Dear Helaine and Joe:
I inherited a Federal serpentine front sideboard that my mother told us had been owned by Samuel Osgood, the first postmaster general in the Cabinet of George Washington. She told us it had been made by the same cabinetmaker that made the Washington sideboard now in Mount Vernon. She also told us that this cabinetmaker, John Aitken of Philadelphia, made sideboards for all the Cabinet members. My questions are: Did Aitken make sideboards for Washington’s Cabinet members? Did Aiken sign his work, and if so where?
Dear A. H.:
This is a fascinating series of questions. First of all, the postmaster general was not part of President Washington’s Cabinet because – other than the vice president – there were only four members of that initial distinguished grouping.
There was Secretary Of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton; Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. The postmaster general did not become part of any U.S. president’s Cabinet until 1828, and the head of the department ceased to be part of the Cabinet in 1971.
In February 1797, Washington ordered 24 side chairs, one secretary bookcase and two serpentine front sideboards from Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Aitken. Scottish-born Aitken (1760/65-1838/39) had his shop on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut in Philadelphia. When Washington’s second term as president was about to end in March 1797, he ordered some furniture for his new room at Mount Vernon.
One of these sideboards still exists at Mount Vernon, but it looks only vaguely like the sideboard that belongs to A. H. The Mount Vernon example is made from mahogany, mahogany veneers with pine and poplar secondary woods, plus light and dark wood inlays in elliptical figures on the upper portion of the legs.
The wood used to make the sideboard in today’s question does appear to be mahogany and mahogany veneers. But the quality of the flame mahogany veneering seems to be of somewhat lesser quality. Also, the inlay is different and the proportions on the piece appear to be far less graceful and visually satisfying than the ones on the piece Aitken is known to have made for George Washington.
From a design standpoint, the Aitken piece is far superior to the sideboard in today’s question. In order for this piece to benefit from its connection to Samuel Osgood (1748-1813), some firm documentation would be necessary. Lacking this, the sideboard belonging to A. H. is just another Federal sideboard in fair condition.
In passing, we should mention it is thought that the Aitken workshop did occasionally sign their pieces with a swallowtail “A.” But we think it would be fruitless to search for the detail on the sideboard belonging to A. H. We can find no indications that Aitken made sideboards for other Cabinet members, and feel strongly that A. H.’s example is not by that famous maker. It should be valued in the $1,200 to $1,500 range for insurance purposes.