Desk and Bookcase
Attributed to John Goddard, cabinetmaker
Desk and Bookcase, 1760-1785
Mahogany, cedar, yellow poplar, pine
256.5 x 106.7 x 61 cm (101 x 42 x 24 inches)
Bequest of Mr. Charles L. Pendleton 04.042
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and CollectionsAmerican Furniture In Pendleton House
Edited ByPhillips, Janet, ed.
Contributions byMonkhouse, Christopher P., and Thomas S. Michie
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design., 1986
TypeExhibition CatalogueA Handbook of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Edited ByWoodward, Carla M., and Franklin W. Robinson, eds.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1988
TypeMonographs and Collections
About the work
In the colonial and early Federal eras, the parlors of American homes often served as multi-purpose spaces for dining, socializing with friends, and conducting business transactions. The furniture used in these mixed-use rooms, such as this Rhode Island–made desk and bookcase, was designed to take on many functions. This piece provided its owners with a place to write as well as a locked safe that held the ledgers and records for the family business. It also may have stored books, money, valuables, weapons, or silverware.
Cabinetmakers in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, became renowned in the late 18th century for incorporating shells and other natural forms into their furniture, creating uniquely American works of art that at the same time were stylistically similar to pieces favored by wealthy English homeowners. Such innovations allowed American patrons to purchase American-made furniture that matched pieces purchased in Europe. This particular example stands out not only because it is one of the few six-shell desk and bookcase combinations from the era still in existence, but also because of the expense of the mahogany wood used to make it.
This one object was made to serve multiple functions in an 18th-century New England parlor. If you owned this piece of furniture, what would you use it for? In today’s homes and classrooms, various types of furniture do the things this one piece can do. What are some examples of contemporary furniture with multiple purposes?
The exterior of the desk and bookcase is made of imported mahogany wood, while the interior is made of inexpensive woods such as cedar, pine, and chestnut. To learn more about the trade and use of mahogany, ask your students to investigate the sources for this valuable resource. Where was it produced? How it was cultivated and traded? How did this affect the environment and the communities involved?
Between 1760 and 1790, it is likely that the craftsmen who constructed this desk and bookcase made a total of four of them, one each for the four brothers—Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses—in the Brown family of Providence. What might this say about the Brown family? How could they afford to pay for these expensive desks? In what businesses might the family have engaged? Discuss your reasons, then research to find the answers.
The Townsend-Goddard business, a collaboration between two families, is one example of how furniture was designed and made in the 18th century. In our own times, there are countless objects produced through collaborations between designers, makers, and manufacturers. Ask students to brainstorm a list of products that can be made collaboratively. Then, ask them to choose one product to research the different roles of the designers and makers involved, and the nature of their collaboration.
Think about what pieces of furniture could be combined to make one large multi-purpose piece. What material would you use so that the piece is both profitable to make and affordable for your clients? To whom would you market it, and how? Make a sketch of your design.
Bulletin of the Rhode Island School of Design, vol. XXVI, no. 1. Providence: RISD, 1938.
Christopher P. Monkhouse, Thomas S. Michie, and John M. Carpenter. American Furniture in Pendleton House. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1986, 97–101.
Charles Rappleye. Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.