It’s time Thomas Day took his place alongside Townsend, Phyfe, and the others
An innovative and skilled pre-Civil War craftsman, Thomas Day was one of the leading figures of American furniture.
There is a name missing from the list of early American furniture makers, and that name is Thomas Day. Day was born in 1801 in Virginia, and worked in the early part of the 19th century as a furniture maker in Milton, N.C., until his death in 1861. Day’s name should appear alongside names like Duncan Phyfe, John Cogswell, Samuel Mcintire, John Goddard and Christopher Townsend as one of the leading figures of American furniture.
Thomas Day was a free Black man born free in 1801 to free parents. Day moved to Milton at the age of 16, and as was required by North Carolina law for all free Black men, took up a trade by the age of 18. This trade was cabinet making. He opened his own shop in Milton in 1827. As his work grew so did his shop, and by the late 1840s Day’s business needed a larger space. He purchased the Union Tavern shop, which was reported to be one of, if not the largest, furniture and cabinet shops in the state. Historians estimate that between 10% and 25% of all furniture made in North Carolina was produced in Day’s Union Tavern shop. Day’s work as a Black man in the pre-Civil War American south is remarkable to say the least.
Day’s work is often described as “exuberant,” working within the typical styles of the early half of the 19th century while adding his own distinctive style. While heavily influenced by the Greek revival fashion of the day, it is clear that Day’s shop designed its own work rather than simply copying the popular pieces of the period. Day’s work went on to be an influence on design in the later part of the 19th century. Patricial Marshall, curator of the North Carolina Museum on History, goes so far as to say Day’s work is a forerunner of the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century. Unfortunately, shortly after Day’s death in 1861, his business was closed and his son was forced to leave the state, eventually settling in the Washington territory in the Pacific northwest.
Perhaps not so unsurprisingly, outside of the area immediately surrounding Milton, N.C., Day’s work had been largely forgotten by the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was not until the late 20th century that Day’s work began to be recognized for the quality, design, and craftsmanship that was so obvious in its day. In 1975, Day’s Union Tavern shop in Milton was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; however, it unfortunately burned extensively in 1989. Also in 1975, the historically Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta donated $7,000 for the North Carolina Museum of History to begin collecting Day’s work. The kernel of this collection is a group of pieces that were commissioned by the governor of North Carolina, David Settle Reid, in 1855.
The North Carolina museum would go on to acquire the largest collection of Day’s furniture and work to promote the importance of this craftsman. This finally began the work to place him alongside the other more well-known makers of Early American furniture.
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*Photo by RJ Matthews, CC BY-SA 3.0
**By Unknown, Photographer – Public Domain, Link