A Free Black Craftsman in the Slave South
This dressing bureau was produced in the Milton, North Carolina, cabinet shop of Thomas Day (1801–1861), a free African American furnituremaker. Before the Civil War, few free people of color worked as skilled laborers, and all too frequently, their life stories have been lost. This bureau is an important addition to the Winterthur collection because it opens a window on Day’s life and career as a free African American in the slave South.
Born to mixed-race parents, Thomas owned the most successful furniture business in North Carolina by 1850. He had to carefully straddle the color line and live a double life. He employed both free and enslaved laborers in his shop but also secretly harbored abolitionist sentiments. His white neighbors accepted him, but he was also clearly conscious of his race.
Dressing bureaus with integrated looking glasses became widely popular starting in the late 1830s. With its carved bracket feet, pierced looking-glass supports, and open scroll block front, this example showcases Day’s whimsical style.