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On view

Sofa Table

Attributed to: James Miller (active New York, New York, c.1823-1855)

Date: c. 1846
Medium: Mahogany, Cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminata), eastern white pine, yellow-poplar, cherry, black walnut
Dimensions:
Overall: Open position: 27 5/8 x 52 1/8 x 26in. (70.2 x 132.4 x 66cm)
Overall: Closed position: 27 5/8 × 33 7/8 × 26in. (70.2 × 86 × 66cm)
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 422
Label Text
With the proliferation of printed English sources, the sofa-table form attained popularity in America in the early 1800s. Andrew Jackson Downing addressed the use of the sofa table in mid-nineteenth-century parlors in The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). He wrote, "in towns" the sofa table was replacing the center table because "scattered here and there in a room, [sofa tables] afford various gathering places for little conversation parties-while the center-table draws all talkers to a single focus."

Despite Downing's endorsement of the sofa table as the emblem of the evening party, the surviving number of center tables (often purchased as part of a parlor suite) is a clear indication that they were considered more fashionable than sofa tables.

When purchasing furniture for his home, Jams Watson Williams of Utica paid $45 for this table. A hand-written invoice survives and is in the MWPAI Archives.
Text Entries

With the proliferation of printed English sources, such as the designs of Thomas Sheraton, the sofa table form gained acceptance in America during the first decades of the 1800s.(1) In his Cabinet Dictionary (1803), Sheraton described this type of table as being “used before a sofa . . . generally made between 5 and 6 feet long, and from 22 [inches] to 2 feet broad; the frame is divided into two drawers;” he added that “ladies chiefly occupy them to draw, write, or read upon.”(2) In the following decades numerous English and American cabinetmakers included sofa tables in their repertoires. Although the form was less common after midcentury, two “Grecian forms of the sofa-table” are included in Andrew Jackson Downing’s Architecture of Country Houses (1850). The line drawings depict economical variations of the table; Downing explained that “more fanciful ones” could be “easily attained.” He also observed that “in towns” the sofa table was replacing the center table because “scattered here and there in a room, [sofa tables] afford various gathering places for little conversation parties—while the centre-table draws all talkers to a single focus.”(3) He christened the sofa table the emblem of the evening party.

The attribution of the MWPI sofa table to James Miller is based on a surviving bill of sale (fig. 27). In 1846 James Watson Williams purchased from Miller “one sofa table” for forty-five dollars and “one hat stand” for fifteen dollars.(4) Presumably these pieces were to furnish the Utica, New York, home Williams was establishing with his bride, Helen Munson. Although the hat stand does not survive, the sofa table remained in the family’s possession until 1935 when the entire family collection became a part of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art.(5)

Miller is one of hundreds of cabinetmakers whose work is nearly lost to contemporary scholars. He worked in New York City from about 1823 to 1855 and relocated his shop several times; he was doing business at 441 James Miller to James Watson Williams, 1846. MWPI Archives. Broadway from 1828 to 1851.(6) Because of the limited number of pieces that can be attributed to him, MWPI’s sofa table is a rare entity. It provides vital information on the quality of his craftsmanship and on the types of items produced in his shop.

In fashioning this table Miller may have been influenced by early nineteenth-century English sources. Or he may have relied on American design books—often blatant copies of English or French publications that were issued in large cities, such as New York and Philadelphia. The discovery of an example printed in upstate New York demonstrates the broad dissemination of these design sources. The MWPI table resembles plate 74 in Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary but also parallels objects illustrated in Robert Conner’s Cabinet Makers Assistant, published in Buffalo, New York, in 1842.(7) With simple S-curves and without drawers or leaves, Conner’s pattern for a sofa table is relatively unadorned. Drawers and drop—leaves, however, were incorporated into his sketch of a library table.(8)

MWPI’s table is a simple interpretation of the form. The smooth, flat horizontal and vertical surfaces display the rich grain of the mahogany veneer. The narrow drop-leaves increase the length of the table by barely twenty inches. False drawer fronts give the appearance of four drawers, two on each side of the table. In reality, there are only two deep drawers; one opens on one side of the table and the other on the opposite side. C-shaped leg braces and the two abutting-urn shapes that constitute the stretcher lighten the effect of the unassuming rectilinear top. A line of beading under the drawers and turned ornamental disks on the ends of the brackets and at the center of the stretcher are the only enriching details.

 

1. Charles F. Montgomery noted that “most known examples appear to have been made in New York where the form is first listed in the price book of 1810." See his American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 352.

2. Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary (1803; reprint, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), pp. 305-6, plate 74.

3. Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, as reprinted in John C. Freeman, comp., Furniture for the Victorian Home (Watkins Glen, N.Y.: American Life Foundation, 1968), p. 59.

4. Invoice, James Miller to]. Watson Williams, Nov. 4, 1846, MWPI Archives.

5. For additional information on the formation of the MWPI decorative arts collection, see the introductory essay to this catalogue.

6. The address noted on the Williams invoice is 441 Broadway. In 1851-52 Miller is listed in New York City directories at 508 Broome Street as an upholsterer and from 1852-53 through 1854-55 at 108 Thompson Street also as an upholsterer. In the 1853-54 directory Miller's listing cites “upholsterer” and “daguerreotypes."

7. Robert Conner, The Cabinet Makers Assistant (Buffalo, N.Y.: Faxon 8c Read, 1842); see pp. 19 and 29 for similar table designs. Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del.

8. Conner, Cabinet Maker’s Assistant, plate 19.