Mr. Thomas Day (1824-1861) was quite the savvy artisan and business mogul. He built a furniture business that dominated North Carolina during the early to mid-1800’s, pioneered fabrication techniques and became the preferred craftsmen of prominent society.
Day came from a free and relatively well-off family and was privately educated. He and his brother joined forces to establish their workshop in Milton, North Carolina. Over the course of a decade, he built their workshop from one building into a multi-property complex which he ran for 40 years. He kept a line of furniture in his storefront while working on commissions for high-profile residences, churches and educational institutions.
As a master craftsman, he developed a stylized flair that mixed contemporary designs while integrating some facets of his African heritage. His creativity was marked by methodical and symmetrical rhythms that created aesthetic balance. For instance, he took basic structures and added details such as a S-shape curve; one of his signatures. He also specialized in veneered furniture and his use of mahogany, imported from Africa and Central America, became one of his trademarks. His use and production of mahogany is one way that scholars attribute furniture to his workshop. He was quite confident about his design decisions and ensured that the best quality materials were used.
Throughout his career, he employed traditional hand-carved techniques. In the 1840’s, he began incorporating steam power in his process to increase his production quantity and cost-efficiency while maintaining competitive pricing. This approach enabled him to easily replace structural pieces made from standardized design templates by utilizing steam power to have ready-made elements when orders were placed.
Outside of his workshop, Day’s commissions were high-profile, lucrative and well-praised. In 1847, he won a contract with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to create pieces for the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies. The interesting aspect of this commission is that the project took longer to complete and exceeded the original budget. Patrons protected him and kept his high fees private in order to avoid the rage of competing white craftsmen.
In 1855, at the height of his capital success, Day was commissioned by North Carolina Governor David Reid to furnish his home with forty-five pieces of complexly crafted furniture. The next year, Day won an award for a crafted furniture piece at the North Carolina State Fair for a mahogany wardrobe.
His work has been heavily studied and displayed in museums such as the North Carolina Museum of History. The furniture company Craftique sells a line of reproductions of Day’s work. Past profits from this line were donated to the restoration fund for the Union Tavern workshop, the site of his original locale in Milton, North Carolina.
Thomas Day’s furniture was a status symbol and a luxury brand then and remains in the same echelon today. If you ever see a verified piece at an auction, snap it up.
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Learn more about his history through this book and these videos: