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Secretary and Bookcase

McAlaster, Thomas
Place Made:
Norfolk Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –light wood inlay –yellow pine
HOA: 108 7/8; WOA: 47 3/4; DOA 28 1/8
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Secretary with bookcase, with broken arch pediment with light inlays on plinth; inlaid and molded cornice over glazed doors enclosing adjustable shelves, letter compartments, and drawers; this over a chest with secretary drawer fitted also with letter compartments and drawers; the whole upon straight bracket feet which have been outlined with a raised rim and with central inlaid motif and relief carving; lion figures are on drawer pulls; lipped edge drawers have rectangular stringing with lunetted corners.

MAKER: One other secretary with the same construction and carved feet descended in an Isle of Wight County, Virginia, family, and is twice signed “Thos. McAlaster/ sculp” and “Tho. McAlaster/ fecit.” That example has the laminated foot block construction seen in both Norfolk and Williamsburg. The MESDA example has vertical quarter-round foot blocking, plus the the inscription, “Thomas McAlaster/fecit.” Very little is known about this particular cabinetmaker; he appears in Norfolk County personal property tax records for only five years from 1787 to 1792.

INSCRIPTION: On bottom front rail, “Thomas McAlaster/fecit”

The star inlay on the secretary feet are similar to work on a piece from Salem, MA, that is dated 1795-1804. (#178 on p.222 of American Furniture, the Federal Period)

This secretary bookcase was owned by Josiah Lilly Deans (1811-1881) of Midlothian plantation, Gloucester County, Virginia. In 1855 he purchased Rosewell, the famous Page family plantation of the 1720s, and the secretary is known to have been used there. The piece was probably made for Deans’s grandfather, Josiah Deans (d. 1808), a Norfolk house and ship carpenter whose financial success allowed him to acquire Midlothian and move to Gloucester County in the late 1780s.
Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Philip Wallis in memory of Philip Wallis