The Shop of Robert Stewart: Work and Wealth in the Antebellum Natchez Furniture Trade

The life and work of antebellum cabinetmaker Robert Stewart (1796–1866) spanned one 
of the most contentious periods in American history in one of the country’s most complex
places: Natchez, Mississippi, a river town of great diversity and incredible wealth. For
planters whose riches grew in sugar and cotton fields elsewhere, Natchez was a social
center where large, fashionable homes communicated success. In furnishing these homes,
and others from all levels of Natchez society, Stewart played a significant role in shaping
the community. His imported and locally made pieces created a unique material culture
that speaks to the town’s distinct identity—influenced by geography and slavery—as well as
its deep connection to the Northeast and the rest of the Atlantic world.

Stewart’s early life largely remains a mystery. Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania,
he likely learned cabinetmaking from a relative. (1) As a young adult, he set out with
his brother, Miller, for the southwest, eventually landing in Natchez by 1818, when
he first advertised his trade. (2) Throughout the 1820s, Miller remained a partner in
his brother’s Natchez store, R. & M. Stewart, but was also listed in Cincinnati
directories as operating a furniture business in that city. (3) Miller died in 1831, and
four years later Robert announced that he was closing his brother’s business. (4) Robert’s
connection with Cincinnati persisted, however, and throughout the antebellum
period he sold furniture from Cincinnati makers like Mitchell & Rammelsberg to
Natchez customers.

Undertaking, traditionally associated with cabinetmakers because of their
manufacture of coffins, played an important role in Stewart’s business. Coffins of
varying quality, from “plain pine” for the enslaved to cherry cases lined with fine
textiles, provided the artisan with a constant revenue stream, with receipts noting
yellow fever epidemics, natural disasters, and war. Undertaking allowed him to operate
among all classes and races in Natchez and expanded his prominence in the
community. Coffins were a significant product of the business in its earliest days,
when Stewart, rather than an apprentice or journeyman, most likely produced the
pieces himself. As a result, some of the clearest evidence of his hand as a craftsman
can only be found underground.

Fortunately, not all examples of his work are lost. A chest of drawers featuring
elaborately carved columns with scrolled capitals is one of two known pieces
signed by Stewart or his firm. The exuberant classicism of the chest as well as the
signature “R. & M. Stewart/Natchez” date this piece to before 1835, when
Robert stopped using his late brother’s initial. (5) Although the finish today is the
product of a modern restoration, Stewart did have access to imported mahogany
veneer, evidence that throughout the antebellum period, local craftsmen were making
and embellishing furniture, not just retailing imports.

Chest of drawers, Robert Stewart,
1828−35. Mahogany, unidentified secondary
woods. Courtesy of Historic Natchez Foundation

Signature on chest of drawers.

Robert Stewart’s business continued to expand and evolve up until his death, in 1866,
but it is unclear how much of his own hand is visible in extant pieces from the mid-
1830s onward. Utilizing the labor of, at times, dozens of apprentices, journeymen,
and hired enslaved men and women, Stewart documented the bustling activity of
his shop in his account books. Journeymen created everything from washstands to
secretaries. Dosia and Bob, likely enslaved, collected moss for mattresses and
upholstery. Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Sylvester made ticking for beds. Apprentices
installed bedsteads and ran deliveries from the river to the downtown store. Workers
from the shop made house calls, adding locks to furniture, a compulsion of a slave
society. Some of Stewart’s thirteen sons even trained in the furniture business; Samuel
made a sideboard, not yet located, which sold for $100, a high sum that suggests
costly wood and stylish details. (6) Robert Stewart may have signed the receipts, but
myriad hands produced the furniture from his firm.

One journeyman in particular, Harper Hamerton, brought considerable skill to
Natchez and to one of its most enviable residences. The furnishings of Melrose,
home of cotton planter John T. McMurran, highlights the ways in which the richest-of-
the-rich not only relied on Stewart to create their domestic statements of status
and power but also looked elsewhere to do so. For example, Stewart simply
“unboxed” Melrose’s striking, Gothic-revival dining chairs, likely made in Philadelphia.
Such furniture came to Natchez from major manufacturing and design
centers in the Northeast, with local retailers like Stewart taking advantage of the
river for transportation.

Bookcases, Harper Hamerton (possibly with Robert
Stewart), ca. 1848. Walnut, tulip-poplar, pine. Courtesy of
Historic Natchez Foundation

Dining table, possibly Robert Stewart, ca. 1835.
Cherry, cypress, unidentified softwoods. Courtesy of Historic
Natchez Foundation

Larger pieces, however—more like architectural elements than movable furniture—
required on-site manufacture and created opportunities for local cabinetmakers to
add their work to homes otherwise furnished with imported items. The Melrose
library’s towering walnut bookcases with imposing molded cornices appear in
Stewart’s account books as being made by Hamerton, who received $109 for his two-and-
a-half months’ work in 1848. (7) The nature of Hamerton’s relationship with
Stewart remains unknown. Do the bookcases represent the skill of an exceptional
journeyman or the careful management, teaching, and even the hand of Robert
Stewart as master cabinetmaker? Regardless of the balance between the two men,
the bookcases speak to what Stewart’s shop was capable of creating for its wealthiest
clients, who called on local cabinetmakers to fill the gaps where Philadelphia or New
York furniture could not meet customer needs.

Lastly, a cherry dining table sold by Stewart to William Harris demonstrates
the complex nature of Natchez furniture as the amalgamation of imported,
Northern-made parts and pieces with the work of local craftsmen. (8) The use of cherry, a
local wood, is consistent with Mississippi manufacture. Stewart and his
competitors employed it for everything from coffins to case pieces, but the wood
was rarely imported. This ample table has fourteen legs; the center four of cypress
are turned in a straightforward style, but the outer legs are twist-turned. Stewart’s
account books note that he purchased furniture parts, like bedposts, throughout
his career. For this fascinating table, the use of two different styles of turnings may
be evidence that Stewart imported twist-turned legs—which required a machine
lathe—as the basis for the table and then constructed the top locally, adding the
simpler center legs to extend the length to fit the room. Ongoing work on this
unique piece will help shed light on the nature of the furniture industry in Natchez
and the networks of trade that connected the town socially, politically, and
economically with the rest of the country.

In 1861 Stewart’s son Robert Hill took over the business. (9) His decision to emphasize
fine imported household wares and metallic burial cases demonstrates the continued
influence of geography on the Natchez economy: retailing came naturally along the
river. With his son continuing the business in Natchez, the elder Robert purchased a
cotton plantation across the river, worked by dozens of enslaved laborers, having
finally achieved the Southern dream he had furnished for others for decades.

Learn more during the Young Scholars Lectures at the Delaware Antiques Show on
Saturday, November 11, at 2:00 pm. The Delaware Antiques Show takes place November
10–12 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, Wilmington, Delaware.

Post by Candice Roland Candeto, Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in
American Material Culture.

This article originally appeared in the Delaware Antiques Show Catalogue.

 

Footnotes:

1 The author credits Betty Stewart’s extensive work on her family history, partially compiled at the Historic Natchez
Foundation, for contributions to Robert Stewart’s biography.
2 “The Cabinet Business,” Catesby Minnis and Robert Stewart ad, Natchez Gazette (Mississippi), January 31, 1818.
3 Cincinnati City Directories, 1829, 1831.
4 R. & M. Stewart ad, Daily Gazette (Cincinnati), February 26, 1835.
5 Natchez Court Records at the Historic Natchez Foundation document the timeline of the legal names under which
Robert Stewart’s business operated as well as changes in partnership.
6 Account with Buckner Darden, December 13, 1834. Ledger, Furniture Accounts, 1834−1836, Robert H. Stewart
Family Account Books, Mss404, 4742, Vol. 37, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University.
7 Account with H. Hamerton, September 23, 1848. Ledger, Furniture Accounts, 1834−1857, Robert H. Stewart Family
Account Books, Mss404, 4742, Vol. 38, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University. The bookcases were
documented by the Classical Institute of the South in 2013.
8 Account with William Harris, March 29, 1834. Ledger, Furniture Accounts, 1834−1836, Robert H. Stewart Family
Account Books, Mss404, 4742, Vol. 37, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University.
9 “Robert H. Stewart, successor to Stewart & Burns,” Natchez Daily Courier (Mississippi), February 9, 1861.

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