie-style carved apron.

RELATED OBJECTS: The chest of drawers is among a large group of related objects in the MESDA collection with Fraser family histories. These include an easy chair (Acc. 2788.2), a candlestand (Acc. 2788.1), a still-life painting by Charles Fraser (Acc. 5470), a painted box created by Fraser for his niece Ann Susan Winthrop (Acc. 5471), and a miniature by Fraser of his niece Sophia Fraser (Acc. 5509).

Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Ralph P. Hanes