African American furniture designer and cabinetmaker Thomas Day (1801 – 1861) was an iconoclast. A free man, his creations were in demand during the height of the south’s antebellum era. From now through July 28, 36 of his best works and photographs of his architectural work are on display at the Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery.
A slaveowner, Day was a wealthy businessman of mixed ancestry, which likely attributes to his acceptance by many elite white business owners and political leaders. While there are no pictures of him to reference, historians assume that he had fair skin and wavy brown hair like his brother John, a Liberian missionary.
A mandate for people of color, Day worked as an apprentice at home where he taught his younger son to repair and make furniture. Until now, his body of work has been seen only in museums or in position in his historic houses in North Carolina.
In the book Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color by Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, the authors say, “Day’s furniture is unique in its vernacular interpretation of nineteenth-century Anglo urban designs … As an artisan and master of his own shop, Day remained unconstrained by the dictates of tastemakers who worked in distant northern cities.”
Their theory is supported by the fact that during Day’s heyday, North Carolinians preferred furniture made in London, New York or Philadelphia – he was quite confident with his creations and unfazed by the competition.