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Library Bookcase

Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –cypress
HOA: 106 1/2; WOA: 92; DOA: 27 1/2
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Bookcase in two sections, the upper containing adjustable shelves enclosed by double thirteen-light doors in the center and single arched glass doors at each end, the upper mullions of which are decorated with leaf motifs, the whole crowned at the ends by an arched Roman-key molding and in the center by an “Elfe” fret surmounted by a broken pediment (replaced); the lower section containing compartments of shelves and drawers enclosed by solid doors decorated with matched veneered panels outlined by a single band of inlay, surmounted by a carved fret, the whole supported by straight bracket feet, partly replaced.

WOODS: Mahogany primary, cypress secondary.

DESIGN SOURCE: Obviously influenced by Plate LXVII from Thomas Chippendale’s first and second edition of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754 and 1755), or Plate XCIII of the third edition (1762). Some unknown Charleston cabinetmaker changed the proportions in the design slightly to accommodate the tall ceilings found in Charleston homes. In this example the four oval panels at the base have been placed vertically and at the top of the base is a blind fret carved from the hole. The central portion which supports the pediment is surmounted also by an applied blind fret.

SIZE: Charleston bookcases often reached the massive proportions seen here. For example, a 10 June 1771 notice for the auction of Thomas Shirley’s household furniture mentioned “A Mahogany Library Case with eight doors, four above and four below, is nine Feet two-inches high, and seven feet wide, has a scroll Pediment Head with denticulated Cornice and Frieze; is in nine Pieces for the Convenience of moving, and fixed together with Screws.” On 14 August 1786, the following was to be auctioned: “A VERY COMPLETE BOOK-CASE, Eight feet wide, and nine feet high; the upper part in three pieces, kept together by a beautiful cornice. For taste, elegance and workmanship, this piece is not exceeded by any in the state” (The Charleston Evening Gazette, 26 July 1786).

VALUE: Prices listed for bookcases indicate that only the wealthy were able to afford this type of furniture form. Thomas Elfe sold John Dart a “library bookcase with Chinese Doors and drawers under them L100” in 1772.

FABRIC: The green baize behind the bookcase doors were added based on tack evidence on the doors. This was a typical treatment in the 18th century. It provided privacy to the owner, protection for his or her books, and an attractive backdrop for decoratively carved mullions. Rather than tack the fabric to the doors as it was done in the period, we worked with Colonial Williamsburg conservators to create non-invasive baize covered panels that fit behind the doors.

RELATED WORKS: The MESDA Collection contains a double chest of drawers (Acc. No. 946) with an identical fret design.

Ownership can only be traced as far back as the 1860s, when the piece was acquired by Captain Edward Willis (1835-1910), a Charleston cotton factor and rare book collector who lived at the I. Jenkins Mikell House at 94 Rutledge Street. His family later moved to the Fotheringham Tenement at 72 Tradd Street, where an early photograph shows the library bookcase with his rare book collection in situ.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund