Identical in design, construction and provenance, this chest and the example in the preceding lot differ only in their brass hardware and, while perhaps not displayed as a pair, were certainly made en suite, a practice seen with some frequency during the Federal era and later, but exceedingly rare in America on forms in the Chippendale style. As noted at the time of their sale in 1999, they display the same construction methods, such as the three-board backs and the giant dovetails joining the base molding as well as indications of a single craftsman's handiwork - the same layout of dovetails in the drawers, tool marks and execution of the carving. Their fixtures undisturbed, the Rococo "bat-wing" brasses on one chest and the Federal bail handles on the other chest are original, and, as the holes for the bail handles are placed 1 1/2 in. further apart than those for the Rococo examples, it is clear that the decision to embellish each chest with different brasses was made at the time of construction. The differing brasses may have reflected the client's wishes or perhaps the cabinetmaker's limited supplies. It is also possible that the chests were made in the same shop but at slightly different times; however, the graining of the mahogany on each chest is of the same character and thus, they were almost certainly made within a very short time of each other if not concurrently. As noted in the Maine Antique Digest in 1999, these two chests are the only known pair of American block-front chests from the eighteenth century (Northeast Auctions, 20-21 March 1999, lot 670; Johanna McBrien, "A Sense of Place," Antiques & Fine Art (Winter/Spring 2008), p. 213; the Maine Antique Digest, Antique Prices Database, available online).
While showing the influence of the style centers of Boston and Portsmouth, the chests' cabinetry and decoration suggest that they were made in the vicinity of Newburyport (fig. 2), the home of their first owner, William Bartlet (1746/7-1841). The giant dovetail joining the base molding to the bottom board, a hallmark of Boston cabinetmaking, may suggest their production in that city, but it may also indicate a woodworker working further afield but under its sphere of influence. A closely related chest that descended in the Moulton family of Newburyport displays a number of similar features, including squared blocking, the same spurred knee returns, tall feet and a fan-carved pendant whose shape is slightly fuller than half-round (Israel Sack, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (September 1968), inside front cover). Such squared blocking, argue Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, defines "the rectilinear Portsmouth blockfront" and the scholars liken the chest advertised by Sack to one in the collection of Historic New England, which they attribute to Portsmouth (Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (Boston, 1984), pp. 146, 149-150, cat. 17). In light of the history of the pair of chests offered here, it is likely that such forms with squared blocking were also made in Newburyport, located only about twenty miles south along the New England coast. Furthermore, William Bartlet's younger half-brother, Richard Bartlet (1763-1832) owned a related desk, which is attributed to Newburyport by Jobe and Kaye. Similar details include fan-carved pendants, which are almost fully circular, the use of three boards for the back and the presence of a giant dovetail at the base (Jobe and Kaye, pp. 234-235, cat. 47). For another related block-front chest believed to have been made in Newburyport, see Skinner, Inc., Boston, 7 June 2009, lot 190.
When these chests-of-drawers sold at auction in 1999, they were noted to have been first owned by William Bartlet (1746/7-1841), one of the most prominent figures in the economic, political and civic life of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Newburyport. The son of Edmund and Hannah (Hall) Bartlet of Newbury (later Newburyport), Massachusetts, Bartlet trained as a shoemaker but later became one of the region's most prosperous merchants and Newburyport's wealthiest citizen. He owned a fleet of vessels, conducting trade with England, Holland, Russia and the East and West Indies and, at the foot of Federal Street, built large warehouses near Bartlet's wharf to house his supplies of sugar, molasses, coffee and hemp. His commercial pursuits also included the manufacture of cotton, insurance and banking and in 1800-1802, he served as a representative to the General Court. Bartlet married widow Betsy (Coombs) Lascomb in 1774 and in 1797-1798, he constructed a three-story brick mansion, which still stands today at 19 Federal Street in Newburyport (fig. 2), two events that may have occasioned the commission of the chests offered here. Indicative of his wealth and interests, he donated $110,000 in 1808 to the Andover Theological Seminary and other beneficiaries included Phillips Andover Academy, Harvard University, Williams College and Amherst College. Upon his death, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, where a monument erected in his memory hails Bartlet as "a distinguished merchant and a liberal patron of theological learning" (John J. Currier, History of Newburyport, Mass., 1764-1909, vol. II (Newburyport, 1909), pp. 233-238; Albert Hale, Old Newburyport Houses (Boston, 1912), p. 64).
As these chests were owned in the twentieth century by Bartlet's great great great granddaughter, Katharine Porter (Hughes) Teele (1903-1996), it is presumed that they descended directly in the family. The chests probably stood in the Federal Street mansion until 1874, when the house was sold out of the family. Bartlet's daughter, Hannah (Bartlet) Porter (1787-1871) inherited the mansion and after the death of her husband, John Porter (c.1784-1873), the chests probably passed to their daughter Catherine Brown (Porter) Lambert (c.1810-before 1900), who was then living in Newton with her English-born husband Henry Calvert Lambert (b. 1814). Subsequent owners comprise their son, William Bartlet Lambert (1845-1919), a President of the Boston Plate & Window Glass Company, his daughter, Elinor (b. 1873), who married Professor Hector J. Hughes of Harvard's Engineering School and their daughter and son-in-law, Katharine Porter (Hughes) Teele and John Whittemore Teele (1905-2001), the last family owner recorded in the 1999 auction catalogue (Northeast Auctions, 20-21 March 1999, lot 670; Currier, pp. 237-238; Samuel Atkins Eliot, Biographical History of Massachusetts, vol. IX (Boston, 1917), n.p.; [The Boston Press Club], Men of Massachusetts (Boston, 1903), p. 269; US Federal Census records).