Phillis Wheatley's writing desk
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- MHS 225th Anniversary
This folding mahogany table may have been used by Phillis Wheatley while composing Poems on Various Subjects, Religous and Moral, the first book of poetry by a Black American, published in London in 1773. The frontispiece of Wheatley's Poems, engraved by Scipio Moorhead (the slave of Rev. John Moorhead) while Wheatley was visiting London, shows Wheatley writing at a round table. Our table, in a classic Chippendale style, was possibly given to Phillis by the family of John Wheatley of Boston, who purchased her as a slave in 1761 and then taught her to read English, Greek, and Latin. (Click here for a more detailed biography of Phillis Wheatley and for more information on the engraving). Following Wheatley's death in 1784, her possessions, including this writing desk, were sold at auction to pay her debts.
A card table, a tea table, a desk
The Wheatley table is made of plain mahogany and dates to about 1760. In probate inventories of the period, similar tables were often listed as a "card or tea table," attesting to their versatile nature. When not in use, they could be placed against a wall, and unfolded only when a larger surface was needed. This table has typical Chippendale characteristics such as cabriole legs with claw and ball feet and a symmetrical scrolled apron front. While it does not have a maker's label, its slender, graceful legs and tightly clenched claw and ball feet are characteristic of the work of Benjamin Frothingham, Jr., of Charlestown. However, furniture experts have concluded that it is the work of a different cabinetmaker. The back left leg swings outward to support the opened leaf of the tabletop. The apron front contains one small drawer that may have been used to hold playing cards. The stationary part of the tabletop is made from an unfinished half of a gaming table which has been turned upside down. The underside of the table has two oval depressions, which would have been used to hold game counters and has been carved to fit a felt top. The piece also has squared corners, which could have been used to hold candlesticks or wine glasses. Because mahogany was such a valuable wood, it would not have been unusual for a cabinetmaker to reuse it in this manner.
The origin of Wheatley's desk as a card table is interesting since, in the years surrounding the American Revolution, the card table was one place where gender and class barriers were broken. All classes of people played cards; in addition, men and women would often play cards together. It seems appropriate that Phillis Wheatley used as her writing desk a piece of furniture that symbolized the greater cultural and social revolution that was occurring in America.
One Local Cabinetmaker
Benjamin Frothingham, Jr. (1734-1809), was a cabinetmaker based in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Little is known about his life and work as a cabinetmaker, although he lost his dwelling, barn, and workshop in Charlestown to fire during the town's destruction by the British in 1775. During the American Revolution, Frothingham served as first lieutenant in Captain Joseph Chadwick's Company of Colonel Richard Gridley's Regiment, as company commander at the Springfield Armory, and as a captain in Colonel Crane's Regiment; he was eventually promoted to the position of major of artillery. After the war, Frothingham returned to Charlestown where he continued to work as a cabinetmaker until his death on 19 August 1809.
Suggestions for further reading:
Comstock, Helen, "Frothingham and the Question of Attributions." Antiques, 53 (June 1953): 505.
Green, Jeffrey P., American Furniture of the 18th Century. Newtown, Conn.: Tauton Press, 1996.
Hewitt, Benjamin, et al. The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America 1790-1820. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982.
Swan, Mabel M., " Antiques, 52 (November 1952): 392-395.
Whitehill, Walter Muir, ed., Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century. Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1974.