Charleston Furniture

For fashion, elegance, and wealth, the port city of Charleston, South Carolina, flourished without parallel in colonial America, and the furniture that filled its fine homes reflected the prosperity and sophistication of its strikingly urbane population. E. Milby Burton’s classic study, illustrated with more than 140 photographs, catalogues the trends in design and changes in taste of a city that amassed some of the finest furniture in North America.

Burton tells how Charleston’s rich planters and merchants vied with one another to see who could give the grandest dinners and balls and how their furnishings fulfilled their extensive entertaining requirements while showcasing their affluence. He profiles the remarkable number of local cabinet makers and other skilled craftspeople, including some African American slaves and freedmen, who supplied the city and surrounding plantations with furniture, and he traces the importation of furniture from England and other parts of North America.

Drawing extensively on the meticulously maintained account book of Thomas Elfe, kept from 1768 to 1775, Burton provides a detailed portrait of the types, styles, prices, and quantities of furniture owned by members of Charleston society. He documents the Charlestonian passion for English, then French, and then New York fashions; the lavish use of reasonably priced mahogany from the West Indies; and the peculiarities that distinguished locally made furniture.

E. Milby Burton (1898–1977) was director of the Charleston Museum for forty years. His articles appeared in the magazine Antiques and the New York Times, and his books include South Carolina Silversmiths and The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865.


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