Truths of the Trade: Collecting, Researching, and Exhibiting an Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World Cabinet

Double cabinet made in England or the Caribbean, 1770−90. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2017.4

A mere shadow, faintly visible in raking light, is all that remains of the script that once spelled “Philadelphia” on the drawer front of Winterthur’s recently acquired double cabinet. This drawer may be blank, but gold painted letters still adorn the cabinet’s eleven other drawers. Labeled to the left of Philadelphia is the name of the winemaking island of Madeira; to the right is Jamaica; “Teneriffe,” one of Spain’s seven Canary Islands, can be found painted on the drawer below; and names of other prominent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ports and colonies fill out the mix. All taken into consideration, it became clear to Josh Lane, Winterthur’s curator of furniture, that the cabinet he was examining at the 2016 Delaware Antiques Show was a remarkable document of Atlantic world history. Purchased by Winterthur, the object offered a unique opportunity for study and soon became the focus of the first student-curated exhibition in the Society of Winterthur Fellows Gallery. Thanks to months of research by the students, aided by scholars across the country, the cabinet is now one of Winterthur’s primary references on the transatlantic slave trade.

Interior drawers with gold painted lettering

The use of island mahogany and English oak situate the piece in the world of Atlantic commerce, but its most compelling story is revealed when its locks are turned and doors are opened. Drawers labeled with the names of ports and colonies reconstruct networks of trade: Senegambia, Madeira, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, North Carolina, Waterford, Bristol, Teneriffe, Gold Coast, and Philadelphia, revealing participation in the transatlantic trade between Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America that transported shiploads of commodities and captive people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The closed cabinet

The Winterthur collection is deeply entangled in these trade networks. The commodities that crossed the Atlantic defined the material culture of early America―the very things Henry Francis du Pont and the museum collected. The Atlantic trade involved a wide variety of raw materials and refined goods, but slavery was its engine. Captive Africans and the products of their forced labor flowed into ports like those named on the double cabinet, making possible the luxury and beauty enjoyed by consumers in the past as well as visitors to the museum today. Through ports came sweet sugar and bitter suffering, beautiful mahogany and hideous brutality, gleaming gold and dark dehumanization.
The exterior of the double cabinet appears, at first glance, unassuming in its construction and design. Despite the modest appearance, the island mahogany used as the primary and secondary wood was an expensive material first harvested in the Caribbean as a profitable by-product of clearing land for sugar plantations. Cabinetmakers and consumers throughout the Atlantic world later revered the wood for its dark burgundy color and ease of use. Fitted to the mahogany doors of the cabinet are inset brass locks that served as extra security to protect the valuable insurance policies, shipping documents, and other records held within the drawers and shelves. In addition, the cabinetmaker built locking compartments into the sides of the cabinet for further safekeeping. Close examination also reveals fine attention to precise dovetail construction, suggesting investment of care and skill on par with other case pieces such as desk-and-bookcases and escritoires.

It is possible that the name of the original owner, maker, and origin of the cabinet will never be uncovered. What is known, however, is that the size of the storage receptacles and the labels with geographic locations and letters of the alphabet indicate that the piece functioned as a filing cabinet. The owner would have arranged paperwork dealing with each Atlantic world location in order to organize his business interests. The duplicate mention of “Gold Coast” on two of the drawers offers the best evidence of the cabinet’s use as an organizational tool. The Gold Coast, an area of Africa in what is now Ghana, was an active site of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. The labels “Gold Coast” and “Gold Coast Answered” suggest that the owner had enough correspondence from this region to fill two compartments and perhaps conducted more business there than in any of the other port or colony represented.

In addition to indicating geographic locations, the top drawer of the cabinet, furthest to the left, is labeled “Policys of Insurance.” Filed away were undoubtedly insurance policies penned in ink on sheets of handmade paper. Winterthur’s manuscript collection holds several such examples issued to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century merchants to protect ships and cargo with significant monetary value. Like insurance today, these policies covered loss or damage to capital. Because their cargo often included enslaved humans, merchants involved in the Atlantic trade obscured the language in these documents to ensure full protection.

Rather than displaying such an insurance policy next to the double cabinet in the exhibition Truths of the Trade: Slavery and the Winterthur Collection, the student curators chose a shipping receipt attributed to prominent Newport, Rhode Island, merchants Aaron Lopez and Jacob R. Rivera. The receipt would have fit into the cabinet drawers, but the desire to include the document originated from a graduate student’s ongoing research into Lopez and his transatlantic ventures. In fact, several of the decisions made by the students were shaped by not only their own research but that of others as well. The curators featured a telescope in the exhibition after hearing Dr. Louis Nelson speak about the dual use of the instrument for both navigation on ships and surveillance of enslaved labor by owners on Jamaica plantations. A presentation by Winterthur graduate Sarah Parks prompted the students’ choice of an eighteenth-century letter book containing textile samples described as being “a good style for the coast of Africa.” That letter book was the focus of Sarah’s thesis. Martha Washington’s cake plate, a particularly iconic object in the exhibition, was chosen after learning about the large amounts of sugar imported by the Washington family―information acquired during a gallery walk with the curators, research historians, and archaeologists who made possible Mount Vernon’s exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Scholars from far and near helped the Winterthur student curators stitch together the story of the double cabinet by surrounding the piece with objects that complemented its “unknowns.”

Student exhibition in the Society of Winterthur Fellows Gallery

Students and staff at Winterthur continually revisit the collection to ask new questions and reinterpret the histories of objects. Truths of the Trade was one such project. It permitted graduate students from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and the University of  Delaware Department of Art History to consider how changing cultural and institutional perceptions of race continue to influence the acquisition of objects for the museum―all through the study of an unimposing double cabinet with a remarkable story to tell.

Post by J. Lara and Alexandra Rosenberg are Lois F. McNeil Fellows in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

This entry was posted in Academic Programs, American Culture Studies, antiques, Delaware Antiques Show, exhibition, Exhibitions, Furniture, galleries, museum acquisition, museum collection, Students & Alumni, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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