Grand in stature, expert in detail, and imbued with the rich history of a Boston captain-adventurer, this desk-and-bookcase reflects an array of economic, social, and craft aspects of eighteenth-century Boston life. It is a superb fusion of design principles and construction characteristics unequivocally connected to Boston cabinetmakers and their patrons. Furthermore, the inscription on the back of the upper case, providing the name and address of the first owner, enables a deeper understanding of the social and economic milieu in which the desk-and-bookcase was created.
The upper section, with its restrained, one-dimensional classical form embellished by ogee-carved doors, shows the Boston cabinetmaker's interpretation of English designs such as those popularized by Thomas Chippendale from the mid-century. The lower section however, incorporates particularly Boston charateristics with its carved concave and convex shells within a distinctly arranged interior section over a blocked front, on blocked, bracket feet. The small, double shell-carved drawers flanking the prospect door and document drawers are unusual variations of the standard interior. The lower section is not flat blocked but actually bowed within each of the tripartite units of the facade. This feature, extending to the feet, adds an additional baroque flair to the design and has a relationship to the ogee carved doors of the upper section.
Although the Powars desk-and-bookcase fits firmly into the traditions of eighteenth-century Boston work, its distinct feet link it to a smaller school. The blocked, double-ogee bracket, baluster shaped foot on a small, recessed square platform relates to a group of Boston furniture from the third quarter of the eighteenth century. This foot design may be the production of one shop or possibly a commission for a single patron. Three of these pieces are a chest-on-chest illustrated here as figure 3 (advertised in Antiques (January 1991), p.20); a chest-of-drawers in the Bayou Bend Collection (illustrated in Warren et.al, American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, 1998), F134); a kneehole desk advertised in Antiques, (May 1972), p.744.
THOMAS POWARS (1751-1807)
The inventory of the "Estate and Effects of Thomas Powars" was taken on April 10, 1809 (detail, illustrated as figure 1). It refers to him as a mariner and reflects a man who had accumulated a sizeable estate as well as possessions valued at $481.88. Among the extensive list of household furnishings, the desk-and-bookcase being sold here is referred to as "1 Mahogany Desk & Bookcase" valued $15.00, the single most expensive piece of furniture in the inventory. As expected, the household linens are the most costly items in the house and one listing of "5" Feather Beds, 1 Mattrass, 2 Sham Beds, 4 Bolsters & Pillows are valued at $78.00. The relative expense of the desk-and-bookcase can be measured against other furniture such as a large lolling chair at $1.50, a small "much worn" lolling chair at $.50 and a Chest of Drawers valued at $3.00.
Thomas Powars' greatest listed asset was his property. According to the inventory, he left $4000 worth of properties on Federal, Berry & Sisters Streets. As the writing on the back attests, Powars lived at No. 21 Federal Street when he owned the piece. His ownership of the property on Federal Street can be further ascertained from a Suffolk County deed in which it is documented that on August 24, 1782, the mariner Thomas Powars bought a house and land on the East side of Federal Street (S.D. 148.51). This purchase of real estate coincides with his marriage to Polly (nickname for Mary) Jeffries (1759-1832) on August 30, 1781 (Boston Marriages from 1700-1809, p.444). It is very probable that he purchased the desk-and-bookcase at this time as well.
The Powars settled into their Federal Street house in the south end of Boston, a fashionable and prestigious address amidst surrounding residences and gardens. Close to the port, Federal Street later merged with Sea Street and must have facilitated Mr. Powars' business activities. Laid out in 1642-3 as a footway "from the town to the gardens," it had a succession of names and was termed "Federal Street" in 1788, because the church on the corner of Federal and Channing Streets was the site where the Convention finally ratified the Federal Consitution. In 1794, the first theater in Boston was built on this street. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the street became almost entirely devoted to business, losing its original character (Thwig, The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston: 1630-1822 (Boston, 1920), p.186).
POWARS, VENTURE CARGO AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BOSTON
Captain Powars' inventory and other documentary evidence shed light on the potentially lucrative practice of trading venture cargo in 18th century Boston. The inventory of his estate refers to him as a "mariner," but also indicates that he had run a shop of sorts, equipped with supplies and commodities. A letter that Powars wrote from Cape Framois (?), probably in the West Indies, to a John Welles in Boston, on March 27, 1793 illustrates his principal career. In this letter Powars writes:
I have Shipped on your account on board the Brig Essex Jeremiah Foster Masting bound for Boston Three Hhds (hogsheads) Molasses Five Barrels Coffee - & One Small Cask of Indigo - for which I enclose your Invoice + bill of Lading but Cannot send you the amount sales of your adenture as the sales are not yet finish'd ... I have shipped on my own account + which I wou'd be Oblig'd to you to Enter with yours + give bond for the duties. The freight I have already paid - Should Mrs. Powars be Disposed to sell it."
Attached to this letter is an invoice for "J Welles's Adventure." It appears from this and other surviving letters, that Powars was sailing to foreign ports on behalf of his backers in Boston. From the early eighteenth century and continuing into the next century, traders in tropical commodities were significant contributors to the American economy. The evidence indicates that Powars captained a vessel and acted as a business agent for the "ventures" of a number of traders. After assembling a varied and valuable cargo, he returned to Boston, or as suggested by his letter to Welles, may have boarded his cargo on another captain's ship. It is also interesting to note the involvement of "Mrs. Powars" as the decisive factor in the sale of some extra cargo. It appears that she minded the accounts from the home front. (see, letters March 27, 1793, Sept. 25, 1789, Massachusetts Historical Society)
THOMAS POWARS, the younger
Thomas and Mary Powers had six children, Thomas (b.1784), Mary (b.1787), Sarah (b.1871), Elizabeth (b.1793), Harriet (b.1797), Henry (b.1799). Thomas Powars the younger became the executor of his father's estate and inherited the majority of the property and real possessions. Once again, upon Thomas Jr.'s death, the inventory of his estate lists the desk-and-bookcase being sold here. Assessed on February 23, 1824, the "Secretary & Bookcase" is valued at $12, three dollars less than its value at the time of the elder Thomas Powars' death just 17 years earlier. By this time, the most expensive piece of furniture in the inventory is the Piano Forte, valued at $40. The documents related to his estate list his profession as "merchant," while earlier the same year, the Columbian Centinel noted that he was a clerk in a Boston Bank. He may have had two professions successively. Like his father, Thomas Jr. left an impressive estate and the literature listed in his inventory such as the Art of Bookeeping, Napoleon in Exile, Shakespeare's Dramatic works, indicates that he was an educated man interested in history, travel, and practical subjects.