We continue our Black History Month series with a profile of cabinet maker Thomas Day who owned the largest furniture business in North Carolina during the height of slavery.
As part of our Black History Month series, we hear about the life of the successful cabinet maker Thomas Day. He was much more than just a cabinet maker. He also handcrafted ornate, decorative pieces for the home and highly sought after furniture. During the height of slavery, he owned the largest furniture making business in the state. Director of the Thomas Day Education Project Laurel Sneed.
“People knew it was high quality, it was veneered with mahogany, which is very rare and expensive wood. So people wanted it. It was very fashionable.”
Thomas Day was born in 1801 to a family of free slaves. At a young age, he began an apprenticeship with his father in southern Virginia.
“It was a very international scene there in Petersburg in furniture making. So Thomas Day comes out of a very sophisticated furniture making tradition that his father was grounded in.”
Following the Revolutionary War, there was a boom in furniture making in southern Virginia, particularly in Petersburg because Great Britain had stopped importing goods. The demand for exquisite furniture was high in that area. And during this push for fine furniture, Thomas’ family left Virginia because of increasingly stricter laws affected free people of color.
After moving from Virginia, Day lived with his family in Warren County, North Carolina in 1820, all the while honing his cabinet making skills. A few years later, he headed to Hillsboro to open his own furniture store.
“We know he had a shop there from records, but we don’t know quite where it was. So then he moved to Milton North Carolina which is in the northern Piedmont on the boarder of Virginia, which at the time was a growing community and a tobacco market center. And it continued to grow and boom because of the discovery of bright leaf tobacco.”
The wealth generated through the sale of tobacco allowed farmers to purchase the high quality, customizable furniture by Thomas Day.
“People started building additions to their houses, new houses, people had a lot of extra money. And here was this man locally, who was producing this very fine furniture.”
This niche market proved very successful for Thomas Day. During this period of professional success, Day was married at age 29 to Aquilla Wilson of Halifax County, Virginia. They had three children, two of them followed in their father’s footsteps and became cabinet makers.
“There were plenty of cabinet makers in North Carolina but they were one man, two man shops. None of them reached the level of productivity of Day’s shop. In 1850, it was producing one sixth of all furniture produced in the state.”
His high output of furniture can be attributed to using steam powered tools, which Day started using in his shop around 1850. This was one of the earlier uses of steam power manufacturing. He also employed a skilled labor force, at one time included 20 workers.
“Instead of one man making everything, making one piece from the ground up, we begin to see the division of labor where one person does one part, another person does another part which of course increases productivity, and was a precursor to what we saw thirty, forty years later in the total industrialization of furniture making.”
Day, a free African American, also owned as many as 14 slaves in 1850. In addition to furniture making, he also created ornate interior architecture - like stair rails, decorative molding, and mantels.
“There’s this one home in Caswell County that has these faces in the mantel that are very sculptural they have a, almost a scowl expression and anyone that looks at that just goes you know it’s trying to say something. I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to say but it’s like a piece of art, it just speaks to you. And a lot of his work had that indescribable quality to just speak to you.”
Thomas Day’s work was treasured in the 19th century, and today, it’s still highly valuable. At a recent auction, a Thomas Day couch was sold for $30,000.
A statue of Thomas Day stands outside the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, but Sneed says it’s only a guess as to what he looks like since there are no photographs of him. However, his skill and artistic expression live on through his creations that can be found at museums, in fine homes, and even at auctions.
If you’d like to see pictures of Thomas Day’s work, visit our website, publicradioeast.org. I’m Jared Brumbaugh.