Collections › MESDA Collection › Desk


White, Thomas
Place Made:
Perquimans County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut –white cedar –yellow pine
HOA 41 7/8″; WOA 39″; DOA 20 13/16″; DOA 35 5/16″ w/top down
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Slant-top desk on five feet: Case comprised of four graduated drawers, quarter columns on each side of the drawers, all on five carved ogee bracket feet, the fifth one applied to the center front of the case; drawer bottoms are glued and nailed to sides and back with applied strips attached to each side to serve as runners; desk section has a shell-carved prospect door flanked by fluted pilasters, on each side of the pilasters are three letter compartments topped with a tier of three small drawers above and one drawer beneath, on each side of the letter compartments are stacks of three drawers, the upper one with shell carving; the entire prospect of the desk’s interior is removable, behind the prospect are two hidden document drawers, three small drawers, and a concealed well; replaced brasses.

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 and active members of Western Branch Monthly Meeting.

As early as 1748, Thomas’s father Joseph began purchasing land in Perquimans County, North Carolina, and the family moved to North Carolina in 1750. Thomas, however, did not arrive in Perquimans until 1756, when he was granted a certificate from Western Branch to Perquimans Monthly Meeting.

This desk is typical of Newport work in the 1750’s except for individual details like the slanting side interior drawers in the desk, the shallower cusp carving of pigeonholes, the greater detail in carving the prospect shell, and the addition of a fifth foot. 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. In fact, between 1750 and 1753 a “Thomas White” witnessed two Quaker marriages between members of the well known Goddard and Townsend cabinetmaking families of Newport. Although there is no positive proof that this is the North Carolina cabinetmaker, all evidence points to them being the same man.

It seems probable that White returned to Isle of Wight County and worked there for a few years before moving to Perquimans in 1756. White never owned land in Perquimans County, so he probably lived and worked on his parents’ property located on Castleton’s Creek. Judging from the provenance of his surviving work, many of his patrons were prominent Quaker planters and merchants. Most of the furniture that White made in North Carolina can be precisely dated. Six of the eight pieces of furniture attributed to him were made in his Perquimans County shop, effectively dating them between 1756 and 1766.

In 1766, Thomas White left Perquimans and 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 Duke’s own dwelling. White was active in the affairs of Rich Square Monthly Meeting, just as he had been as a member of Perquimans Meeting. Thomas White died in 1788. His son John Duke White may have followed him in the cabinetmaking trade.

In 1765 the prominent Perquimans County merchant Thomas Newby (d. 1793) acquired this desk from the cabinetmaker Thomas White for £12. According to Newby’s surviving account books, now in the North Carolina State Archives, he also acquired from White a table for £2.10, “12 Leather Chairs” for £16, and “1 small oval table” for £1.15.

White and Newby were both Quakers with strong ties to Rhode Island: Newby’s ships regularly traded between North Carolina and Newport. Thomas Newby and his family lived at Belvidere plantation, one of the most elaborate colonial residences in Perquimans County. Originally a slave owner, like many Quakers Newby became an abolitionist, and in 1776 he emancipated ten slaves.

When MESDA first recorded this desk in 1981, a hidden compartment contained an 1812 letter addressed to Thomas Newby’s grandson, Exum Newby (1784-1846).

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund