A Free Black Cabinetmaker’s Sideboard
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are home to a breathtaking range of folk and decorative art. Uncover the history behind beautiful objects in masterfully curated exhibitions in our series “Amazing Stories. Beautifully Told.”
Today we’re looking at a sideboard, found in the Blagojevich Gallery of The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, home to remarkable objects that are useful as well as beautiful.
What is it?
A large neoclassical sideboard made of mahogany, yellow pine, and tulip poplar. It was made between 1810-1820 and bears the inscription “Johnathan Moss by his hand.” Jonathan Moss, the maker of the sideboard, was a free Black cabinetmaker working in Lynchburg, Virginia. The accomplished quality of the woodworking, particularly in the manipulation of the matched veneers to create a complex pattern, demonstrates Moss's considerable skill as a cabinetmaker.
What’s the story?
A sideboard is a table with a serving surface and compartments for storing dining utensils, linens, and anything else a table might require for a meal. Due to their versatility, sideboards grew in popularity during the 19th century. You would find this type of furniture, especially with such excellent workmanship as the Moss piece, in the home of an affluent family. Moss made his sideboard in Lynchburg, a western Virginia tobacco commerce hub. By 1810, the city attracted many journeyman cabinetmakers looking to produce goods for the growing population. Most Lynchburg furniture from 1800 to 1825 shows an understanding of fashionable designs but was less refined than that of coastal cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk. After 1810, however, there was increasing use of more costly materials and techniques, as evidenced by Moss’s choice of mahogany veneer and his quality craftsmanship.
One of the things that makes this sideboard so special is that it is signed by its maker, Jonathan Moss. Like many Black craftsmen, very little is known about Moss. National and local county records provide some information about who he was and what his life might have been like. Moss was born free in Virginia around 1778 and lived in Albemarle County during his early years. While we do not know where he trained or if he had his own shop, he was taxed intermittently on having apprentices and owning enslaved persons until he moved to Lynchburg in 1814. Once in Lynchburg, Moss likely worked as a journeyman in a Lynchburg cabinet shop until around 1820 when he was listed in the census as being engaged in agriculture.
Free Blacks made up approximately 10% of the population of Lynchburg in 1810. Building craftsmen such as carpenters, brick layers, and masons were the among the wealthiest of the free Blacks of Lynchburg. Moss may not have been part of this Black middle class, as, in 1827, he was “ordered to be sold pursuant to the act of assembly for failing to pay [his] taxes.” This practice of selling free Black men and women into slavery that was common in Lynchburg in that period. Moss must have avoided this fate, however, as he continued to be taxed after 1827.
In Lynchburg, free Blacks were prohibited from voting, possessing firearms, leading religious services, and forming schools. Moss, despite being born near and living in Lynchburg, was able to read and write, as evidenced by his signature on the sideboard and on his will. By 1840, Moss had moved his family to Ohio where he lived as a farmer until his death in 1863, at around 85 years old.
Why it matters
We can learn about history from many different angles when studying this sideboard. The fine craftsmanship speaks to the tastes of a growing Virginia city in the early 19th century. The signature by Jonathan Moss helps contextualize who was making furniture in the city and gives us a better understanding of life for a free Black man living in Virginia in the early 19th century.
See for yourself
You can find this sideboard and tens of thousands of objects in online collection here. We also invite you to see this remarkable object in person at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover more amazing stories, beautifully told.
Jackie Mazzone is the Americana Furniture intern at Colonial Williamsburg. She holds a MA from the Bard Graduate Center in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture and is passionate about discovering what everyday life was like in the 18th century.
Delaney, Ted, and Phillip Wayne Rhodes. Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805-1865. Lynchburg, VA: Warwick House Pub., 2001.