How do we know a Pittsburgh Sideboard when we see one? That’s a good question, isn’t it? I’ve stood in front of more than a few sideboards at antique shows and with Philadelphia on the tip of the tongue, someone blurts out “Pittsburgh.” It’s happened so o
News-Antique.com - Oct 22,2009 - That’s a good question, isn’t it? I’ve stood in front of more than a few sideboards at antique shows and with Philadelphia on the tip of the tongue, someone blurts out “Pittsburgh.” It’s happened so often I feel I may know what a Pittsburgh sideboard is. Yet unlike eastern cities like Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, or regions like Virginia, Kentucky, Rhode Island or Eastern Pennsylvania, just what “Pittsburgh” is remains somewhat elusive.
We can start with a fine empire sideboard circa 1830 now in the Carnegie Museum of Art. It’s the work of Henry Beares and it’s signed in pencil on the bottom of the right hand drawer. In 1819 Beares advertised his occupation as a Chair Maker, located on Second between Wood and Smithfield Streets at the foot of Market. He appears inconsistently in city directories through 1841. The sideboard has a strong classical influence with columns, paw feet and an abundance of carving. Like many sideboards of this era, particularly those signed by, or identified as being the work of Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia, there are three levels– the center being lower and often having a marble shelf. While this example doesn’t have a mirror above the center shelf, many do.
In May, 1978, the magazine Antiques identified this piece as being the second known signed Pittsburgh Empire sideboard—and the second one to closely resemble the work of Quervelle. The article also notes that a card obtained with the sideboard by its then owners indicated the sideboard had been in the White House and was a gift from General Pike to President James Polk. It would be interesting if a sideboard of Pittsburgh-origin did make it to the White House. Polk was president from 1845–1849 and as a 15 year-old gift a sideboard made in 1830 may have seemed odd. It’s one of those stories and one that’s not very relevant here.
The first sideboard mentioned in the May, 1978 article was the work of Benjamin Montgomery. Montgomery signed it in pencil on the underside of the center drawer. Its current home is in the Rose Hill Mansion in Geneva, New York having been donated by the grandson of the earliest-known owner, William S. Bissell. The sideboard is strikingly similar to the one signed by Beares in the Carnegie.
I showed side-by-side pictures of the third-known Pittsburgh sideboard to a dealer friend who was stunned to learn they were signed by different makers. The third sideboard, stamped four times by William Alexander of Sharpsburg, situated on the Allegheny River Northeast of Pittsburgh. Alexander is listed in Pittsburgh directories from 1837 to 1844. The Alexander sideboard is featured on page 232 of Wendy Cooper’s book Classical Taste in America 1800-1840. Though all three sideboards resemble the work of Quervelle, Cooper writes that in part or whole, the sideboards were unlikely to have come from Philadelphia. “Most probably the enterprising mechanics of Pittsburgh were aggressively matching Philadelphia competition, and doing so at lower prices.”