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Pieces of a secret past debut in Philly

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition is long in name, “The Fix on Colonial Philadelphia Furniture: A Secret Guide to Cabinetmakers’ Prices,” but its pieces are not short on historical interest. On display now through Feb. 22, the exhibition is based on a 36-page book, “Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work,” published in 1772 by a group of Philadelphia master cabinetmakers.

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The book is the only remaining copy of the world’s first published furniture price book and reveals an array of furniture ranging from tables, chairs, chests and bookshelves to picture frames, ironing boards and even coffins. The values craftsmen assigned to various woods used, size of pieces and embellishments are also included as well as the wages to be paid to the journeymen who made the furniture.

“It’s a secret book not intended for widespread use. It’s not intended to be known by the client,” says Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, associate curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s tiny [3-3/4" x 6-1/8"] and fits into the apron of a cabinetmaker. And nowhere are you told who is publishing it because nobody wants to admit to it because what if they got caught?”

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“Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work” was known to 20th-century furniture scholars and collectors through two incomplete handwritten copies until the discovery in 2003 of the single surviving copy of the printed book, according to museum officials.

“People are really taken with the book, used as the primary source to delineate this furniture,” Kirtley says. “It’s sort of the human element of looking at each piece from the eye of the artist, the eye of the maker, and I think that’s really important.”

The exhibition features 23 pieces, including furniture from the museum’s permanent collection that is described in the book of prices. These include three large case pieces with three types of tops — flat, pitch pediment, and scroll pediment. Furniture built for Philadelphia merchant John Cadwalader and his wealthy wife, Elizabeth, is featured with a copy of its original bill showing prices from cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck.

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“I divided the exhibition into groups. There’s, of course, case furniture, which makes up the bulk, and it’s also the most interesting to people because it is the most complex and the most expensive,” adds Kirtley. “There’s seating furniture and tables, and I chose two sort of odd pieces. One is a cradle — everyone loves a cradle — and the other is a bottle case.”

The typical wage for a skilled laborer in Philadelphia in 1772 was about 10 shillings per day. Prices were given in pounds, shillings and pence. Because the currency fluctuated and bartering was common, it is impossible to attach a value to the pieces in the context of today’s pricing.

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Bennet & Bennett
The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass., is currently hosting two furniture exhibitions that feature works from traditional to contemporary. “Traditional Craftsmanship, Nontraditional Education: Works from the North Bennet Street School,” runs through Jan. 25 and focuses on the traditional craftsmanship the Boston school is renowned for along with new work from the students and alumnus of the school’s cabinet- and furniture making program.

The Gary Knox Bennett exhibit, “Call Me Chairmaker,” is concluding a more than two-year run at Fuller, featuring 52 sculptural chairs by the studio furniture maker from Oakland, Calif. It can be viewed through Feb. 8.

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Call for entries
The Worcester Center for Crafts is hosting a curated show/sale of wooden boxes and containers from March 12 through April 4. The selection of pieces for the show will be based on craftsmanship, originality and overall design success. Cash prizes will be awarded and the deadline to submit high resolution images is Feb. 1.

Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, MA 02301. Tel: 508-588-6000.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, P.O. Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646. Tel: 215-763-8100.
Worcester Center for Crafts, 25 Sagamore Rd., Worcester, MA 01605. Tel: 508-753-8183.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.

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