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Corner Cupboard

Shop of George Tate __Attributed to
Place Made:
Orange County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut, yellow pine
HOA: 80; WOA: 28
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Corner cupboard in two parts: The upper section has a molded cornice with a dentile band all of one piece, three shelves enclosed by two doors, each having a lower rectangular panel and an upper arched panel; the lower section, without shelves, has a single door containing two upright arched panels; heavy molding separates the two sections; the cupboard is supported on a molded base with straight bracket feet and spurs, on the sides, but not in the front; the lack of feet on the front make the cupboard unstable–if not attached to the wall (or weighted with a heavy object as MESDA has done), it would tip forward.

CONSTRUCTION: This cupboard is made in two pieces, and has a rare construction feature in that the back boards are dovetailed to the top boards of both sections, rather than being attached with nails as usual. The inclusion of a dentil course carved into the ogee upper element of the cornice reveals the hand of a rural-trained artisan. Typical of Backcountry furniture was the cabinetmaker’s or joiner’s “making do” with the hardware available. In this instance, two sizes of table hinges were flush-set on the stiles of the cupboard to suspend the doors, and a small thumb latch, very likely a local product, was used to secure the upper doors.

FORM: Architectural cupboards–that is, corner cupboards incorporated into the construction of a room interior–were used by the beginning of the 18th century, but it was not until the 1720s that free-standing corner cupboards began to assume any importance as a furniture form. Some coastal North Carolina inventories of the 18th century list corner cupboards as “bowfats,” a corruption of the French “buffet.” The lack of front feet on this cupboard means that it would have to be attached to the wall in order to not tip over; perhaps the connection of the cupboard to the wall of the room in which it stood relates it to earlier cupboards that were built into the corners as part of the woodwork.

MAKER: Probable makers George Tate (d. 1774) and his son James Tate (d. 1816) were known carpenters in the Hawfields/New Hope, North Carolina, region, settled mainly by Presbyterians. George Tate was first recorded in the area in 1764, and his son James was listed as a carpenter in the 1790 Orange County census. When George’s wife and James’s mother Jennett Tate died in 1786, listed in her inventory was “part of a set of carpenter’s tools.” Her son James was one of the executors of her estate. When James Tate died in 1816, listed in his probate inventory and estate sale were a large number of carpenter’s tools. Evidence suggests that patriarch George Tate, the probable original owner of the “part of a set of carpenter’s tools” inherited by his wife, as well as his son James Tate, were woodworkers and are excellent candidates as makers of MESDA’s piece, along with a practically identical corner cupboard that descended in the Johnston family (see HISTORY section). An early chest almost surely by George Tate is part of the Colonial Williamsburg Collection, Acc. No. 2001.809. These three objects together are good examples of the furniture available to early Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the area.

Although MESDA’s corner cupboard has no history, an almost identical cupboard, also of walnut and with the same unusual feet, has a history of descent in the Johnston family of Orange County, suggesting a regional provenance for MESDA’s example as well. The Johnston family lived between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, near New Hope Creek at Greenhill Plantation. Today the area is near Turkey Farm Road in Orange County. The Johnstons were of Scotch-Irish descent, as were many of their neighbors. The closest church to the Johnston family was New Hope Presbyterian, founded by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and in 1966-67, the Johnston family graves were moved from the family graveyard near Greenhill to the cemetery at New Hope Church. MESDA’s cupboard was most likely made in the area of New Hope Church also.

According to Reverend D. I. Craig’s 1891 A HISTORICAL SKETCH OF NEW HOPE CHRUCH: In Orange County, N.C., “New Hope Church not only sprang from the original church of the Hawfields [Hawfields Presbyterian Church] but was a part of it, and the history of the one involves the history of the other. The early settlers of New Hope, consisting of the Craigs, Blackwoods, Kirklands, Freelands, Strayhorns, Harts, etc., were not only closely connected among themselves, but had intermarried with the Nelsons, the Tates, the Tinnins, the Mitchells, the Johnstons, etc., of the Hawfields, thus rendering the bond of union and sympathy between the two settlements the more close and lasting.” The Johnstons of the region were the same ones who lived near New Hope Church and were part of the close Presbyterian community that included the Tates, probable makers of the cupboard.

Credit Line:
Purchase Fund