Thomas Day's Dressing Bureau

An African American master craftsman and cabinetmaker, Thomas Day owned one of North Carolina’s most prosperous cabinet and furniture shops in the mid-nineteenth century. Day’s success in a time when most African Americans were enslaved is highly noteworthy and a testament to his strength in operating a business of his own during the Antebellum period. ‘Day’s Union Tavern,’ located in Milton, North Carolina, was home to Day’s workshop, where he produced some of the finest furniture during this time. Day’s pieces were highly sought after and sold for high prices. Day’s exuberant style was well-known across the state as he was famous amongst the wealthy white southern gentlemen who were often his best customers. 

Day was born at the beginning of the 19th century in Dinwiddie County near Petersburg in southern Virginia, where he lived with his parents and brother. Day’s free African American parents were born to a family who had been free since the early 1700s. Both Day and his brother John received a private education from Quaker tutors and shortly followed in their father’s footsteps, who had been in the cabinetry industry for quite some time. However, this plan unraveled when their paths split, and John had immigrated to Liberia to become a Baptist minister. Day, fortunately, continued on this path and moved to Milton, North Carolina, and became one of the south’s most notorious and commemorated furniture makers and black business owners in the country. Thomas Day’s skills were sought after by many plantation owners across the states. He crafted stylish mantle pieces, elegant stair railings, and newel posts, all in addition to his well-known specialty of designing fashionable furniture. 

 

As a free black businessman in the 19th century, Day was challenged with many legal obstacles. Thomas Day and his business were targeted for the amount of success he achieved as a free black person during that time. In 1827, a law was passed that prohibited free blacks from migrating across the states. In 1830, when Day decided to marry a free black woman from Virginia, Aquilla Wilson Day, he fell victim to this law being separated from his new wife. Thankfully, due to the success and popularity of his business, sixty-one citizens from Milton Country presented the court with a petition asking for his exemption from the law. Later that December, the exemption was made, and Aquilla Wilson Day was able to cross state lines and move to North Carolina and live with Day as a happy couple. Day was supported by his surrounding community. The majority of his customers were wealthy white males who had him build specific furniture pieces to complement their homes. By 1850, ‘Day’s Union Tavern’ was the biggest shop in the state of North Carolina. 

 

Unfortunately, as Thomas Day got older, financial troubles and a significant economic recession began to get the best of him. By the time of his death, his furniture industry was already in the hands of the receivership. His son, Thomas Jr., was able to receive a loan from the bank to keep the business afloat while paying off debts. 

 

The Dressing Bureau

Description from MESDA: “Dressing bureau with hardwood burl veneers topped with marble inset: Mirror mounted into rectangular structure with scalloped crest above; attached with round pegs to trestle supports topped with spade-like finial; tenon extends into mortise atop the two glove drawers below that flank a lift-lid box: case consists of four drawers, the top serpentine shaped and overhanging with flanking console columns, three flat graduated drawers, the top being the largest in size; all set atop a thick base that is supported by two carved bracketed console and claw feet; case back has three horizontal boards, the center dadoed into the outer two; the case sides have an inset panel; rear feet are a continuation of rear stile of the case; all the drawers have wooden knobs with threaded wooden pegs; keyholes are trimmed in brass and have locks; drawers are dovetailed and there is some use of nails on the interior case construction on the drawer runners and drawer stops; piece contains many construction characteristics found in Day’s work, including stops on drawer blades, many of which are present” [1].

 

Day’s style is characterized by” undulating shapes, fluid lines, and spiraling forms. He combined his own unique motifs with popular designs to create a distinctive style readily identified with his shop” [2]. The dressing bureau made by Thomas Day and the people who worked for him was made in Milton, North Carolina. The bureau was made of yellow pine carcass, which is an inexpensive southernwood. This wood was overlaid by mahogany, which gives it its pretty figured grain. The veneer was used because of the expensive price of the mahogany; however, this method still provides the bureau with the same elegant appearance. 

 

The bureau’s drawers are all different sizes, which allow for the storage of different things. It is very important to note that some of these drawers have locks on them. This detail can be looked at twofold. One way to look at the locks is to keep the things inside the drawers safe. Another way to look at the locks on the drawers is that they were there to keep certain people out. It is believed that during this time, the locks were added to this bureau to keep the enslaved people of a household out of the drawers and away from the owner’s belongings. The wooden handles on the drawers may not seem like they are as nice as other metal hardware that we know of today, but this was a style preference during the time that Day created the dressing bureau. 

 

The front wooden feet of the bureau are designed to give the dresser a sleek and attractive detail that helps them seem smooth. These details of the bureau give it a soft and flowing look which is very different from the back legs of the bureau. The back legs of the bureau have no shape to them and are obviously there just for practical use rather than as an attractive element. Ironically, the front feet have such detail and beauty in them since they are supposed to be the strongest and arguably the more critical part of the dressing bureau, as it holds the entire piece up. The style of this dresser fits in more with the mid-1700s dresser style (3).

It is nearly impossible to miss the large, rotating mirror when looking at the bureau. Additionally, it is interesting to think about the different people who have come in contact with this dressing bureau since it was created and who have looked into that mirror.

The Shop

In 1848, Day purchased his shop in Milton, North Carolina which became both his workshop and home. ‘Day’s Union Tavern’ was home to intricate, complex, and beautifully crafted pieces of furniture that Day oversaw and created with the help of his workers. Day operated and organized the entire workshop, and because of his wild success in the craftsman business he needed to employ people in order to get projects done and ready to sell to buyers who came through the shop. Day employed both free and enslaved laborers, some of which were paid journeymen, in his workshop where they helped create masterpieces that can be found across the country and in North Carolina specifically. In his shop, he manufactured “all kinds of mahogany, walnut and stained furniture,” according to local advertisements. Day has created at least one hundred pieces of furniture and even created 45 complexly crafted pieces alone for Governor Reid who commissioned him to furnish his home. 

At the time, many of the people who knew about Day’s work either lived nearby, had friends and family who owned and purchased furniture from him, or saw an occasional ad in the local newspaper. One year at the height of his business, Thomas Day ran an advertisement in the local paper, The Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser, where he thanked his patrons and customers and also advertised some of his finest handmade furniture and quality service [4]. Day was a highly-skilled businessman and knew exactly what he needed to do in order to run a successful business.  

 

Day’s Slaves

As a free African American man, Day was in an interesting and complex situation as he was one of the most celebrated craftsmen of the Antebellum period, even though most African Americans had little to no rights and were often enslaved working on plantations under the ownership of white southern men at this time.

As a master craftsman who owned and operated his own shop, Day had a high demand for labor and resources to help him finish his projects. Most of his laborers were paid journeymen, however, according to the 1850 census, Day owned 14 slaves who also worked at his shop [6]. At this point in history, there was a very small percentage of free black people who did own slaves. It was not common, but definitely not unheard of. Even though he was a black man himself, he still had a business that he needed to operate and with that he needed labor. Slave labor, unfortunately, fueled the southern economy and was essentially the foundation of it. The Chipstone article on Thomas Day reveals that on the issue of slavery, Day and many other free blacks in the South took a political “middle ground” between “complete acquiescence and outright defiance” as a strategic tactic “cultivated for their survival.” One of Day’s letters that we have access to indicates that he understood his marginalized position and the necessity of being well regarded by white elites, which was most likely a driving force behind his slave labor. In addition, maintaining an “unassailable reputation” was the best way for Day to protect himself, his family, and his shop. The ownership of slaves gave him something in common with his white neighbors and reaffirmed their belief that he was an “exception to the prevailing assumption of white superiority and black inferiority.”

 

Day’s daughter Mary Ann raised her concern about her father’s owning slaves which leads us to believe he had knowledge of his situation. Looking through letters and exchanges between Day and his daughter reveals how Mary Ann believed that “being born in the Oppressive South has had a miserable influence on [her] family.” Essentially, she is stating that slavery and their ownership of slaves are detrimental to the family and don’t align with her values. Additionally, Mary Ann blames her older brother Devereux’s “depraved” behavior on being raised in a “shop of the meanest of God’s avocation.” In response, Day rose to his own defense, praising the “respectable” character of the shop and the honesty of its “hands,” many of whom were not slaves at that time [5]. There is little evidence from Day on his beliefs about slavery but from the context we can again from those around him, it’s evident that Day knew his position and status in society and had to protect his family and shop through the use of slave labor regardless of if he believed it was wrong or not. 

On the other hand, the “respect accorded to Day by fellow African Americans and white activists in the abolitionist cause suggests motives other than profit and self-protection” [5]. Day's owning slaves is certainly problematic, especially because of his race, but it had been expressed by family members and others who knew stories of him passed down through generations that he might not have been as cruel a master as many were known to be, and may have had different motives stance in owning slaves. We have limited knowledge of what Thomas Day himself claimed about owning slaves, but some say that Day was a “secret abolitionist” and others say “he owned slaves simply because it was good business.” Carolyn Boone, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Day, shares that “he was in the business of rescuing slaves.” In addition to Day, “many of his workers lived there,” too. Boone believes that Day “treated his slaves like family.” He had his “tailors make their clothes, they all sat down at the dinner table together, and also prayed together” [6].

Though we find it problematic to support any enslaver, some first-person reports from people describe Day as being different in how he treated his slaves, and perhaps his motives for owning slaves were different, but we have no firm answer. The horrors of slavery are undeniable, however, compared to many of the stories of wretched masters that existed during this period, accounts reveal that Day may not have been as evil as most were.

 

The Receipt of Purchase & The Barnett Family 

Fortunately, we have access to the original receipt documentation from the purchase of this dressing bureau. The receipt reveals that James M. Barnett is the man who bought the dressing bureau from Day in 1850. 

The receipt alongside the bureau from MESDA reads: “rcd 20 August 1850 of Mr. James M. Barnett / Thirty Five Dollars in full for one Dressing (sic) Buraw / to have Marble Top two drawers Each End of marble / Good glass & finish in the finest stile Deliverd / at Roxboro 5 or 7 september present year / Thomas Day.” These notes have been conserved by Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding and framed [1].

On August 20th of 1850, James M. Barnett traveled 22 miles from Roxoboro, Person County, North Carolina to Milton County, where Day’s shop was located, to purchase the dressing bureau. Barnett purchased the dressing bureau in full from Day for 35 dollars. The receipt indicates that Day promised Mr. Barnett the bureau for delivery on either the 5th or 7th of September. 

 

James M. Barnett lived on a plantation in Roxboro Person County, North Carolina with his wife Roan Barnett, who he married on March 16, 1844. They had four children together, three sons and a daughter. They had slaves working on their plantation and in the household. The dressing bureau was most likely a gift from Mr. Barnett to his wife, Mrs. Barnett. This bureau appears to be a women’s dressing bureau and used for a woman’s purposes in her dressing room.

 

Audiovisual: The Mirror

The mirror is the central focus of the Dressing Bureau. We created a ThingLink using the mirror as a focal point to portray the reflections of the different people who would have come in contact with Thomas Day’s dressing bureau to reveal their stories and historical context. The silhouettes surrounding the bureau each represent different people, and when selected there is information provided about them and their history. The information given ultimately provides a better understanding of the bureau itself by how it interacted with different people. We used silhouettes because there are no images that have been preserved of these people, and instead,  give a representation based on the historical account that we have. 

Object biography by Kennedy Dean, Maddie Howson, Maggie Knight, and Stormy Kosinski.  Spring 2022.

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For more on Thomas Day and his daughter Mary Ann's resistance to slavery see "The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day"

Works Cited

 

[1] MESDA Authors, “Thomas Day's Dressing Bureau,” MUSEUM of EARLY SOUTHERN DECORATIVE ARTS. [Online]. Available: https://mesda.org/item/collections/dressing-bureau/20016/. 

 

[2] SAAM Authors, “Thomas day: Master craftsman and Free Man of Color,” Smithsonian American Art Museum. [Online]. Available: https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/day.

 

[3] Dibble, Ruthie. Interview. Conducted by Maggie Knight, Maddie Howson, Kennedy Dean, and Stormy Kosinski. March 16, 2022

 

[4] NCDCR Authors, “Thomas day of Milton, North Carolina's Premier Furniture craftsman,” North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2016/03/01/thomas-day-milton-north-carolinas-premier-furniture-craftsman#:~:text=On%20March%201%2C%201827%2C%20Thomas,Carolina%27s%20most%20celebrated%20antebellum%20craftsmen.

 

[5] P. D. Rogers and L. C. Sneed, “The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day,” The Chipstone Foundation. [Online]. Available: https://www.chipstone.org/article.php/648/American-Furniture-2013/The-Missing-Chapter-in-the-Life-of-Thomas-Day. 

 

[6] F. Wasser, “Thomas day: A master craftsman, with complications,” NPR, 29-Jul-2010. [Online]. Available: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128849634. 

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