This work desk from the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is one of three known examples of this distinctive furniture form. Although the three extant versions vary somewhat in size and construction details, they are all so similar that it’s safe to assume they were either made by the same craftsman or by two cabinetmakers, the second of whom took his design inspiration from the first.
The first of the companion work desks of this style is in the collection of the New York State Museum, was acquired at Watervliet, New York, in 1930, and has been attributed to Elder Freegift Wells of that community. This example has four graduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers in the upper gallery. The case is of panel and frame construction with each side having two panels. The other example, in the collection of the Art Complex, Inc. in Duxbury, Massachusetts, has four slightly graduated drawers in the bottom portion of the case and nine drawers in the gallery. It is also of panel and frame construction, but its sides are made up of three rather than two panels. The example in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon (fig. 1) has three ungraduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers of equal size in the gallery, unlike the other two examples that have small drawers that vary somewhat in depth. It is of panel and frame construction with sides composed of four panels each rather than two or three panels as in the other examples. All three of these desks roll on casters – the desk at the Art Complex has ball-bearing casters and the other two are fitted with casters with small wheels. The two desks with four drawers below have locks on the second and fourth drawers from the top. The three-drawer desk has a lock on each drawer. None of the drawers in any of the galleries have locks. All of the lower drawers in all of the desks are dovetailed together and all of the gallery drawers are nailed together.
Elder Giles B. Avery, a member of the Mount Lebanon Ministry, worked from time to time in what had been Elder Freegift Wells’s Watervliet workshop. Elder Giles noted in his diary that in June and July of 1880 he was “still at Watervliet engaged on some ladies beaureaus [sic] for sale,” which suggests that the work desks described in varying detail above were possibly the work of either Elder Freegift or Elder Giles or both of them at different times. Elder Giles completed four of these “work beaureaus” for sale. A new document may shed more light on how Shaker cabinetmakers may have used the early work of one cabinetmaker as the pattern for new pieces of furniture. A document titled “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureau,” is folded and taped in between pages of a book of recipes in the library of the Western Reserve Historical Society (Shaker Collection, manuscript number XI B 7). The handwriting is distinctly that of Elder Giles Avery. The recipes are dated from 1881 to 1883 – an appropriate time for Elder Giles to have had a “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureaus” to paste in his book.
The description of the parts – the stuff – does not provide conclusive proof that any one of the work desks was made by Elder Giles rather than Elder Freegift. Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” – what cabinetmakers today would probably call a cutting list – most likely describes rough dimensions that would change some as the lumber is smoothed and the pieces prepared to be joined together. That said, the most telling detail that can be extracted from the cutting list is that the pieces being made by Elder Giles had four larger drawers with drawer fronts that ranged from 6 1/2, 5 1/2, 4 1/2, and 3 1/8 inches high from bottom to top – graduated in a manner most consistent with the work desk in the collection of the New York State Museum. Although this desk was attributed to Elder Freegift Wells by the Shaker living at Watervliet at the time it was acquired, it is a reasonable supposition that rather than knowing it was, in fact, made by Elder Freegift, it was merely of the style of work desk that he was known to have made for the community.
While these three distinctly similar yet different pieces of furniture and the existence of Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” and entries in his diary about making “ladies work beaureaus”, and a clear statement by the Shakers that Elder Freegift made this type of desk fails to provide full understanding of who made any one or all of these desks, it does provide an interesting study of how one Shaker woodworker may have been guided in his work by his predecessors. It can clearly be seen in trades such as chair making, oval box making, and basket making, that although a consistency of style and design is maintained over time and from community to community, differences in the finished products show that whereas intended function may have altered them, so to may have the whims of the maker.
Of course, it will be helpful for other examples of the Elders Freegift and Giles to come to light – and there is always hope that one or the other might have left his name or mark behind to help us better understand how these pieces are related.