CONSTRUCTION: Frame: Top joinery: Two birch boards with applied vertical veneer. Top attachment: Backboards screwed to stage top; top screwed to stage top from below; top drawer rails screwed to top. Back and side joinery: Two horizontal yellow pine backboards tenoned into wide mortises on legs. Drawer rail construction and joinery: Drawer rails lapped to leg and center stiles. Partitions: Two horizontal boards running front to back tenoned and set into wide mortises in front stiles, but nailed to back boards. Bracing: None. Dustboards: None. Drawer guides: Nailed into bottom boards. Drawers: Frame joinery: Dovetailed back passing sides; Bottom-to-frame joinery: two to three butt-joined boards dadoed to the front and sides, nailed in back, original flush-mounted segmental glue blocks on the sides of many drawers. Bottom section/joinery: Three tongue-and-groove ”flooring” boards in center section only. Drawer stiles lapped to leg stiles; bottom backboard rests on bottom boards. Runner system: Runs on supports. Front edge finish: Mitered walnut cockbeading. Drawer face finish: Alternating veneers of birch and black walnut over laminated yellow pine.
FORM: First produced in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the stage-top sideboard was a popular form among Charleston’s Scottish cabinetmakers; however, this example was made in Augusta or Washington, Georgia. Located at the fall line of the Savannah River, Augusta was a gateway to trade and commerce in Georgia’s backcountry, and its prime location made it attractive to merchants in Savannah and Charleston. According to John Bivins and Brad Rauschenberg, a Charleston-trained cabinetmaker could have sojourned up the river seeking to establish himself in a less competitive market, but chose materials indigenous to his new region to fabricate the sideboard, using birch to duplicate the color that would have been created by satinwood. The birch provides a startling contrast with the dark panels of black walnut veneer, which was used instead of mahogany. The edges of the tops and the rails are cross-grain veneered in walnut with segments of sapwood used deliberately for tonal effect. All of the framing, partitions, and drawers are of yellow pine except for portions of the top framing, which is white pine. The presence of white pine would be considered an anomaly in Georgia, but its presence here is explained by its rough surface and empty nail holes, suggesting that it was spare lumber salvaged from a packing crate.
Although not constructed with the care and detail expected of Charleston cabinetwork, this sideboard manages to capture in essence the form and verve of the most ostentatious city-made sideboards.
ATTRIBUTION: Based on its various style influences, scholars have speculated that this sideboard was made by a cabinetmaker with a possibly Scottish background who had been trained in the Lowcountry, but migrated to Augusta and the Georgia Piedmont. A careful review of the region’s cabinetmakers produced only one candidate who satisfied all of these criteria, James Alexander (c.1778-1848). He was the son of James Alexander, Sr. (1749-1805), a Scottish-born music teacher who came to Savannah in 1769 followed shortly by his brother, Dr. Adam Alexander (1758-1812). James Alexander, Sr.’s Savannah death record in 1805 described him as a “Professor of Musick,” born in Scotland, aged 56, who died of “Dropsy,” leaving “a Brother living at Sunbury & a Son at Augusta.”
James Alexander, Jr. first apprenticed with the Savannah cabinetmaker Peter Miller (1765-1810), but petitioned the court in 1796 to be released from his agreeement because Miller had not properly taught him the trade. Miller agreed, the underaged Alexander was released from his indenture, and his whereabouts for the next four years are unknown, but he may have sojourned to Charleston and joined there with another, slightly older Savannah cabinetmaker, Benjamin Ansley (1775-1812). Orphaned in 1783, Ansley too might have apprenticed with Peter Miller, but by 1797 he was clearly in Charleston. In that year, a Chatham County, Georgia, deed referred to him as Benjamin Ansley “of Charleston Cabinetmaker.” Ansley must have worked in an established shop as a journeyman, while Alexander would have completed his apprenticeship in Charleston in the late 1790s during the very peak of Charleston furniture’s Scottish influence.
By 26 February 1800, however, the two young men had joined forces, moved west, and advertised the formation of their own new cabinetmaking firm in Augusta, Alexander and Ansley. By 1802, Ansley had returned to Savannah to form a new partnership with the New York cabinetmaker John Hewitt and to marry the niece of Savannah cabinetmakers Gabriel Leaver (1757-1795) and Isaac Fell (1758-1818), Mary Pechin. Meanwhile, James Alexander continued his practice in Augusta. In 1803, he advertised in the Augusta newspape for a runaway apprentice named Daniel Culberson, and by 1809 he had established a new partnership with Sylvester Porter in the Augusta cabinetmaking firm, Porter & Alexander.
During his ten-year career in Augusta, James Alexander seems to have been a primary conduit for Lowcountry furniture designs and aesthetics to move up the Savannah River and into Piedmont Georgia.
In 1810, Alexander placed an advertisement in The Monitor, a newspaper published in Washington, Georgia, announcing that he had “commenced business in the town of Washington” where he was planned to hire two apprentices and boasted of “MAHOGANY FURNITURE” on the best terms. He added that “Orders from the country” would be “particularly attended to” and that “Walnut furniture will be furnished to those who may require it.” Although Alexander had been trained in the mahogany traditions of the Lowcountry, he acknowedged the need to adjust his style to satisfy the expectations of Piedmont consumers. Two years later, Alexander was advantageously married by the town’s Presbyterian minister, Ezra Fisk, to Catherine Springer, a daughter of Washington’s founding Presbyterian minister, John Springer (d. 1799). With this marriage Alexander received cash, land, and slaves, including 226 acres of her father’s Wilkes County plantation, “Walnut Hill.” In 1813, he advertised again for “two apprentices to the Cabinetmaking business, say boys from 14 to 16 years of age.” By 1820, Alexander seems to have given up cabinetmaking and relinquished the trade to John McLisky (or McClisky) (1796-1867) , who was probably one of his former apprentices. The 1820 manufacturer’s census listed McLisky as Washington’s only cabinetmaker with a workforce of three men using mahogany and pine to produce $4000 worth of wares, notably “Sideboards, “Secretary & Bookcases, Tables, etc.” James Alexander’s household was listed in the 1830 and 1840 censuses for Wilkes County, yet he seemed to have retained property in Augusta and died in Richmond County in 1848.
STYLE: Stylistically, Alexander’s stage-top sideboard harkens to the Scottish-inspired neoclassical sideboards that were produced in Charleston from roughly 1790 to 1810 with mahogany veneers in boldly geometrical shapes outlined by triple stringing. However his selection of materials and technique is different. Instead of mahogany and satinwood, Alexander employed the walnut and birch that were plentiful in the region and appealed to a Georgia Piedmont clientele. The light-and-dark contrast created by these two woods eliminated the need for any triple stringing, which was necessary for defining shape and producing contrast when a cabinetmaker used mahogany veneers on mahogany surfaces. The serpentine-shaped center and concave ends of this sideboard are also different from the stage-top sideboards made in Charleston, which typically featured elliptical centers and straight ends. However, its shape bears a very close resemblance to an inlaid mahogany sideboard with a serpentine-shaped center and ovolo ends that was made between 1790 and 1800 for the Telfair family, and possibly the work of Alexander’s original master, Peter Miller (MRF S-8297). MESDA has documented at least two inlaid mahogany sideboards with Piedmont Georgia histories that might represent the more traditional work of James Alexander’s shop. Each of these sideboards features serpentine tops with center drawers over recessed cabinets and doors and drawers with circular and elliptical veneers configured identically to those on MESDA’s sideboard (MRF S-6447 and NN-510).
A small walnut and yellow pine work table with a longstanding Washington history is almost certainly the product of James Alexander’s shop (MRF S-2421). Made around 1810, it descended in the family of James’s cousin, Adam L. Alexander (1803-1882), who married Sarah Hillhouse Gilbert (1805-1855), a Wasington heiress whose grandmother, Sarah Porter Hillhouse (1763-1831), owned The Monitor, the town’s newspaper in which James Alexander advertised. Otherwise quite plain, the table features single-line box stringing around the drawers and up the tapered front legs terminating with an arch that recalls the arched panels on the stiles of the MESDA sideboard.
After suffering financial reverses, Lockhart moved to Alabama and sold the house and its improvements to Jesse M. Roberts (1805-1874), a wealthy cotton planter originally from Hancock County, Georgia. Upon his death, the house was left to his daughter, Mary Louisa Roberts, and her husband, Charles E. McGregor (1841-1924), who represented Warren County in the Georgia House and Senate in the years following the Civil War. The sideboard remained in the house during the stewardship of their daughter, Miss Jessie T. McGregor (1875-1967), who in 1892 was in the first graduating class of the Georgia State College for Women. The sideboard was removed before the house’s demolition in the late 1980s and acquired by MESDA.