For residents of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Boston wanting fine home furnishings, there were enough residents to support a cabinetmaking industry before 1800. In Charleston and elsewhere, the furnishing was more likely to come from England. In frontier cities like Pittsburgh, however, the economics of transportation and the landscape made it necessary to employ a cabinetmaker.
Travel in those days was difficult and importing quality manufactured furniture from Baltimore and Philadelphia was cost-prohibitive.
When John Thaw traveled in 1804 to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia with Elizabeth Thomas, his wife-to-be, he came without furniture. The prospect of a long carriage ride over the mountains lent him to sell his possessions and auction what couldn’t be sold before making the trip.
Behind the Alleghenies, the expense of Eastern goods like furniture in the city was great. While furniture may have been difficult to transport, demand would lure a number of craftsmen from established urban centers.
In a 1967 program for the Greater Pittsburgh Antiques Show and Sale held at the Syria Mosque, Stanton Belfour, then president of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania wrote that “Fine homes with furnishings now regarded as antiques were not to come to Western Pennsylvania until the antebellum days and after the civil war.”
Today that statement invites exceptions, of which there appear to be many. While most were unable to afford or unwilling to bring fine furnishings from Philadelphia or Baltimore, it was available to those with will and ability. For the rest, a large number of local craftsmen brought or developed the skill and ability to craft everything from a sophisticated chest to a clock or pianoforte. Contrary to the image of a frontier city with simple surroundings and basic furnishings, items of considerable quality were both produced in and imported to Western Pennsylvania.
Belfour explained that in the 1790s, only General James O’Hara, a leading Pittsburgh pioneer and land owner, and General John Neville, were known to have “fine homes.” Early on, these homes were in the countryside, Greensburg, Washington and Wheeling.
General John Neville had a stately home on Neville Island situated on the Ohio River. This home is said to have “been built of logs eighteen inches thick, with a wide colonial porch, a great central hall, enormous fireplace and beautiful shaded and sloping lawn.”
Neville also built two mansion-style country homes South of Pittsburgh. The first, “Bower Hill”, was burned in 1794, and the second, “Woodville”, survives today and is owned by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and is a National Historic Landmark.
Another early country estate was the Mount Braddock House, home to Colonel Isaac Meason, completed in 1802. The home is of a Georgian style built of limestone and features a center hallway and spiral staircase.
An inventory of the home described in the June 1930 issue of Antiquarian Magazine describes a grandfather clock, a Sheraton dining table made to seat 24, a miniature of General Richard Henry Butler (whose daughter married Meason’s son Isaac Jr.), Chippendale chairs, a long inlaid side table, two shaving stands and a very large Martha Washington mirror ornamented and carved with a golden eagle.
While their primary homes may have been in the countryside, O’Hara, along with both John and his son, Presley Neville had townhomes in Pittsburgh by 1795. Tax records also show John Neville owned an even grander house in Pittsburgh in 1798. Measuring 33×40, this home had 21 windows containing 450 pieces of glass. According to a 1902 account in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the home was regarded in its time as the most handsome house west of the Alleghenies and once accommodated George Washington.
Doctor Felix Brunot was also living in a home on an island named for himself. There is a description of his Brunot Island estate written in 1810 by F. Cumming who was a guest at Dr. Brunot’s house. The account says that Brunot left timber standing at the tip of the island facing Pittsburgh and the house was a half mile inland. The house was described as a two-story cottage with large barns and offices as well as a garden and nursery. The estate was fenced with a promenade between the fence and a wooded space between the promenade and the Ohio River.
Brunot would later sell the house and move with his family to a home on Liberty Avenue where he had a medical office.
General James O’Hara was at the time the largest owner of real estate in the county. The first home of O’Hara and his bride Polly Carson was near Fort Pitt in what was then called Officers Orchard. Later they moved to the fashionable address of Water Street.
It is said that James O’Hara’s bride astonished the people with the luxurious furnishings of her home. Carpets on the floors of her home were called “coverlets” by the neighbors who hesitated to walk on them.
The expanse of land O’Hara had amassed was inherited by his daughters, Mrs. William Croghan and Mrs. Harmar Denny. Four homes that were part of the estate included “Guyasuta,” on the bank of the Allegheny River near Sharpsburg lived in by O’Hara’s son Richard, “Deer Creek,” originally the summer house of the Denny family, “Kilbuck” at 1912 Western Avenue, an Indian chief who was believed to be buried in the garden, and Picnic House, the Schenley Mansion.
John Negley was born in old Fort Ligonier and in 1778 brought his wife and five children to a farm of about three hundred acres in present-day Highland Park. He later built a substantial house on a knoll that is now the basin of the Highland Park Reservoir.
John Thaw came to Pittsburgh at the request of the Bank of Philadelphia when it opened a branch. Thaw bought a house on Wood and Third in 1808. He would renovate it into an elegant townhome in 1817. This property was passed on to his son William who was born on the property on October 12, 1818.
Benjamin Bakewell arrived in the city in 1808 and lived at Fourth Street near Grant. Bakewell began an enterprise that produced fine glassware.
These are just a few of the prominent early Pittsburghers who would have created a demand for imported goods and fine locally crafted furniture. The first would have relied on the former and as Pittsburgh’s manufacturing sector developed, the latter.
While many residents living in Pittsburgh at that time relied on the local craftsmen, a look inside Woodville will show that Neville, not unlike James O’Hara, would know furnishings from England, Belgium and even China. Many of these were smaller items, but remarkably an early inventory would reveal even a pianoforte from London. Trade with Philadelphia and Baltimore was also somewhat regular, although slow and expensive.
It was no more the norm to have imported home furnishings in Western Pennsylvania, however, than it was to live in homes on a scale to those inhabited by Neville and O’Hara. We don’t know much about what was in most of these homes or the amount of furnishings that were locally produced compared to imports.
A look at the work of some local cabinetmakers reveals that there was little want for quality and it seems at least they were able to produce products that could compete with imports and likely be offered at competitive prices. The quality of locally manufactured furnishings was at least an acceptable substitute to that produced in the East. Pittsburgh had her skilled craftsmen just as did Philadelphia and Baltimore, from where many skilled cabinetmakers working in Pittsburgh came.
Some early examples of furniture made in Western Pennsylvania are housed in local museums including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Heinz Center in Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg.