Fig. 1: The Sarah Slocum Chippendale mahogany block-and-shell carved chest-of-drawers labeled by John Townsend (1732-1809), Newport, dated 1792. Photo courtesy of Christie’s, Inc.

Block-fronts have long been recognized as masterpieces of eighteenth century American craftsmanship and design and they quicken the pulse of dealers, curators and collectors. They feature prominently in full-page ads in trade publications and booths at top antique shows, as well as in auction catalogues, which feature lengthy descriptions and glossy illustrations of them. Rarely offered for sale, block-fronts lead today’s American antiques market, witnessed by the fact that five of the top most expensive pieces of American furniture ever sold were block-fronts with secure histories of origin. Every major museum and private collection boasts some type of block-front form from Boston, Newport, or New London County, Connecticut, which were the three major centers of production.

A block-front is a piece of case furniture with a symmetrical, undulating facade made up of three vertical blocks: two of them bowed or convex and one curved in or concave. The facade is ideally carved from a solid piece of wood, typically an expensive exotic wood such as mahogany or sabico, although block-fronts made of other primary woods survive which prove manufacture outside of the coastal urban centers. The blocked front serves no functional purpose and scholars have generally agreed that the costly pieces were made as status symbols for their wealthy owners.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Colonial America consisted of a small number of large, coastal, urban centers and smaller, rural towns. Coastal cities with large ports received imported goods and fashions from Europe and other foreign lands that were then distributed among the surrounding areas. Those involved with the trade and distribution of these goods often became extremely wealthy and could afford to imitate the sophisticated fashions of England and Europe. These and other socially elite men patronized local cabinetmakers who were aware of fashionable European styles and who could obtain the exotic woods necessary for their pieces.

Cabinetmaking in America was based upon an apprenticeship system that fostered and encouraged the development of regional characteristics. Cabinetmakers passed their own designs and techniques down to their apprentices, who, in turn, taught the next generation what they had learned. Coastal, urban craftsmen had access to shipments of imported, exotic lumber and they became skilled at working with the hard, expensive wood. The process of making block-front furniture is expensive, as the undulating facade was usually cut from a solid piece of wood using a template. The cutaway lumber was subsequently useless. The expense incurred to produce these objects was so high that pieces were made only to order, and clients would have been able to specify design particulars.

Fig. 2: Chippendale carved cherrywood block-front chest of three drawers, New London County, Connecticut, circa 1770-1790. Photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc., now in a private collection.

Research indicates that the block-front was a uniquely American form. Although similar designs for block-front furniture were published in 1762 in the third edition of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman & Cabinet-maker’s Director, it was a form that was perfected and manufactured extensively in America and rarely seen in England. Block-front production began in Boston, with the earliest documented piece being a block-fronted desk-and-bookcase made and signed by Job Coit and his son, Job Coit, Jr. in 1738. Boston cabinetmakers such as George Bright (1726-1805), Benjamin Frothingham (1734-1809) and John Cogswell (1738-1818) continued to make furniture in the block-front tradition until about 1780, each with their own specific characteristics.

Block-front production, in the opinion of several scholars, reached perfection in the Goddard-Townsend workshops of Newport, Rhode Island. The families of John and James Goddard and Job and Christopher Townsend were craftsmen who worked as house and ship joiners as well as cabinetmakers. John Townsend made the earliest labeled block-front, a document chest, in 1756 and the Townsend-Goddard workshops continued to produce furniture in Newport until the early 1800s. The Goddard and Townsend families intermarried frequently and created a tightly knit network of craftsmen that resisted changes in styles of design, as witnessed by the relatively few variations that were made over the entire course of production.

The third large center of block-front production existed in New London County, Connecticut, from 1770-1815. A period of economic prosperity in this region followed the Revolution, and many local residents were able to afford expensive pieces of furniture. Cabinetmakers in Connecticut, such as Samuel Loomis (1748-1814) and Benjamin Burnham (1737-1773), looked to Boston, Newport and even Philadelphia as design sources, although in block-front production they appear to have followed Rhode Island precedents. This can be attributed, in part, to the close geographical proximity between Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as the Connecticut River, which provided a means for travel and trade. Each of these three regions retained distinct and individual characteristics that continue to help identify unsigned and unlabeled pieces.

Block-fronted forms include desk-and-bookcases, slant-lid desks, kneehole desks, chests of drawers, chests-on-chests, high chests, dressing tables, pier tables, tea tables, card tables, and tall-case clocks. Suites or matching pairs were infrequently made, due to the tremendous expense incurred in their production, and it is extremely rare to find pairs that survive. A rare pair of Boston mahogany Chippendale chests-of-drawers that were passed down in the Bartlet family were recently found and are now in a private collection. This pair was singularly unique in that the chests matched each other in every detail, from identical construction techniques to the two book-matched tops. The visible tool marks on the inside of each chest even confirmed that the same tools were used to make the chests.

Fig. 3: Chippendale mahogany block-front chest-of-drawers, attributed to George Bright (1726-1805), Boston, circa 1770 Photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc., now in a private collection.

Constructional and design similarities and differences can be seen more easily on different objects of the same form. For this purpose, three chests-of-drawers, one from each of the primary block-front centers of production, will be used as examples to identify regional characteristics. The first object in this comparison is a mahogany block-and-shell carved chest-of-drawers, labeled John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island and dated 1792 (Figure 1) that was auctioned at Christie’s in New York in June of 1998. The second piece is a rare Chippendale cherry block-front chest-of-drawers, attributed to New London County, Connecticut, dated from 1770 to 1790 (Figure 2). The third comparison is a block-front chest-of-drawers attributed to George Bright of Boston, with an approximate date of 1770 (Figure 3). The Boston and Connecticut chests-of-drawers were both sold by Wayne Pratt to private collectors.

Extensive research on block-front furniture asserts that Connecticut block-fronts followed Newport, rather than Boston, in their design and construction methods. This phenomenon was likely facilitated by trade routes and inland waterways through Rhode Island. The most recognizable similarity is the presence of carved shells on the Newport and Connecticut examples (Figs. 1 and 2). Newport chests usually have rectangular tops, compound or stepped cove molding underneath the tops, alternating convex and concave shells in the top drawer, visible dovetails securing drawer divides to the sides of the case, rounded blocking, and ogee-bracket feet with decorative scrolled returns. The bottom drawer runs on rails. Newport cabinetmakers typically used mahogany or sabico as primary woods, with cedar, chestnut or tulip poplar for the unseen secondary woods. The Connecticut chest differs slightly from the Newport example. The case has three drawers, rather than four and the corners of the case are embellished with a single flute. Spurred returns on the base of the chest, as well as the blocked and scrolled foot, are characteristics most frequently seen on New London County furniture. Parallels between the Connecticut and Newport chests are indicated by the presence of carved shells, square blocking and rail runners for the bottom drawer. Connecticut cabinetmakers usually worked in cherry and used white pine for secondary woods.

A quick look at the Boston chest (Figure 3) reveals startling differences from both the Newport and Connecticut block-fronts. Immediately noticeable is the lack of carved shells. The top is rectangular with a shaped front that imitates the profile of the chest and it joins the case immediately, without the transition of stepped or compound molding. In this chest, the blocking is rounded and begins in the top drawer and continues down to the base, which is ornamented with a single fanshaped drop pendant found only on pieces made in Boston or surrounding environs. The feet on this example are ogee-bracket feet. Figure 4 illustrates another example of block-front production from Massachusetts that features square blocking, straight bracket feet but lacks the fan drop pendant. A comparison of these two Massachusetts chests underscores the differences found in pieces made from the same region and it is important to remember that each piece is unique and may not have all of the characteristics of a particular region.

Boston and Newport varied in their construction techniques. The tops of Boston case pieces are secured to the case with a sliding dovetail, glue blocks or nails. The tops of Newport case pieces are usually secured with a butterfly cleat visible on the back of the case. Boston block-fronted case pieces almost always have a “giant dovetail” that joins the base molding to the base boards. This is visible if the bottom drawer is removed.The bottom drawer runs on the carcass bottom, whereas the giant dovetail is missing in the Newport case pieces and in its place is a recessed area, or well, between the bottom drawer and the carcass bottom.

Fig. 4: Chippendale cherrywood block-front chest-of-drawers, school of Eliakim Smith, Northampton-Springfield area of Massachusetts, circa 1770-1790. Photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc., now in a private collection.

It is virtually impossible to recreate the block-fronts made in New England during the eighteenth century. The Central and South American and West Indian mahogany and sabico used then were from untouched rain forests with first-growth trees. These rain forests have since been depleted and most of the mahogany available today is of an inferior quality that does not have the same characteristics as the older wood. Although the majority of blockfront pieces sold by dealers or at auction in the past ten years have gone into private collections, public museums and collections continue to house some of the great masterpieces of block-front furniture. The Henry Francis DuPont Museum at Winterthur, Delaware owns the earliest signed block-front, the desk-and-bookcase made by Job Coit in 1738, as well as many other examples attributed to Newport, Connecticut and other areas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has the desk attributed to Benjamin Burnham of Colchester, Connecticut upon which most of the research on Connecticut blockfronts has been based. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a three-shell chest of drawers signed by John Townsend from 1765. For block-front furniture, the M. and M. Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has an unrivaled collection, featuring a kneehole desk by Edmund Townsend made from 1765 to 1775 and several other pieces attributed to Newport. The Preservation Society of Newport owns several pieces attributed to the Goddard-Townsend workshops, as does the Pendleton House collection of the Rhode Island School of Design and the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence. Other museums and collections include: the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland; Bayou Bend Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Chicago Art Museum, Chicago, Illinois; Chipstone Collection, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut; Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC; Layton Art Collection, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Philadelphia Art Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut; Yale University Art Museum, New Haven, Connecticut.

This article was written for the July/Agust issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine in 2000 when Wayne Pratt, Inc., a premier dealership specializing in eighteenth century American furniture, was in operation. The company closed in 2007 with Wayne’s passing.  

Madelia Hickman Ring wrote this article when working at Wayne Pratt, Inc. She is currently a specialist in American Furniture, Folk Art and Decorative Arts and is a member of Bonham's Furniture & Decorative Arts Department, based in their New York office. She works closely with the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices to source Americana, as well as English and Continental furniture and decorative arts, for sale in New York.