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Chest of Drawers

Wells, Joseph __Attributed to
Place Made:
Alamance County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut –sulfur inlay –tulip poplar –brass
HOA: 56″; WOA: 41 1/2″; DOA: 20 1/4″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: High chest of drawers: Six tiers of graduated drawers, the top tier divided into three arched smaller drawers and the second into two flat-top drawers, the remaining four drawers are full-width; sulfur inlaid initials GF and BF and the date 1796 are inside sulfur-inlaid decorative enclosures on two drawers; top with ogee molding over dentil course; replaced bail pulls with Chippendale-style plates and Chippendale-style escutcheons on large drawers; exposed dovetails on feet and top of case, wedged; vertical lap on tongue and groove backboards that are set into routed top and sides of back, side backboards extend to form back foot; nailed drawer dividers routed into case sides only 1/8″, as also are dust dividers in two top rows, other drawer supports face nailed; case sides extend to form foot support; base molding and ogee feet of one piece construction.

TECHNIQUE: To create the inlaid decoration, including George and Barbara’s initials and the 1796 date of construction, the craftsman poured molten sulfur into carved channels, let it dry, and scraped it even with the wood surface. The inlay was bright yellow when it was first inserted.

STYLE:The sulfur-inlay technique is generally associated with furniture originating in the German communities of Lancaster County, PA. However, the arched drawers at the top of this tall chest are most often associated with Quaker furniture originating in Chester County, PA.

GROUP: At least fifteen pieces from this group have survived, although not all have suflur inlay. Of the surviving pieces, the Foust high chest is the most elaborate.

MAKER: The group is attributed to the shop of Joseph Wells (1729-1804), a Quaker living near Cane Creek Meeting in southern Alamance County, NC. Wells was first recorded in the region in 1751 as an early member of Cane Creek Meeting. His family had migrated from Chester County, Pennsylvania, to Frederick County, Maryland, and then to North Carolina. When George Foust bought his first piece of property in 1778, it was on both sides of Wells Creek, presumably named for the Wells family, and it bordered that of “Josh. Wells.” Listed on Joseph’s 1804 estate inventory and sale were joiner’s tools, 17 planes, a glue pot, a workbench, and 1 case of drawers part made. George Foust’s brothers, Daniel and Peter Foust, bought items at Joseph’s sale. Joseph Wells’ inventories strongly suggest he was making furniture, and considering that George Foust was a next-door neighbor, it seems reasonable to assume that George Foust, a German, commissioned his tall chest of drawers from Joseph Wells, his Quaker neighbor. Other extant pieces in this group descended in Quaker families. In addition to Joseph Wells, other men appear to have been working in his shop, including his sons Jesse and William, along with other family members and other men who were members of Cane Creek Meeting. The blending of a Quaker furniture form with a Germanic decorative technique illustrate the creative synthesis of styles often found in furniture made in the southern Backcountry.

Made for George (1756-1836) and Barbara (Kivett) Foust (1761-1837) George and Barbara were members of the Alamance County (then Orange) German Reformed community, whose families migrated from Pennsylvania to North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century. George was a successful blacksmith and farmer who, at the time of his death in 1836, owned large tracts of land, 23 slaves, and furnishings like this chest of drawers with sulfur inlay.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund