Furniture crafted by a free black cabinetmaker in the antebellum South still exists today.
DINWIDDIE COUNTY – If you’re a fan of furniture, you know his name. This cabinetmaker built some of the most ornate furnishings of the antebellum period. His wedding plans even caused a state’s General Assembly to hold a special session, in order to approve a request from his wife. If you find a piece he designed now in 2020, people will line up to start a bidding war. That’s Thomas Day’s impact. And yet, in his time the Virginia native couldn’t vote, own a gun or deliver a sermon.
Born a free black man in 1801 in Dinwiddie County, Day was one of 30,570 freedmen in the 1810 census. He and his family made up less than 10% of the African American population in the Commonwealth. Those enslaved in the 1810 census totaled 392,518, over one-third of the state’s total population.
His father, John Day, Sr., also worked as a cabinetmaker. In the early 1800s, the term cabinetmaker didn’t only denote making cabinets. Instead, it referenced woodworking of all sorts, shapes and sizes.
Thomas learned the trade from his father, but that’s not where his schooling stopped. He and his older brother, John Day, Jr., received a private education. Less than 15 years later, Virginia banned the practice. In fact, the state banned any schooling where Black students learned how to read or write.
In 1817, the Day family moved from Virginia to North Carolina. Not long after, the brothers went into business together, making furniture. John Jr. eventually moved back to Virginia, and later Liberia, but Thomas remained in North Carolina as an established cabinetmaker, just across the state line in Milton. His work, however, continued to have an impact in the Commonwealth.
For the next decade, Thomas built his brand. He crafted dressers, bureaus, sofas, chairs, chests, bed frames, side tables – anything wood could make.
“I think it was just at a period of time in architectural history where it was that empire period. Everything was big, and bulky, and bold, and beautiful and made a statement,” said Hosanna Blanchard, a member of the Thomas Day House and Union Tavern Restoration board. “He was really known for statement pieces. He didn’t make your everyday kitchen stuff or, like, everyday furniture. The furniture he did was really your statement stuff.”
Blanchard explained that owning a Thomas Day piece showed prominence.
“People with any kind of money really wanted those statement pieces that stood out as a symbol of their status and their wealth and their education. Being able to read and being educated at that time was a pretty big deal, too,” Blanchard said. “People wanted something to be able to show that off, so he just kind of figured out that niche market, I think, and really capitalized on it.”
That included interest from the same Virginia landowners who condemned schools that educated Black students. Now Thomas’s products
Thomas also entered prominent homes where he completed architectural work. Throughout North Carolina and southern Virginia, he adorned manor homes with scroll designs on the stairwell, intricate newel posts, bold mantles and elaborate recessed bookcases.
While working in a Halifax County home, Thomas met a young woman named Aquilla Wilson. They fell in love. When the two discussed marriage, one thing stood in their way: the law.
Even though Wilson was a free black woman just above the Virginia state line, Thomas was a free black man just below the North Carolina state line. The approximately 25 miles between the two individuals created a problem.
“I think the white population was afraid there was going to be a slave uprising because there had been slave uprisings in other places. Leading up to the Civil War, there was a lot of fear that that would happen,” Blanchard said. “So North Carolina was making all kind of laws about travel and voting and property ownership and all kinds of things restricting African American people from being able to do these things.”
Thomas threatened to leave North Carolina to marry Wilson. The Milton townspeople weren’t having it.
“He said, ‘Well, if I can’t move her to North Carolina with me, I will leave Milton and I will go to Virginia to be with her,’” Blanchard said. “That’s when the folks in Milton said, ‘Oh no! We don’t want you to go. We want you to stay here.’”
The situation made it all the way to the General Assembly, where state Attorney General and lawmaker Romulus Saunders testified in Thomas’s favor.
With the outpouring of support, the General Assembly granted Wilson special permission to move to the state.
In the 1840s, Thomas purchased the Union Tavern building, which he used as a workshop and home.
An unfortunate ending
As the Civil War loomed and tensions rose, Thomas’s successful business suffered. The national bank crisis of 1857 didn’t help matters. Thomas suffered from those indebted to him who could no longer pay for their purchases, a blow from which he never financially recovered.
In 1861, the man who defied all odds died penniless, buried on private property the family owned. A pile of stones marked his grave for many years, but a proper marker now pays homage.
His son, Thomas Day, Jr., operated the shop for approximately 10 years after the proprietor passed away.
Even though Thomas and John opened their Milton shop around 1820, furniture produced there still exists today. And it’s not as scarce as some might think, even being 200 years old.
Thomas used certain elements in his pieces.
First, there’s the telltale S-scroll. There are examples of the curved feature adorning the original church pews of the Milton Baptist Church. Thomas created the pews in good faith that he and his family could sit in the same space as the white congregation – a business deal that the church granted.
Then, there are the iron keyholes. Featured directly in the middle of bureaus and dressers, owners could lock away valuables or keep others out of their unmentionables.
Thomas also paid attention to the legs, which were almost always ornamental. Whether featuring turned wooden elements or taking on his famous scroll design, what the piece stood on mattered. For couches, sturdy footings often met wavy elements.
“Also, it was the way in which that he joined the drawers. There was a really particular, very detailed, very delicate way that he would join joints,” Blanchard said. “He was a jointer, which means he didn’t use nails and screws and things. I think there are some pegs that he used, but nothing was nailed or screwed. It was expertly joined together with these dovetail joints. They’re very fine, very delicate. That’s one telltale sign.”
The wood and varnish also matter – the glue he used, Thomas made by hand.
“There’s some forensic types of things that can test the varnish to see if it was in that period of time that he was using certain varnishes,” Blanchard said. “There’s only a handful of people that can actually do the things and verify that yes, this is Thomas Day.”
Sitting on a treasure
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, a book by Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, showcases 160 pieces Thomas crafted. In addition, 80 homes in Virginia and North Carolina host distinctive architectural elements by the cabinetmaker.
Unfortunately, there’s no true estimate of how many pieces still exist.
“There is no way, absolutely no way to know,” Blanchard said.
However, there could be a lot more than people suspect.
“At the height of his business, he was the largest furniture producer in North Carolina,” Blanchard said. “It’s potentially thousands of pieces that are floating around out there that we don’t even really know for sure, that haven’t really been verified.”
Part of the issue arises because he hardly ever signed his work. Unless an item comes with provenance or ephemera – like an original bill of sale – it’s hard to prove that it came from Thomas’s shop. Even with the most intricate testing, the best a modern-day collector could get would be attributing a piece to Thomas Day.
“I think the main hallmark is just the detail and the quality of what he would do,” Blanchard said.
If someone came across an original piece – and went through the attribution process – a $50 yard sale find could turn into a small fortune. Thomas Day’s work ranges on eBay from just under $1,700 to $5,400. At Leland Little Auctions in North Carolina, a high bidder paid $7,000 in 2015 for a signed Thomas Day dresser.
For those curious about Thomas Day – and whether or not they might own a piece of his furniture – Blanchard encouraged reaching out to the North Carolina Museum of History.
Tours at the Thomas Day House and Union Tavern in Milton are postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]