Furniture Exhibit to Open at N.C. Museum of History
The N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh has the nation’s largest collection of furniture made by Thomas Day, a free man of color who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s largest cabinet shops prior to the Civil War.
“Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker,” a major exhibit showcasing approximately 70 pieces of furniture crafted by this accomplished artisan and entrepreneur from Milton, Caswell County, is now open. This 6,000-square-foot exhibit also explores the extraordinary story of a man who succeeded and flourished despite shrinking freedoms for free people of color in antebellum North Carolina. Admission is free.
“Behind the Veneer” presents a remarkable range of items produced in Day’s shop from 1835 to 1860. He created furniture in popular 19th-century styles — from the very “neat” and “plain” to the ornate Rococo Revival — and infused many of the styles with his exuberant motifs. Exhibit pieces, such as a rosewood center table, a mahogany veneer sideboard, mahogany side chairs and a faux-painted wardrobe, reflect his creative genius. “Behind the Veneer” features furniture from the collections of the Museum of History, private lenders and Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration Inc. in Milton.
“Thomas Day can rightfully be called one of the fathers of the North Carolina furniture industry,” says Patricia Phillips Marshall, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and co-author of the book “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color.” “His surviving furniture and architectural woodwork still represent the finest of 19th-century craftsmanship and aesthetics.”
Day’s pieces are highly sought after today by collectors of antebellum furniture and African-American material culture.
Insightful and informative, the exhibit goes behind the veneer of antebellum North Carolina to reveal its complexities. Many restrictive laws applied to free people of color, except the right to own property. By capitalizing on this freedom, Day built a life for himself and his family and ran a thriving business. The master craftsman gained the respect of white clients, the movers and shakers of the Dan River region in North Carolina and Virginia.
“Day was unique because he was one of a few cabinet makers who could design the architectural elements for a room and then create the furniture to complement it,” notes Marshall. “Because of his extraordinary skill, people of the Dan River area came to him rather than going to one of more than 80 cabinetmakers in the region. They counted him as a crucial member of their economic community.”
Engaging interactive offerings will enhance the visitor experience. Walk through a re-created workshop filled with hand tools from an early 19th-century cabinet shop. Turn the shop’s great wheel lathe and press a treadle to run a jigsaw. Later in the exhibit, explore Day’s use of the new technology of steam power, and operate a steam engine model. Throughout “Behind the Veneer,” video “portraits” will come to life to highlight aspects of Day’s life and the antebellum period.
Whatever frustrations Day endured as a free person of color, he found refuge in his Milton shop. Here, he expressed freedom through his incredible designs and experienced a high degree of autonomy as master of his shop.
His workforce included journeymen, apprentices, day laborers and enslaved workers, with a racial makeup of white, black and people of mixed races.
The exhibit will remain open for at least one year.
Progress Energy is title sponsor of the exhibit, with additional support from The News & Observer, the Broyhill Family Foundation Inc. and Mr. and Mrs. H. Nelson Rich.
For more information, call (919) 807-7900 or access ncmuseumofhistory.org. The museum is located at 5 E. Edenton St., across from the State Capitol. Parking is available in the lot across Wilmington Street.
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