TERM: Probate inventories of the lower Chesapeake region usually describe this type of chair as a “smoking chair,” and the term also was used in England.
GROUP: The splat pattern and form of the legs and feet place this chair in a group of furniture attributed to the Quaker cabinetmaker Thomas White (d. 1788) of Perquimans County, North Carolina. The group consists of chairs, two dressing tables, two desks, a tall clock, and a cupboard, all walnut except for one table. All of the pieces show a strong impact of the pre 1760 Newport, Rhode Island cabinetmaking style. Even the construction of White’s case pieces employs Newport details. The “smooth” or rounded knees of this chair contrast with later Newport cabriole legs, which generally are angular. The sharply defined disc turnings of the feet on this chair, along with the slightly flaring pads beneath, are characteistic of White’s work. Like other early Perquimans school corner chairs, the seat of this example is supported upon wedge-shaped strips nailed in place. A side chair in the MESDA Collection has a similar splat and is also attributed to Thomas White (Acc. 3381); a desk in the MESDA Collection is likewise attributed to Thomas White (Acc.3250).
MAKER: Thomas White (d.1788) was born in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, where his family had lived since the seventeenth century. The Whites were Quakers, members of Western Branch Monthly Meeting in north central Nansemond County.
Thomas’s father Joseph began purchasing land in Perquimans County, North Carolina, as early as 1748; the family moved to North Carolina in 1750. Thomas, however, evidently did not arrive in Perquimans until 1756, when he was granted certificate from the Isle of Wight Meeting to Perquimans Monthly Meeting.
The similarities between White’s work and that of cabinetmakers in Newport, Rhode Island, suggest that White probably spent several years working in that city. Indeed, between 1750 and 1753, a “Thomas White” witnessed two Newport Quaker marriages between members of the well known Goddard and Townsend cabinetmaking families. Although proof that this Thomas White is the North Carolina cabinetmaker is not conclusive, all evidence points to their being the same man.
It seems probable that White returned to Virginia and worked there for a while before moving to Perquimans in 1756. Most of the furniture that White made in North Carolina can be dated very precisely. He owned no land in Perquimans County, so he probably lived with his parents on Castleton’s Creek (now Raccoon Creek). A number of White’s patrons there, judging from the provenance of surviving work, must have been prominent Quaker planters. Six of the eight pieces of furniture attributed to White are attributed to his shop in Perquimans County, effectively dating them between 1756 and 1766.
In 1766, Thomas White moved to Northampton County to marry Pharaby Duke, the daughter of planter John Duke. White and his family lived in a gambrel-roofed house just adjacent to John Duke’s own dwelling. Duke evidently built the house for the couple and allowed them the use of the land. White was active in the affairs of Rich Square Monthly Meeting, just as he had been as a member of Perquimans Meeting. He died in 1788. His son John Duke White may have followed him in the trade, although concrete proof has not been found.
Thomas White produced some of the finest furniture made in northeastern North Carolina