Collections › MESDA Collection › Double Chest with Secretary

Double Chest with Secretary

Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –cypress
HOA: 78; WOA: 46-1/2; DOA: 25-1/8
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Chest-on-chest in two parts. The upper part contains four tiers of drawers, two drawers in the upper tier, surmounted by a typical “Elfe fret” cornice, and decorated at the corners, both on sides and front, with fluted and stop-fluted columns, the whole mounted on a base of three tiers of drawers. The upper most mounted as a secretary which, when pulled out and opened, reveals a prospect door with document drawers decorated with fluted and stop-fluted fronts at each side; on either side are three pigeonholes above two drawers with ring pulls. The upper corner columns extended through the lower sections and are also fluted and stop-fluted, these columns extending into the ogee feet which are shaped especially to receive the columns. Beaded edge drawers are mounted with a second set of old plate pulls; incised circles on bottom case drawers where original pulls used to be. Vertical glue blocks.

TERMS: The drawer that works as a secretary was called a “desk drawer” in Charleston during this period. The term “secretary” for a case piece with a desk drawer did not appear in Charleston records until the late 1780s. There is a tendency to call this form–that is a two piece chest with drawers on both upper and lower cases–a “chest-on-chest,” but only once in Charleston has that term been found. The preferred term in Charleston was “double chest of drawers.” The first Charleston mention of a double chest was in 1734; the last mention was in 1793. Cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe recorded in his account book in May of 1773, that he had made for Humphry Sommers “a double chest of drawers with a frett round,” (80 pounds) “a Mahogany bedstead flutted post & Brass Caps With a carved Cornish,” (65 pounds) ” a Sett of Brass Casters,” (2 pounds) and “a Lady’s dressing drawers for daughter,” (45 pounds).

CONSTRUCTION: The drawer construction is normal to the Low Country and follows London practice in the use of full-bottom dustboards and two-part drawer bottoms divided from front to rear by muntins, a feature that lessened possible damage from radically shifting humidity levels.

STYLE: This “double chest of drawers” is a showcase of classic Charleston details. The cornice is made up of an ogee crown, a Doric dentil, and a cove, a format repeated on a number of related case pieces. The strongly architectural nature of this chest is typical of Charleston, including the engaged, stop-fluted pilasters, the cove-and-ovolo bed molding, and the inset base. The fret pattern in the frieze below the cornice is one popularly known as the “Elfe” fret, after the cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe, to whom many pieces of furniture with this decoration have been attributed without documentation of any sort. A very similar fret pattern was used in the Elfe shop.

The double chest with secretary was purchased in 1938 from Mrs. Anna Gray (Cart) Brux (1872-1943), and probably descended in the Guerin, Cruger and Cart families of Charleston. Mrs. Brux’s grandparents were John Cart (1787-1847) and Elizabeth Cruger (Guerin) Cart (1787-1874). Mrs. Cart was the namesake and heiress of a childless aunt, Elizabeth (Guerin) Cruger (1747-1830), wife of Frederick David Cruger (d. 1804), a Revolutionary War veteran, member of the Charleston German Fusiliers, and successful factor. In her 1830 will, Mrs. Cruger left to her “beloved niece Elizabeth Cruger Cart” several articles of furniture that included “the Secretary or desk formerly used by my deceased husband” and “the full set of drawers in the chamber downstairs.” This is probably the “”Whole Set drawers” valued at $10 in her probate inventory, compared to the “1 half set drawers” for only $3. In her husband’s 1804 inventory these items appear as “1 Scrutor & Book Case” priced at $15, a chest of drawers equivalently priced at $15, and another, less expensive chest of drawers for $8.
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph P. Hanes