MAKER: Thomas Elfe, the maker of this teaboard, was most likely born in London and immigrated to Charleston by 1745. He is the individual most often associated with the pre–Revolutionary cabinetmaking industry in Charleston due to the survival of one of his account books covering the period from 1765 until his death in 1775. The book contains information that addresses not only Elfe’s business and personal accounts, but also the structure and mechanics of a successful urban colonial cabinet shop.
Elfe’s accounts reveal the general structure of his shop, the types of labor and raw materials he utilized, and the extensive list of clients and associated artisans with whom he conducted business. The labor consisted of cabinetmakers, journeymen (day laborers), and slaves. Slaves were often hired out to other artisans, and the charges associated with this practice reveal that many of them were highly skilled artisans in their own right. For example, in January of 1768 he listed nine African artisans: four sawyers and five joiners and cabinetmakers. The inventory of raw materials is helpful in identifying the woods from which Elfe’s cabinetwork was composed. His utilization of indigenous woods serves to differentiate his work, as well as that of other Charleston cabinetmakers of the era, from that produced abroad or in other regions of colonial America. The descriptions of various forms within his inventory are helpful in identifying appropriate period terminology and expand the decorative vocabulary that is applicable to pre–Revolutionary War cabinet-work in Charleston and the colonies. Elfe’s clients during the ten-year period numbered nearly three hundred, ranging from members of Charleston’s elite planter and merchant class to the artisan class, which provided necessary specialized trades such as carving, gilding, and upholstering. One of the most valuable aspects of the account book is its illumination of the extensive and complex network of allied trades that were interdependent on one another for success.
The information contained within the personal accounts, in addition to other public records, demonstrates Elfe’s highly diversified interests aside from cabinetmaking. He owned and leased numerous properties within Charleston and in the surrounding environs, loaned money, speculated in real estate, served as a jurist, and was philanthropic with his income. He was also a family man, marrying Mary Hancock in 1748 (she died one year later) and Rachel Prideau in 1755, with whom he had several children. On his death on November 28, 1775, Elfe was described in his obituary as an “honest and industrious man.” The evaluation of his estate was £38,243.16.2 sterling, making him the wealthiest cabinetmaker to have practiced in South Carolina before the Revolution. Included in his estate inventory were over 30 enslaved individuals, along with numerous items related to his profession. Despite the scale of Elfe’s cabinetmaking business, only one fully documented example of the work listed in his account book is known to exist, and that is MESDA’s tea board.
Sources: Most of the above information comes directly from SOUTH CAROLINA ENCYCLOPEDIA, online, entry by George C. Williams. See also Bradford L. Rauschenberg and John Bivins, Jr., THE FURNITURE OF CHARLESTON, 1680-1820, Volume III: The Cabinetmakers, pp.995-1003.
Related objects in the MESDA Collection include a plat by Charleston surveyor Joseph Purcell of the Ball family plantations Kensington and Hyde Park (Acc. 4490.1), a ladle marked by Charleston silversmiths John and Peter Mood (Acc. 4490.3), a two-volume set of The History of America by William Robertson (Philadelphia, 1812) inscribed “John Ball” and “Mathurin G. Gibbs” (Acc. 4490.6), a portrait of Elias Ball II by Jeremiah Theus (Acc. 2739), and a Neoclassical side chair, Acc. 950.17.