CONSTRUCTION: Like all side cupboards from the Swisegood School, this one has top and bottom sections that are joined the same way. The sides of the top conclude in two tenons that fit into two corresponding mortices in the top of the bottom section.
TERM: In period inventories from the northern Davidson County, NC, region, cupboards such as this are referred to as “side cupboards,” presumably to distinguish them from corner cupboards.
FORM: Although side cupboards with glass doors were not especially common in the Carolina Backcountry, this was a standard form made by John Swisegood and others who make up the so-called Swisegood School. Several others with similar inlay and decoration are known. Swisegood is noted for his bold coved cornices, barber pole inlay ornamenting the upper case and central drawer, comma-like inlays on drawers, and lunetted flat panels of cabinet doors. This cupboard repeats the barber-pole and comma-like inlays on an 1817 signed desk, and the same triple band of light wood enclosing cherry is used around the two outside drawers.
MAKER: This cupboard is almost certainly by John Swisegood (1796-1874), who apprenticed with cabinetmaker Mordecai Collins (1785-1864). When Collins emigrated from North Carolina and moved west in 1816, he left behind John Swisegood, his then twenty-year-old apprentice, to continue creating neoclassically inspired furniture for the rural residents of northern Davidson County, North Carolina. Swisegood had grown up about fifteen miles southwest of the Bethany Church area, on Potts Creek, near Sandy Creek Lutheran Church (now called St. Luke’s), one of Rev. Paul Henkel’s congregations. John’s uncle Adam Swisegood was a founding member of the church and acquainted with Henkel. John’s father Phillip Swisegood, a stonemason, died before 1800, and his mother Eva Helmstettler Swisegood was left with seven young children to care for. As a result, in 1804 John was put under the guardianship of his uncle Christian Helmstettler. Eva remarried John Lewy, but he died in 1807, leaving John’s mother still in a precarious financial situation.
Thus, in 1810 when John was fourteen, he was sent to the Brushy Fork of Abbotts Creek and was apprenticed to Mordecai Collins “to learn the Cabinet and Joiner’s trade.” Swisegood was an apt pupil, and after Collins left North Carolina in 1816, twenty-year-old John continued creating superb neoclassical pieces. The earliest signed and dated example by Swisegood is an 1817 desk that combines all the best of the Swisegood school vocabulary. In December of 1818 John married Elizabeth “Betsy” Delap, whose father John Delap had witnessed Mordecai Collins’s deed to the only piece of property he ever purchased in Davidson County. Ten years after he himself had been apprenticed to Collins, Swisegood officially took his own apprentice to the “cabinetmaker’s trade,” Jonathan Long, on August 18, 1820. Long must have been performing basic shop duties earlier than that because another desk signed by Swisegood and dated March 26, 1820, has Jonathan’s name scrawled on a backboard in red pencil.
During the next twenty-five years, John Swisegood appears to have been a good public citizen and neighbor, acting as a witness to wills, deeds, and bills of sale; serving as a juror; administering a neighbor’s estate; overseeing the maintenance of a road; and overseeing a company acting as a patrol. This last responsibility appears to have earned him the appellation of “Capt. John Swisegood” by 1836. Also during this period he was accumulating property along the Brushy Fork of Abbotts Creek. His father-in-law, John Delap, died in 1839, and John Swisegood and Betsy Delap Swisegood were bequeathed $100. John Swisegood made many pieces of furniture before he left Davidson County in 1846, all neatly constructed from the simple to fanciful.
Once he migrated to Schuyler County, Illinois, however, he appears to have become a successful full-time farmer. He is identified in the 1850 Schuyler County census as a farmer whose real estate was valued at $4000, and in 1860 as a farmer with both a real and personal estate valued at $3700. John Swisegood died on May 16, 1874, and was buried at Round Prairie Cemetery, Birmingham Township, Schuyler County, Illinois. Other objects in the MESDA Collection that are part of the Swisegood School of cabinetmaking include a corner cupboard (Acc. 3576) and a chest of drawers (Acc. 5887).