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During the eighteenth century, Newport, Rhode Island was the fifth largest city in the colonies. With few natural resources available to them, Newporters built an economy on trade, services, and craft. Along with merchant shipping and rum distillation, cabinetmaking was one of the major industries. Both cane sugar for rum and mahogany for furniture was imported directly from the West Indies.
Over 100 cabinetmakers worked in Newport during the 1700s, producing furniture for local customers and for shipment to the other colonies. Led by the Townsend and Goddard families, Newport cabinetmakers developed furniture designs that were unique among American craftsmen and noted for their exceptional workmanship and design.
Newport furniture designs evolved differently from those of Boston and Philadelphia, with less English influence on the style. Block fronts, curved-ray shells, and bold ball and claw feet were some of the more notable points of Newport furniture, but the forte of Newport makers was their ability to design with striking proportions and use ornament sparingly. As an American art form, rare original examples of Newport furniture are cherished by collectors and museums and command record prices at auction.
The record price for a piece of American furniture is $12.1 million paid in 1988 for the Nicholas Brown secretaire (at right), an unsigned Newport secretaire, which at 113" is the tallest of the nine existing originals.
Another important example of Newport furniture, and one that testifies to the importance of an original finish, is an Edmund Townsend kneehole bureau (left) in virtually untouched condition that sold in 1995 for $3.6 million, three to four times the price at that time for a similar piece without a period surface.
As many as twenty members of the Townsend and Goddard families were involved (to a greater or lesser extent) in the cabinetmaking trade in Newport in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The most prominent members of the families, and those mentioned elsewhere in this website are as follows:
Christopher (1701-1787) and Job (1699-1765) Townsend were brothers from an Oyster Bay, Long Island family who began the cabinetmaking dynasty in Newport. Each established separate cabinetmaking shops in the Point section of Newport, eventually making a full range of household furniture.
Edmund Townsend (1736-1811) was one of Job's three sons in the business. He trained in his father's shop and later established his own. He is best known for working in the block-front style, and a wealth of block-front bureaus and kneehole bureaus have been authenticated to him. His work is attributable to an identifiable style of shell carving he used throughout his career.
John Goddard (1724-1785) came from a Dartmouth, Massachusetts family and apprenticed in the shop of Job Townsend. He married Job's daughter Hannah and established his own family shop where he trained and made furniture with his sons. The Goddard family shop's work has a sculptural quality and is often identifiable by a unique and realistic carving of ball and claw feet. Three of his sons moved to Nova Scotia after the British occupation of Newport and continued the cabinetmaking trade there. Three younger sons continued the cabinetmaking trade in Newport after their father's death.
John Townsend (1733-1809) trained in his father Christopher's shop and later established his own shop nearby. John Townsend took the Newport style to a high level of development with architectural precision in his case pieces, crisply detailed carving, and tall, stylized ball and claw feet. Like the carving of Edmund Townsend, John Townsend's work is readily identifiable by his style of carving as well as his strict attention to detail.
For more information on Townsend and Goddard cabinetmakers see:
Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards, Michael A. Moses and Israel Sack, Inc., Tenafly NJ: MMI Americana Press, 1984.
John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker, Morrison H. Heckscher, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY: Yale University Press, 2005.
Reference books cited for similar examples or further study in the item descriptions are listed in this bibliography of American furniture reference books.