The extraordinary Thomas Day

An exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History illuminates the life and work of the master furniture maker

CorrespondentMay 16, 2010 

  • What: Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker

    Where: N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh

    When: Opens Saturday and continues for at least a year.

    Cost: Free

    Contact: 807-7900 or

    More inside: A Thomas Day discussion, book release and home tour Page 5D

  • The N.C. Museum of History will present a panel discussion in conjunction with the exhibit from 9:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Saturday at the museum with "Blood Done Sign My Name" author Tim Tyson and others.

    The book "Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color" will be released Saturday. Co-authors and co-curators Jo Ramsay Leimstoll and Pat Marshall will sign books at an event Sunday in Milton.

    In addition to the book signing in Milton, there will be a tour of Day's former home and other buildings where his handiwork can be found. That takes place from 3-5 p.m. Sunday. Details:

If you've been to the N.C. Museum of History in the past 10 years you've kind of met Thomas Day.

His likeness is captured in one of three statues that greet visitors on the front steps. Along with museum founder Frederick Augustus Olds and the Native American "Sauratown Woman" is Day, the celebrated North Carolina cabinetmaker.

He's the well-dressed fellow holding a woodworker's plane, standing in the sun.

On Saturday, the master artisan will have his figurative day in the sun, this time inside the museum, with the new exhibit "Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker."

Day's story is remarkable. Born in Virginia in 1801, Day became one of the most accomplished artisans and entrepreneurs of the antebellum South. As a young man, he moved to North Carolina and established a woodworking shop in the town of Milton, in Caswell County on the Virginia border. The shop would eventually be counted among the largest and most prestigious in the state, producing furniture for the movers and shakers of the day in both North Carolina and Virginia. Experts now consider Day's furniture and woodwork among the best of 19th-century craftsmanship, and his pieces are actively sought by collectors.

What makes his story even more extraordinary is that Day accomplished all this as a free black man in antebellum North Carolina, overcoming restrictive laws and societal system that - to put it politely - did not encourage African-American entrepreneurialism.

Curator Patricia Phillips Marshall said the exhibit will address both the artistic, and the social and historical elements of Day's legacy.

"In order to understand the one you have to know the other," Marshall said.

In its heyday, from 1835 to 1860, Day's business thrived because of the robust artistry of his work. "Because of his extraordinary skill, people came to him rather than going to one of more than 80 cabinetmakers in the region," Marshall said.

The success of his shop, in turn, allowed Day to explore his artistry and incorporate technological innovations that his competitors - despite their advantages in the social structure of the pre-Civil War South - couldn't match.

The exhibit will give visitors the chance to appreciate Day's accomplishments. Furniture will be on display that was gathered from private collectors, the historic Thomas Day House in Milton, and the history museum, which has the world's largest Day collection.

By the book

The museum exhibit is part of a larger Day project that was more than 15 years in the making. Besides marking the exhibit opening, Saturday is also the release date for the book "Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color," co-written by curator Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, professor of interior architecture at UNC Greensboro.

Exhaustively researched, the 320-page book is dense with historical details and gorgeous full-color photographs of more than 160 pieces of furniture and architectural woodwork that Day produced between 1835 and 1861. Collecting material for the book required years of painstaking research, as Marshall and Leimenstoll tracked down Day's surviving work in homes and government buildings across North Carolina and Virginia.

"When I began researching Day's architectural woodwork, only a handful of parlor mantels and staircase newels were attributed to him," Leimenstoll said. "Through my fieldwork, I began to realize just how prolific his woodworking business was. Eventually, I identified about 80 houses with architectural features I attribute to Day. I am still amazed that so much of it survives."

Catherine Bashir, historian and author of the book "North Carolina Architecture," said the Day book is an amazing achievement of artistic and historical scholarship. "Those two have been working on this book for a thousand years," she said. "They just combed the countryside."

The 6,000-square-foot exhibition will showcase 78 pieces of furniture, including architectural pieces long since removed from their historic settings, several complete furniture suites, and related historical documents such as bills of sale. About a third of the items are on loan, and many will be rotated out and replaced during the run of the exhibit.

The art of the exhibit

"The majority of the people we are borrowing from are direct descendants of people that bought from Thomas Day," Marshall said. "They don't want to part with them for too long; these are cherished pieces of their lives, handed down through generations."

Displaying such a large collection requires careful thinking on the part of the exhibit designers, Marshall said. As co-author of the book and curator of the exhibit, Marshall has thought long and hard about the task of telling Day's story. If the book provides a rigorous academic chronicle of the man and his work, the exhibit is designed to share Day's story in a more engaging and approachable fashion.

For instance, the exhibit will feature several interactive and kid-friendly elements, such as a recreation of Day's workshop with accoutrements and hand tools common to the era. Visitors will be able to turn the shop's great wheel lathe, work at a planning bench or operate a historically authentic precursor to the modern jigsaw.

"As a curator, I recognize that people learn in different ways," Marshall said. "Some will come through and read all the plaques and everything; some will come just look at the furniture. Some people react better to visual information, and some better to tactile things."

The tactile elements of the exhibit are intended to convey the very physical nature of Day's craft, Marshall said. "In this case, it's an aspect that really needs to be appreciated - the sheer work involved."

The exhibit designers have even created partial replicas of the production line Day and his team would have used. As visitors turn wheels or work treadles, the display models - mannequins of workers and apprentices in period dress - demonstrate how furniture was manufactured in the 19th century.

Modern technology will also be employed. Video terminals will display three-minute filmed recreations in which actors describe the antebellum furniture business from various points of view - the journeyman laborer, the buyer, the auctioneer.

These elements are meant to convey the aspects of art, craftsmanship and historical circumstance that informed Day's work. Finishing the last of the preparations for the opening, Marshall said the exhibit is a gratifying conclusion to her research. "This is why I got into museum work," Marshall said. "I'm fascinated with objects and how they tell a story."

"You look at these pieces, and you realize that Day was doing things that were so distinctive," Bashir said.

"He's so creative in the way that he uses forms. then you consider his circumstances and you just think - wow, this guy must have just been amazing."

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