Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thomas Day Antebellum Free man of color Master Cabinetmaker

A bronze statue of Thomas Day 1801 1861 outside the North Carolina Museum of History

During the height of slavery in the Antebellum South a free black artisan, furniture maker and businessman, Thomas Day’s cabinetmaking shop turned out striking beds, bureaus, tables, sofas and chairs for white and Free black customers that are as highly coveted today as they were over 150 years ago when they were new.

Thomas Day (c. 1801 – c. 1861) was a free black American furniture designer and cabinetmaker in Caswell County, North Carolina. Day's furniture-making business became one of the largest of its kind in North Carolina, employing at one point up to twelve workers, and distributing furniture to wealthier customers throughout the state. Much of Day's furniture was produced for prominent political leaders, the state government, and the University of North Carolina.

Thomas Day's residence and workshop, Union Tavern, Milton, NC.

Day was born to free black parents in Dinwiddie County, Virginia around 1801. His father was John Day, a farmer and skilled cabinetmaker whose products apparently were well-received in the local market. According to the letters of John Day, Jr., only discovered in 1995, John Day, Sr., was the illegitimate son of a white South Carolina plantation mistress and her black coachman. John, Jr., names R. Day of South Carolina as his grandfather. Thomas Day's mother was Mourning Stewart, the daughter of free mulatto Thomas Stewart, who owned a large and successful plantation in Dinwiddie County on which he worked slaves. John Day married Mourning Stewart around 1795-1796, and they had two sons: John Day, Jr., born 1797; and Thomas Day.

Both John, Jr., and Thomas were educated to an extent unusual for free blacks in the South. It is believed that both attended school with white students in Sussex County, Virginia. That both were very literate and well-educated is obvious from the correspondence they left behind.

A Thomas Day work table in the late Federal style 1820's

His family moved to Warren County, North Carolina in 1817. It is possible that John Day, Sr., was employed in Warren County by Thomas Reynolds, a well-known local master cabinetmaker who operated a shop in Warrenton (and was know to have employed black labor). John Day, Jr., who had followed his father to North Carolina to continue learning the wood-working business, apparently set up his own shop.

and then to Caswell County sometime after 1822. Day began his cabinetmaking business in Milton, North Carolina with his brother, John Day, Jr., but his brother left Caswell County by 1825, leaving the cabinetry business solely to Thomas. John Day would later emigrate to Liberia and serve as Chief Justice of Liberia.

In 1827, Day purchased property on Milton's main street and advertised his products in the Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser newspaper:

THOMAS DAY, CABINET MAKER, Returns his thanks for the patronage he has received, and wishes to inform his friends and the public that he has on hand, and intends keeping, a handsome supply of Mahogoney, Walnut and Stained FURNITURE, the most fashionable and common BED STEADS, & which he would be glad to sell very low. All orders in his line, in Repairing, Varnishing, & will be thankfully received and punctuallo attended to.

That year he appeared for the first time on the tax list as a property owner. And, over the years he was to increase his property holdings.

A Thomas Day Empire secretary in the Classical style 1830's 1840's

After his furniture business became profitable, Day married Aquilla Wilson of Halifax County, Virginia in 1830, and had three or four children. Mary Ann, born c. 1831; Devereaux, born c. 1833; Thomas, Jr., born c. 1837; and, possibly a daughter, A., born c. 1835. This last child may have been named Aquilla after her mother. All children are believed born in Milton.

Many stories have circulated about the difficulty Thomas Day and Aquilla Wilson had in becoming married. One states that she was not allowed to travel from Virginia to North Carolina to marry Day. However, the facts show that Thomas Day married Aquilla Wilson in Halifax, Virginia, and that the difficulty arose when the couple attempted to return to Milton. The year was 1830. The problem was a North Carolina law passed in 1826 in an attempt to restrict the movement of free blacks into the state. It required nothing short of a special act adopted by the North Carolina Legislature to permit Day's new wife into North Carolina. The support he received in this effort was almost universal, including a letter from Romulus Mitchell Saunders, North Carolina Attorney General and former state legislator and U.S. Congressman (and born in Caswell County near Milton).

A Thomas Day transitional early Victorian sofa 1840's  

Day's furniture-making business, though owned by a free black American, employed the use of both black slaves and of white apprentices, despite the general belief that Day, as a free man, was of lower social stature than his white apprentices.

Day's economic and social position was unique. He was a free black, but owned slaves. His social position was below whites, but he had white apprentices. Only whites were allowed to sit on the main floor of the Milton Presbyterian Church, except for Thomas Day and his family. He and Aquilla were accepted as full members of the church in 1841. The pew in which he sat, he made. And, it was on the front row, not in the back. Local tradition has it that Thomas Day traded building pews for the church in return for his family's being able to sit in the main portion of the sanctuary. This is, however, doubtful as it was not his style. Thomas and Aquilla were accepted as full members of the church, and it is possible that he was an elder.

6 Thomas Day transitional chairs with saber legs

2 of a set of 4 chairs that I own attributed to Thomas Day transitional style 1840'-1850's the chairs are stuffed with there original Spanish moss

2 of a set of 4 chairs that I own attributed to Thomas Day transitional style 1840'-1850's the chairs are stuffed with there original Spanish moss

As a businessman, Day was quite successful, at one point becoming a stockholder in the State Bank of North Carolina, and Day owned significant real estate, including his place of business and residence. He became a major stockholder in the local branch of the North Carolina Bank and owned property beyond Milton. This was highly unusual for a free person of color in the era before the American Civil War. Day had even managed to steam-power much of his furniture-making implements, which aided greatly in his production volume and efficiency.

A national economic panic in 1857 caused Day's furniture business to suffer heavily, Moreover, he was faced with increasing restrictions on what he was allowed to do as a free black. By the end of the decade, Day's business was in receivership, and the court named his friend and business partner Dabney Terry as trustee for the property, which included his house and shop, tools, steam engines, rental properties, wagons, furniture inventory, teams, harnesses, and six slaves. The court gave him until December 1859 to settle is accounts. Thomas Day, Jr., executed a note for his father's debts, and the property was returned to him, but still under the eye of a court-appointed trustee. Thomas, Jr., continued the business through the Civil War and well into Reconstruction, selling out in 1871 and leaving Milton.

But in 1861 or at some time shortly after, Thomas Day died, although his exact death date is not known due to the lack of local public records. He is buried near Milton on private property that he once owned. For many years only a pile of stones marked his grave. However, a suitable monument now memorializes the site.

Thomas Day left behind an incredible legacy in his furniture, cabinetry, and other woodwork. His pieces can be found at the University of North Carolina, and in museums and fine homes throughout North Carolina and beyond. Day's home and workshop have been restored and are significant points of local and state history. In addition, his furniture was and is still seen as of the highest quality antebellum, native furniture in North Carolina. Pieces of Day's work have been displayed at various museums throughout North Carolina and Virginia, and an exhibit focused on Day's work will open at the North Carolina Museum of History in May, 2010.

Due to Day's status as a free black, and his unique achievements given the social and racial restrictions of the era, he is hailed as a highly important figure in the history of North Carolina's African American culture.

A statue of Thomas Day stands outside the North Carolina Museum of History,

Classical bed by Thomas Day 1830's

During Thomas Day's time as a furniture make he worked in different styles from late Federal, Classical, Empire transitional, Gothic Revival Early Victorian, Rococo Revival vernacular. Thomas Day signed very little of his furniture and today we know pieces that are made by him thru the pieces that are sighed plus pieces that have the original bill of sell. From theses pieces We can attribute other pieces that closely relate to Thomas Days documented pieces.

Classical style sideboard by Thomas Day 1830's 1840's

Thomas Day side chairs with saber legs 1840's

Wardrobe, poplar and yellow pine with scroll interior, made by Thomas Day for Green D. Satterfield, Roxboro, Person County, 1854.

Furniture made by Thomas Day

Thomas Day's Federal style residence and workshop, Union Tavern, Milton, NC

A Thomas Day bureau

A Thomas Day bureau

A Thomas Day center table

Lounge, walnut (upholstery not original), made by Thomas Day for Gov. David S. Reid, Rockingham County, 1858.

Lounge, walnut (upholstery not original), made by Thomas Day for Gov. David S. Reid, Rockingham County, 1858.

A Rosewood Rococo Revival style sofa by Thomas Day

A vernacular secretary by Thomas Day 1820's

Side chair, mahogany, mahogany veneer, rosewood veneer, and poplar (upholstery not original), made by Thomas Day for the James Poteat family, Yanceyville, Caswell County, 1855-1860.

Stairwell post by Thomas Day

Mantel by Thomas Day

Detail of a carved mantel by Thomas Day

Stairwell post by Thomas Day, who earned fame and fortune as a woodcarver and cabinetmaker.

Rocking chair by Thomas Day

Victorian sofa made by Thomas Day in the Milton Presbyterian Church

Classical sofa by Thomas Day

Thomas Day Furniture and Interior Trim

The pew in which Thomas Day & family sat in the front row, he made in the Milton Presbyterian Church


  1. Brilliant furniture maker and as a North Carolinian I must admit much under-recognized!

  2. Yes you are right Thomas Day is under recognized that is why I'm focusing on him and other Historical Black figures that few people know of. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thanks for the history of Thomas. He was quite the talent and certainly created some beautiful pieces.

  4. So very glad you have done this- I need to add to it this Spring. I am close to Milton. He is not nearly as known as he should be for a number of reasons. thanks for this great detailed post

  5. You are welcome SHERRY HART. I love the chairs cieldequimper but I'm buying a set of 8 chairs for my dinning room now I have to make more room. Hi little augury you should go to his shop/home and visit the Milton Presbyterian Church! I can't wait to see your post!

  6. I sent you an email. I would love to get your feedback on my sofa.