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Chair, 1769
Attributed to Benjamin Randolph, American
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Deciphering the Secret Guide

Establishing the prices for popular furniture and their decorative options, the Philadelphia price book served as a guide for colonial cabinetmakers for decades. The left side of each page delineated furniture (by form and size), drawer types, leg styles, and standard embellishments. The first column priced the furniture when using imported mahogany as the primary wood, and the second showed the cost using local walnut. The wages paid to the journeyman for his labor were listed in the last column. These prices were noted in pounds (£), shillings (f), and pence (d).

Formal and elaborate furniture like commode dressing tables, china tables, and frames for marble slabs were priced only in mahogany; cabinetmakers must have determined that patrons ordering such ornate forms wanted them in this expensive wood. Imported red cedar, an aromatic wood that cost the same as mahogany, was listed for bed cornices, storage chests, and coffins. Prices for household furniture in pine were also indicated. Secondary woods (usually yellow poplar, white pine, or oak) for elements like drawer sides and blocks were included in the cost and were the preference of the cabinetmaker or, if using mahogany, cedar, or walnut for decorative purposes, the patron commissioning the furniture.

Costs for turned elements (such as those for a tea table, stand, fire screen, or bedpost), some carved details (like plain shells, acanthus leaves, and ball and claw feet), and basic upholstery (such as leather bottoms) were included. More sophisticated turned and carved ornamentation and additional upholstery work required specialists who either peddled their skills to cabinetmakers or were hired individually by the cabinetmaker or patron.