American-Made Bureau Features Patriotic Designs
By David B. Voelkel, Curator
In 2000, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation purchased a fall-front desk embellished with three oval inlays of a patriotic mode. The piece, correctly called a bureau in the 18th century, was made somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region during the 1790s by an as-yet-unidentified cabinetmaker. The American eagle inlays so prominently set into the exterior side of the fall front speak to an important development in American history – the turn of revolutionary events leading to the formation of a modern democracy in North America.
The July 4, 1776, acceptance of the Declaration of Independence is information known by all Americans from their earliest school days, but are you aware that on that very evening a committee of three – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – was appointed by the Continental Congress to devise a symbol for the new nation, a seal of the United States of America?
A number of years – and several designs – passed before Congressional secretary, Charles Thomson, submitted his own with an eagle as the focal point of the Great Seal. It was adopted by Congress, and the American eagle as our nation’s symbol was born.
In the decades following the American Revolution, nationalism developed, and the eagle of the Great Seal embodied the spirit of the young republic. The image was unmistakably American. The American eagle belonged to a free, independent people of a new nation that had recently broken away from the most powerful empire in the world. Its arrows would defend it against any would-be oppressor, and its olive branch would be extended to all peace-seekers.
Classically inspired pictorial inlays, such as Grecian urns, became fashionable in British furniture in the late 18th century and crossed the Atlantic to embellish American Federal furniture. American cabinetmakers were inspired and turned to the American eagle as one of their choices for a nationalistic design. These inlaid eagle pieces were produced from the late 1780s until the 1820s, from the deep South to the new state of Maine, when feelings of nationalism were at their height.