Collections › MESDA Collection › Dressing Table

Dressing Table

Place Made:
Edenton North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany, yellow pine, oak
HOA 29; WOA 36 1/2; DOA 21 3/4
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Table top is molded on three front sides with indented corners and a wide overhang. Drawer arrangement is one long shallow over three small deep drawers; all have struck beaded edges. Top drawer is fitted with compartments for writing plus a ratcheted support for books, or perhaps a dressing glass. Case is sunkbeaded around lower front rail, at corners, and around drawers. Legs have claw and ball feet with carved knees. Rear feet face forward. Top drawer has bail and rosette brasses; other drawers have bail handles and shaped brasses; all appear to be original.

WOODS: mahogany with yellow pine back runners and inside side liners; oak drawer liner parts.

FORM: While having the standard appearance of a dressing table, the proportions and fittings inside the top drawer, including a pen tray and rails fitted for a ratcheted support that could have been used as a book rest, or perhaps a small looking glass. Similar configurations are seen on “ladies dressing drawers” made in Charleston during the same period. Writing tables were not a common form in this country despite the fact that they sometimes occur in probate inventories. In 1754, Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston’s inventory listed a “Wryting” table among other furnishings of Eden House, just across Albermarle Sound from Edenton.

SCHOOL: As part of the Edenton school, this table is closely related by various elements (carving techniques, unusual knife-edged rear talon, and shaping of legs) to the Edenton armchair in the MESDA collection (Acc. Nos. 2418), as well as to the pair of gaming tables (Acc. No. 2720, 5818). The dressing table and gaming tables are clearly the work of a cabinetmaker affiliated with the same shop that produced the chair.

FEET: The most unusual feature of this table is the pair of forward-facing rear feet. This detail has been long associated with Bermuda furniture, but an earler slab table from the Edenton school has the same feature, and furniture from the North Shore of Massachusetts north to Maine occasionally has similar rear feet, though examples seen have pad rather than claw feet. The knife-edged rear talon of the feet, however, has not been observed outside the Edenton school.

LEGS: The pronounced swell of the knees of the legs on this table, coupled with the abrupt change in curve below the knee carving and the straight shanks of the legs, relate the leg form used by this artisan to the earliest type of cabriole leg. Similar legs on both British and New England furniture have been observed.

CONSTRUCTION: The knees of the rear legs are applied; both are replacements based upon evidence of tooth-plain marks on the backs of the legs. The carved knee blocks (all replaced) are set on the face of the lower edge of the case rather than being glued underneath the frame; this is a British detail also seen in Virginia. The double quirk beads (beads on both the drawer faces and drawer surrounds) are also an unusual detail. The lack of a rail above the top drawer is a construction feature seen both in New England, Virginia and Charleston. Very unusual construction on this table is the use of pine liners inside the ends of the table; these liners make the thickness of the frame the same as the width of the leg stiles and act as drawer guides.

CARVING: Of particular importance is the carving, which shows the same hand as the stair spandrels and fascia of the Edenton staircase. The most significant “signature” is the very unusual use of small, quarter moon-shaped chip cuts made with a gouge used in the hollows of leafage both on the furniture and the stair carving.

HISTORY: The dressing table probably descended in the Blount, Benbury, and Cullens families of Chowan County, North Carolina. Nathan L. Cullens (1830-1900) was born in Chowan and moved to Hertford County after his second marriage around 1860. The table’s likely line of descent came from his first wife, Mary Benbury (b. 1835), whom he married in Chowan County on May 4, 1854. A daughter of William and Sarah (Norcom) Benbury, Mary’s ancestors included many of Edenton’s wealthiest and most prominent early residents. The probate inventory of her great-grandfather, Edmund Blount (1745-1792), included “one Mahogany Dressing Table” which was sold the following year to his widow Mary (d. 1811) as “1 mahogany dressing table & glass” for two pounds. Edmund Blount and Mary Hoskins were married on February 26, 1765, which is during the period of time when this dressing table would have been made.

The table later belonged to Nathan’s son, William E. Cullens (1861-1933) and his wife, Pauline Powell (1871-1949) of Harrellsville in Hertford County, North Carolina. Pauline’s father, William Henry Powell (1831-1871), was a Bertie Countu planter who owned at least two important pieces of furniture made by William Seay, whose cabinetmaking shop in the western part of the county was located just a few miles from Powell’s plantation. These included a walnut corner cupboard with Masonic imagery (S-2409) and a walnut desk and bookcase with the initials of Powell’s Cullens grandchildren written on one of the fallboard supports.

See Tom Newbern and Jim Melchor,” Cullens Family William Seay Desk and Bookcase,” Edenton Historical Commission, online publication.

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Douglas