Review by Kemble Widmer
The Cabinetmaker’s Account: John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718–1753, Jay Robert Stiefel

Jay Robert Stiefel. The Cabinetmaker’s Account: John Head’s Record of Craft and Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718–1753. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Press, 2019. xxi + 298 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., appendix, bibliography, index. $85.00.

The discovery of any eighteenth-century cabinetmaker’s account book or ledger is a rare and momentous occasion in the decorative arts community, but particularly for students and researchers of early American furniture. This book ascends to the top level of publications in this area. Its importance is described best by noted English researcher Adam Bowett in the foreword: “The John Head account book is the earliest and most complete record of a cabinetmaker’s work to have survived either in North America or in Great Britain” (p. xvii).

The publication of the Head account book would not have achieved its full impact without two critical elements: the commitment by the American Philosophical Society to publishing as complete a record as possible of every element of the book’s journal entries as researched by Jay Robert Stiefel, and the comprehensive knowledge of Philadelphia’s colonial history that the author was able to apply in researching and writing the book.

Head’s accounts are part of the large Vaux Family Papers collection of documents donated to the society in 1992. They contain seven generations of manuscripts recording a Quaker family’s relations with Philadelphia’s elite merchant class. The collection, which contains documents dating prior to the Revolution, took some time to be fully catalogued due to its extensive size and time constraints. During an initial research trip to examine the Vaux files, Stiefel discovered the John Head account book in May 1999.

Not only did Jay Stiefel discover Head’s ledgers, but he is uniquely qualified to research and interpret their contents. A lawyer by profession and lifelong resident of Philadelphia, he has been an avid collector and researcher of the city’s history and decorative arts for the past thirty years. As a result, his contacts in the Philadelphia area are extensive, enabling him access to both private and public collections and manuscripts. His legal training, enabling him to pay close attention to the minutest detail, has resulted in extensive documentation of all aspects of Head’s life between 1718 and 1753, creating a book that sheds new light on colonial life during the first half of the eighteenth century. Although furniture is a major component, this is not just a book about furniture making in Philadelphia. Stiefel takes Head’s transactions and examines them in light of the reason for the entry, its implication for both Head and the other party to the transaction, its date, and its cost. But that is only the beginning of his work. He then examines every conceivable path of research that the transaction may disclose. It is difficult to imagine a book more carefully annotated. In addition to the normal reference sources from manuscripts and books, the footnotes document every conversation of importance with colleagues and professional historical staff members. The latter is extremely important for follow-up research in the wide range of subjects covered. The American Philosophical Society is to be commended for encouraging the inclusion of this level of reference sources.

A major objective of furniture research as a result of the discovery of cabinetmakers accounts is to tie surviving objects to specific entries in the account book. When one example is confirmed as being made by the craftsman, it inevitably leads to the confirmation of other objects of the same form being manufactured in the shop. Furniture manufactured in Philadelphia during the early to mid-eighteenth century is generally acknowledged to be unequaled in artistic design among connoisseurs and is eagerly sought in the marketplace. Three well-known conservators—Alan Miller, Alan Anderson, and Chris Storb—have collectively seen or worked on the majority of Philadelphia pieces in public and private collections or available to the market. They have made significant contributions to the book in discussing construction aspects of many of the entries. To date, more than sixty objects have been attributed to the John Head shop as a result of their work and Stiefel’s research.

The first chapter, “The Discovery of the John Head Account Book,” discusses the research project Stiefel initially had volunteered for—documenting a dressing table with a Benjamin Franklin provenance and a desk with an unbroken line of descent from John Head Jr. Both objects were in possession of the Vaux family. The chapter also documents the progression of publications connected to the discovery as more information was released.

The second chapter, “An Elusive ‘Joyner,’” is an illustration of the persistence and attention to detail that characterizes the project. During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia, as well as many other American coastal cities, experienced a large influx of immigrant craftsmen from Europe, most fleeing oppressive conditions or searching for a more secure life. Surviving records from this time are scarce if they ever existed. Although John Head had been identified as a “Joyner” in his will and is one of a hundred woodworkers listed in Horner’s Blue Book, there was little knowledge outside the Vaux family of his trade as a cabinetmaker—and certainly no recognition of the length of his practice in Philadelphia nor the prominence of his furniture. He was not listed among the Freeman’s rolls in Philadelphia, nor does he appear as an appraiser of any woodworker’s probate inventory. Since Head’s original will and probate inventory have been lost, it is likely that he would have remained in obscurity without the discovery of his ledger. The second portion of this chapter discusses, in exquisite detail, Head’s life in England and those of his ancestors prior to his immigration in 1717.

The following chapter outlines why this account book is so important. A number of other cabinetmakers’ ledgers have been discovered over the years, most from the latter half of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Surviving business records from Head’s era are not only scarce but fragmentary, most covering only a few years of a working career. In contrast, Head’s accounts document his entire time in Philadelphia and cover a span of thirty-five years. Of equal importance to this documented longevity is his client base and the quality of furniture he produced: the pinnacle of the late baroque style in Philadelphia.

Other southeastern Pennsylvania furniture makers and their surviving records, primarily probate inventories, are discussed in detail, but Steifel’s research fills in key pertinent information not available in inventories. Names, dates of purchase, object descriptions, and how and when payments were received are usually recorded. But the continuity of Head’s entries also provides the opportunity for tracking trends in pricing, the decline or introduction of specific forms of furniture, and the interrelationship over time of the entire city’s artisan community. There follows an extensive discussion of why so little surviving Philadelphia furniture from the early eighteenth century can be attributed to specific makers. Although the above factors are of interest to scholars, the most important result arising from any account book’s discovery is the connection made between an entry and a surviving piece of furniture. To know when a piece was made, to whom it was sold, how much it cost, and to be able to study the object in detail in comparison to other objects of like design are the ultimate objectives of any researcher. If Head had only possessed an average skill at his craft, primarily selling output to Philadelphia’s middle-class community, his ledger would have been important from a historical standpoint but would probably have resulted in a low number of surviving pieces. But he was not of average skill, which was recognized by the importance of his clientele, who demanded and received superior craftsmanship. His customers ranked among the highest level of Philadelphia society. Heirlooms, highly venerated by descendants, account for the survival, as mentioned, of at least sixty objects attributed to the Head shop. The confluence of all these factors defines this book’s importance.

The fourth chapter discusses business practices of Head’s shop that could apply to any other mercantile establishment during his era. The barter economy, economic circumstances in Philadelphia at time of his immigration and subsequent career, and a detailed explanation of currency in use are covered. Head was a stickler for detail in making entries. That allows Stiefel to explore the story behind transactions and bring to life everyday occurrences.

Chapter 5, devoted to the account book as artifact, is a useful primer for any researcher studying an early eighteenth-century document. If a tradesperson had little or no education, he or she often spelled phonetically, mirroring how the person spoke. Deciphering paragraphs becomes even more challenging if the phonetic spelling has been influenced by the dialect of the writer, as was the case with Head. Fortunately, the author explains both the problem and his approach to fully understanding the transaction. He points out that it takes time and patience, sometimes requiring visiting indecipherable entries numerous times in order to maximize an accurate interpretation. One complicating factor in the account book is the use of Julian dates in listing a transaction; later entries use Georgian dates. The author introduces the topic and interprets consistent dates throughout the book.

The depth of Stiefel’s research is best illustrated in chapter 6, “Business Conducted at the Shop.” The author traces the evolution of Head the cabinetmaker toward becoming a merchant and subsequently a wealthy property holder. That transition is covered in detail and includes an extended discussion of his offspring’s occupations and their interconnectivity. Many cabinetmakers during this period aspired to develop a mercantile source of income. Making furniture was a hard, physical occupation that only became more difficult with age. More importantly, it was a profession dependent on the economic cycle. An alternative source of income to furniture production was not only desirable but a necessity during long periods of economic decline. One of Head’s assumed apprentices, Thomas Maule, is also identified. This chapter illustrates the logical assumptions that can be drawn from the minute details of an account book entry.

The discussion of John Head’s transition from an immigrant woodworker to a wealthy landowner continues in this section. Topics covered include the extent of his real estate holdings, rents paid and received, construction of his houses, and continued property development. As other people and trades are introduced in journal entries, their background and relationship to Head are considered. The discussion is extended by drawing -conclusions from entries related to furnishing his home, food and drink consumed (chapter 10), dress and personal adornment (chapter 11), and livestock and transport (chapter 12).

An entire chapter is devoted to noted Philadelphia pewterer Simon Edgell. The account book documents business conducted between Head and Edgell from 1719 to 1732 and discloses the types of pewter forms Edgell manufactured as well as some aspects of Edgell’s personal life. Of particular interest to specialists are the prices charged for specific forms, as no price list from the period exists. It is indicative of Head’s early reputation in Philadelphia that some of his most expensive furniture was sold to Philadelphia’s most prominent pewterer.

Having covered many aspects of thirty-two years of colonial life in Philadelphia, the reader is introduced to John Head’s furniture, commencing with a discussion of “Shop Materials, Components, and Equipment,” followed in the succeeding chapter by a discussion of other woodworking activities. Like many cabinetmakers of his time, Head evidently did not build chairs in the shop but depended on the specialized skill of chair making and turning. Due to the early period covered in these accounts, several unknown chair makers have come to light. Six chair makers are mentioned, with Head acting as a middleman in many transactions. Since no price book exists for these utilitarian objects, Head’s accounts are particularly valuable to researchers in indicating a standard price for a set of six slat-back chairs.

As previously mentioned, for furniture specialists the ultimate objective of any discovery of a cabinetmaker’s accounts is to connect a specific entry with an existing object. Chapter 16 starts this process. Three surviving case pieces of furniture sold to Caspar Wistar—a high chest and dressing table (1726), and a tall-case clock with works by William Stretch (1730)—are documented in Head’s accounts and form the basis of attribution for many other pieces of furniture. No stone is left unturned in listing the full line of descent for each piece. Fortunately, all three are of superior design and condition and were sold to one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizens. They firmly established John Head’s position in Philadelphia’s cabinetmaking community. A close relationship between Head and prominent clock-makers Peter and William Stretch is also explored.

The chapter ends with a look at external design features that distinguish Head’s work from other contemporaries in Philadelphia. What is particularly refreshing here is the acknowledgment that despite the comprehensive information provided by the ledgers, we still don’t have all the answers. Stiefel discusses differences of opinion among his specialist advisors and presents pros and cons to open questions.

Serious students of early American furniture will find chapters 16 and 17 (“To a Chest of Drawers” and “To a Chamber Table”) must reading. The object that accounts for more entries than any other furniture form is a chest of drawers, some two hundred examples if my count is correct. This term would apply to those objects that are today called chests, chest-on-chests, and high chests. The author covers every aspect of these entries and classifies them according to today’s nomenclature. Since most of the entries are the generic “chest of drawers,” and the type of wood is seldom listed, the price debited becomes the all-important factor in attempting to segregate form, wood, and embellishment. This is a difficult task, but Stiefel’s conclusions are thoroughly reasoned. Specific forms are discussed as to quantity produced, surviving examples, the indicated wood used in construction, noted sales to Philadelphia citizens, hardware, chalk inscriptions, and—when possible—the transition dates of one form superseded by another. Internal construction characteristics of the shop are described. Of necessity, the text consists of numerous prices and examples that are the basis for the type of chest produced, but the discussion is often confusing to the reader. A summary chart of assumed form, with a breakdown of wood and embellishment, would have helped in understanding different categories. Many people reading this book also may not be fully conversant in woodworking terms: dado, pins and tails of dovetails, and so forth. Small sketches of examples of specialized furniture terms would have been a nice addition.

Most objects illustrated in this chapter incorporate ball feet. At least three and possibly more foot profiles are shown, but it is not stated in each case as to whether the feet are original or restored replacements. For example, chests in figures 17.1 and 17.3 are described as having original feet, but they are of substantially different profile. Did Head refine his turning of feet over time, or did he distinguish between inexpensive and higher-priced pieces in the use of different foot profiles?

Stiefel’s analysis of Head’s furniture raises several other intriguing questions. For example, why were so few of his case pieces veneered during the second quarter of the eighteenth century (compared, for example, to New England objects of the same period)? It is also noteworthy that furniture made of cherry and cedar was priced at a premium above that of walnut and was comparable in price to mahogany. (Although it commanded a premium price, there is evidence that cedar did not deserve its reputation for repelling insects.)

Chapters are devoted in whole or in part to tables; beds; desks and secretaries; corner cupboards, presses, cradles, and close stools; small chests; miscellaneous articles; and coffins. Unfortunately, no example of any of these forms could firmly be attributed to the Head shop. The author gleans as much information as the account book allows, and the chapters follow the outline in the balance of the book: quantities sold at specific prices (with speculation as to wood used and complexity of form), and the customers (and as much miscellaneous information concerning them as could be determined).

The most comprehensive discussion of a furniture form is covered in chapter 20, “To a Clock Case.” It is the best example of the author’s diligence in documenting every lead offered by the account book. Characteristics of clock case construction are explained, as are the different levels of design categorized by price charged. Stiefel breaks down when specific forms were introduced; for example, the arched-dial clock was first sold in 1721, much earlier than has been generally recognized. Other features of the clock case that help in dating are analyzed. Five Philadelphia clockmakers are listed by Head in addition to the city’s most important clockmakers, the Stretch family. An interesting aspect of these discussions reveals that several surviving clocks have Head cases, but the works are by English artisans not listed in his ledgers.

After twenty years of documenting his cabinet work for Philadelphia’s citizens, John Head made his last entry on December 27, 1744. Stiefel notes that Head’s writing had become infirm and speculates on his general health and the decline in his business in the final chapter.

In summary, this book represents a decade of dedicated effort by Jay Robert Stiefel and the unwavering support of the American Philosophical Society in documenting every thread of knowledge that could be teased from the discovery and analysis of the account books of Philadelphian John Head. Not only are his cabinetmaking and mercantile interests continuously recorded between 1718 and 1753, but his place in cabinetmaking history has ascended from that of a virtually unknown maker to that of a superior craftsman. As a consequence, many surviving examples of furniture have been attributed to his shop, and it is a virtual certainty that more will be identified in the future.

However, one topic deserves further study and should yield rewarding results: the exploration of connections between a marriage and the purchase of case pieces, particularly tables, chests of drawers, chairs, and beds. This is particularly important because research on New England colonial buying habits has indicated a high percentage of these items were tied either directly to the married couple or close relatives. These acquisitions generally occurred six months prior to a marriage date but up to a year afterwards if a house was being built for the new couple. It is very difficult to tie tables and the few surviving beds to a specific shop due to the lack of shared construction characteristics for objects containing drawers or a chest frame, but knowledge of the buying habits surrounding a marriage may lead to attributions of these elusive forms.[1]

Students of colonial decorative arts will find this book rich in detail and brimming with hitherto unknown facts; it also provides a clear path to further discoveries as a result of its extensive footnote references. One reading of the book is insufficient to absorb its voluminous content, and it is sure to be a key reference in any library.

Kemble Widmer
Newburyport, Massachusetts


See, for example, Elisabeth Garrett Widmer, “Brides, Housewives, and Hostesses: Acquiring, Using, Caring for, and Enjoying Mr. Gould’s Furniture,” in Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, et al., In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum in association with D Giles Ltd., London, 2014), pp. 47–65.

American Furniture 2019


  • [1]

    See, for example, Elisabeth Garrett Widmer, “Brides, Housewives, and Hostesses: Acquiring, Using, Caring for, and Enjoying Mr. Gould’s Furniture,” in Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, et al., In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum in association with D Giles Ltd., London, 2014), pp. 47–65.