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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mr. Luscomb's Desk: A Welcome Surprise

Winter Primer
Mr. Luscomb’s Desk: A Welcome Surprise by Clark Pearce and Kemble Widmer II
Slant-lid desk made by Elijah (1751–1825) and Jacob Sanderson (1757–1810), Salem, Mass., 1794. Primary woods: mahogany with figured mahogany veneers. Secondary woods: white pine and birch. H. 43-3/4, W. 40, D. 21-3/4 in.  Private collection.
Mr. Luscomb’s Desk: A Welcome Surprise by Clark Pearce and Kemble Widmer II
Slant-lid desk made by Elijah (1751–1825) and Jacob Sanderson (1757–1810), Salem, Mass., 1794. Primary woods: mahogany with figured mahogany veneers. Secondary woods: white pine and birch. H. 43-3/4, W. 40, D. 21-3/4 in. Private collection.

by Clark Pearce and Kemble Widmer II

Mr. Luscomb’s Desk: A Welcome Surprise by Clark Pearce and Kemble Widmer II
A rare opportunity for furniture enthusiasts presented itself in the fall of 2009 when a remarkable desk was offered by a small auction house in upstate New York.1 The simple but beautiful slant-lid desk had many of the elements that entice scholars and collectors of American furniture. Not only had the original owner inscribed on both document drawers his name, the purchase date, and the cabinetmaking shop where he bought the desk, he also added a folksy calligraphic profile of a man’s face.2 The desk, which was leaving the original owner’s extended family for the first time when it was sold at auction, was also inscribed with its history of ownership, naming all the family members to whom it descended.3 It retains a very early, if not original, finish, and the façade of the desk is veneered with highly figured curly mahogany, all carefully matched from the same flitch of veneers.

Two hundred fifteen years ago, William Luscomb 3rd (1774–1820), who was listed in contemporary documents as a painter, took delivery of this straight-front slant-lid desk with straight-bracket feet and fan-carved interior from the well-known cabinetmaking partnership of Elijah and Jacob Sanderson of Salem, Massachusetts. Luscomb bought this desk ten days after his marriage to Mehitable Mansfield (1773–1825) on September 14, 1794, befitting a young man starting a business and family. When William inscribed the document drawer, he misspelled the Sanderson name as “Saunderson,” perhaps a clue as to how the name was pronounced in Salem at that time.

Due to the Sandersons’ involvement in the venture cargo trade, the number of pieces that can be reliably documented to this great and prolific cabinetmaking shop is relatively high. Nonetheless, the discovery of this desk is an important addition to our knowledge of the partnership’s output.4 The Sanderson shop was probably one of Salem’s largest in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.5 Both Elijah (1751–1825) and his younger brother Jacob (1757–1810) were born in Watertown, Massachusetts, and moved to Salem by 1779, when they started a cooperative partnership with cabinetmaker Josiah Austin.6 Their partnership prospered into the first decade of the nineteenth century, with an increasing emphasis on the venture cargo trade.7 Numerous cabinetmakers were employed by the firm, with a number of them coming from Boston and the surrounding towns, as Salem’s export trade was a driving force in the regional economy.

Detail of the proper left document drawer showing the ink and pencil inscriptions: “William Luscomb 3rd 1794 Sept 4th/This desk made by J & E Saunderson Salem.”
Detail of the proper left document drawer showing the ink and pencil inscriptions: “William Luscomb 3rd 1794 Sept 4th/This desk made by J & E Saunderson Salem.”

Although documented as being made in Salem, this desk is an interesting study of the influences of a cabinetmaker’s early training in the construction of case furniture. The desk’s exterior exhibits many design aspects that are typical for slant-lid desks made in Salem, such as superior patterned mahogany used for the desk lid and drawer fronts, well-formed straight-bracket feet with spurred returns, pigeon-hole valances cut in the double ogee pattern, and a prospect drawer with a well-proportioned and beautifully carved undulating fan with thumbnail gouges at the end of each ray in the classic Salem fashion.

When we turn our attention to the interior construction, however, we find features that are not typical for Salem work. The grain of the drawer bottoms runs perpendicular to the drawer fronts, typical of Boston shops. The Salem shops generally abandoned that practice in the 1740s, preferring to run the drawer bottoms parallel to the drawer fronts. The central drop under the base molding is cut in a simple semicircle with ogee curves on each side. Drops typical of Salem work usually have a broader, more complex aspect and can be carved with a shell or cut with spurred double ogee outlines. The secondary wood on this desk contains some knots, where the better Salem work usually uses clear wood. Since the Sandersons had been in Salem for twenty-five years, and adjusted their techniques to the local manner, these construction variances give us a strong clue that this desk was most likely made in the Sanderson shop by a journeyman who had been trained in Boston or Charlestown.

Detail of the proper right document drawer showing the calligraphic signature “William Luscomb.”
Detail of the proper right document drawer showing the calligraphic signature “William Luscomb.”

The discovery of William Luscomb’s desk is a significant addition to our knowledge of the Sanderson cabinetmaking shop that made some of Salem’s most ambitious and beautiful furniture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It also elevates our understanding of how large shops were organized and operated, with journeymen from other locations fabricating furniture that conformed to local design preferences while preserving the construction practices of the shop tradition in which they were trained. As such, William Luscomb’s desk offers us a cautionary tale for latter-day attributions to particular shops or towns. Without the inscriptions telling us who and where the desk was made, most scholars and collectors would have attributed its manufacture to Boston.


Clark Pearce is an independent scholar and consultant to museums and collectors in American arts and is based in Essex, Massachusetts. Kemble Widmer II is an independent scholar and collector based in Newburyport, Mass.

Photography by Melissa Carr of Masterworks Conservation, Arlington, Mass.


1. Hudson Valley Auctioneers, Beacon, New York, September 21, 2009.

2. The document drawers are the vertical drawers of the desk interior and are faced with turned split-spindles. They flank the central prospect section.

3. The auction also included a group of other furniture that descended in the same family: a large Salem Chippendale drop-leaf table with claw-and-ball feet with an oval top; a smaller table of the same design with a rectangular top; a walnut and birch flat-topped high chest carved with the finest Salem fans; a set of walnut Chippendale chairs with pierced splats; and a Chinese export black lacquer pedestal sewing table.

4. For a list of documented Sanderson furniture see Margaret Burke Clunie, Salem Federal Furniture, Vol 2 (unpublished masters thesis, University of Delaware, 1976), 218–225. See also Wendy A. Cooper and Kemble Widmer II, “Seeing Double; Winterthur’s Sanderson Card Table Finds Its Mate.” The Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art, IV, 6 (4th Anniversary issue, 2004), 274–279.

5. See Mabel M. Swan, Samuel McIntire, Carver and the Sandersons, Early Salem Cabinet Makers (Salem, Mass: The Essex Institute, 1934).

6. Ibid., 4.

7. Ibid., 6.

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