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June 24th, 2008
Exhibition Brings 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book to Full Disclosure

This summer, visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art will reach into the vest pocket of an 18th-century master furniture craftsman and pull out his secret guide to pricing furniture in colonial America’s wealthiest and most fashionable city. The Fix on Colonial Philadelphia Furniture: A Secret Guide to Cabinetmakers’ Prices (July 5, 2008 – Spring 2009) will showcase the only remaining copy of the world’s first published furniture price book alongside the very works of art it lists. Philadelphia’s 36-page printed price book will be on display for the first time, along with enlargements of selected pages to help visitors decode the price lists. As a price guide, the book reveals the array of furniture — ranging from tables, chairs, chests and bookshelves to picture frames, ironing boards, and even coffins — and the values craftsmen assigned to various sizes and embellishments. The exhibition spans two American art galleries and features 23 pieces of colonial furniture, including items from the Museum’s famous Cadwalader collection.

“This illuminating little book was a fabulous discovery for American furniture scholars, curators, collectors and students of all sorts,” said Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Associate Curator of American Art. “It tells us a great deal about the furniture industry in colonial Philadelphia, from craftsmen’s early use of price fixing to steady the market to the terms they used to describe furniture forms and decorative embellishments. The price book also reveals the options available to Philadelphia’s eager, prosperous patrons.”

Visitors to Gallery 286 will see the price book along with 12 pieces of furniture that correspond closely to forms delineated in it. On its first five pages, the price guide lists high-ticket case pieces that colonial Philadelphians used for work and storage. A Chest on chest created by the freed African-American cabinetmaker Thomas Gross of Germantown between 1805 and 1810 precisely matches an item included in the guide more than 30 years earlier — a testament to the enduring demand for its design. Made of highly figured mahogany yet void of other decoration, the hest on chest would have commanded far less money than more elaborate pieces, such as the highly ornamented eight-foot-tall mahogany Desk and bookcase (c. 1762) or a scroll-headed walnut High chest (c. 1770), both also on view. The exhibition will also showcase tables, chairs and household “basics,” such as a cradle, a writing table and a bottle case.

In Gallery 287, visitors will step into the second-floor front parlor of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel’s Third Street house, which now exhibits treasures from the Powel’s friends and neighbors John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader, including their impressive portrait with their daughter, by Charles Willson Peale. The Cadwaladers commissioned the mahogany furniture now in the Powel Room in 1770 from Philadelphia cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck to harmonize with the English furniture, silver and decorative arts the couple had inherited from Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader’s parents. Carved by highly specialized artisans, the furniture is considered the most elaborately ornamented pieces made in the colonies. Using a copy of Affleck’s bill, more than 235 years later, nearly all the furniture in the Cadwalader room can be matched in form and price to works listed in the price book.

About the 1772 Furniture Price Book

A group of Philadelphia craftsmen published Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work in 1772 in an attempt to establish standard costs for common pieces of furniture. Probably available only to master craftsmen, the 36-page book lists the cost (in British pounds) for each item in mahogany and walnut, along with the fee a master craftsman should pay the skilled artisan he hired to actually make the furniture. The need for these fixed prices speaks to the complex and competitive nature of cabinetmaking in colonial Philadelphia, where it was as old as the city itself and had fashioned its own paradigm.

The price guide was known only through handwritten copies until Pennsylvanians Tom and Dee Howland discovered the small, printed copy in 2003 inside a box of books they had inherited in the 1960s. That book is the only known original printed copy of the price guide. A friend led the Howlands to antiques writer Lita Solis-Cohen who, along with furniture scholar Alan Miller, encouraged the couple to donate their book to the Museum. The publication is thought to have had a very small press run, since it was available only to a close circle of artisans. The design of the text — with forms followed by prices in columns — became the standard format for subsequent guides published in London, New York and Philadelphia.

A facsimile of the 36-page price book was reprinted in its original size (3 3/4 by 6 1/8 inches) by the Museum in 2005, and is available in the Museum Store ($19.95) or by calling 800-329-4856 or online at: The publication also includes an introduction and guide to the price book by Kirtley.

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