Tall clock, with an 8-day movement by John Jones, and a case by an unknown cabinetmaker, Norfolk, ca. 1760. Private collection
On the eve of the American Revolution, Norfolk was the largest city in Virginia, and the eighth largest in colonial America. It possessed one of the finest natural harbors in the world and served as the seat of commerce for the larger Chesapeake Bay region. The colony’s extensive export of tobacco combined with a tremendous trade in naval stores, pork and timber, propelled society along the lower James River to a vaunted position as the wealthiest in English speaking North America as late as 1750.
Fatefully, on New Year’s Day in 1776, on the very eve of the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore, the British governor of colonial Virginia, ordered the British Navy to bombard Norfolk’s waterfront, setting fire to, perhaps, as much as one-third of the city. Shortly afterwards, with permission from the House of Burgesses, colonial Virginians torched the remainder of that great city to prevent its strategic port and the warehouses, filled with vast supplies, from falling into enemy hands. The final tally of losses was 1,333 homes and other structures burned completely to the ground, with only a mere “12 buildings left standing on the north side of town.” The loss comprised the most thorough destruction of any city in English speaking North America.
Despite the popular myth that little survives from colonial Norfolk, evidence makes it possible to reconstruct a coherent view of the city’s highly developed cabinet trade. One of the Forum’s most popular and highly respected speakers, Sumpter T. Priddy, will take this opportunity to share with us decades of observation and research which illuminate how Norfolk’s distinct populace and extensive international commerce impacted furniture styles in the city and the surrounding countryside.