Celebrating a 19th Century Secretary from Elgin County, Ontario

Some countries are well known for their styles of furniture: French Empire, English Chippendale, American Federal are just some well known periods that spring to mind. Canada, by comparison, is a relatively young country with disparate styles of furniture reflective of its diverse population and immigrant settlement areas. Although most pre-Confederation furniture was simple and sturdy, the country was beginning to develop its own trade of cabinet makers influenced primarily by some of the European styles mentioned above. While some cabinet makers were true to their European heritage, others mixed traditional influences with new styles. These were adapted to a new country, readily available materials, and to the needs of the early settlers at the time. The secretary featured in this post is a case in point.

Upper Canada in Elgin County

Talbot Secretary
Elgin County Secretary, Circa 1850

This secretary (shown on the right) is a rare survivor from Upper Canada which can be traced back to its original owner, William Sells, who lived in Elgin County from 1830-1863.

The estate was known as Seldon, located at Payne’s Mills, about three miles west of St. Thomas. The town of St. Thomas was named after Thomas Talbot, who emigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1791, where he became personal secretary to John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governer of Upper Canada. In 1803 Talbot built a log cabin at a place now known as Port Talbot and created a settlement for immigrants, doling out strips of land. (1) One of those early settlers was William Sells.

According to a provincial assembly in 1836, Talbot settled a total of 519,805 acres in the area (excluding his personal holdings) on 3,008 lots. (2)

Country Formal Style

The secretary is designed in a country formal style. Philip Shackleton’s book, The Furniture of Old Ontario, points out:

General practice up to about 1850 was for clients to order furniture directly from cabinet-makers and not, as later, from merchants.

Very few pieces of Ontario-made furniture were marked or branded in any way by their producers.

Finely arched mouldings on the top half of the cabinet show influences of Sheraton and are more formal and decorative. The bottom half is utilitarian in style and function, with some carved mouldings between the sets of front drawers. The secretary would have been used to store deeds, documents and valuables. It is a piece reflective of its time and place in early Upper Canadian history, made with expert craftsmanship but with austere lines that do not detract from its primary function. And yet, the secretary, with its clean lines and restrained ornamentation, would easily fit into many modern homes today without looking dated or out of place.

Visitors to the area at the time point out the settlers’ preferences for simple, “stoic” furnishings:

“Here no fauteuil, spring-cushioned, extended its comfortable arms – no sofa here…Colonel Talbot held all such luxuries in sovereign contempt. In front of a capacious chimney stood a long wooden table, flanked with two wooden chairs, cut from the forest in the midst of which they now stand”

-Mrs Jameson (Shackleton)(3)

Fine Craftsmanship

The secretary is constructed in seven pieces which fit together snugly. Some of its distinguishing features are:

  • the outside is almost entirely constructed in black walnut, a hardwood that is only found in North America;
  • secondary woods for the interior drawers are in white wood (possibly basswood);
  • use of nails is very scant – we only found one wrought iron square nail in the back-centre portion of the drawers;
  • the top half has a glazed front with sliding doors and wooden brackets;
  • the top left of the door illustrates fine brass hinges, with brass key holes on some of the drawers;
  • highly skilled dovetail tenons used on all window frames;
  • dovetail joints on all of the drawers;
  • all drawers are graduated including the false front section;
  • all of the pieces are original and there is no sign of previous repairs – highly usual for such an early secretary.
R1200-Secretary-Front-View-White-
Secretary from Elgin County

Seldon Homestead

Seldon was bequeathed to William Sells’ daughter in 1862 and remained in her possession until her death in 1919 when she bequeathed it to Mr. McKay, president of the Elgin Historical Society. In the February 1930 issue of Canadian Homes and Gardens, the secretary appears in the original homestead (shown below)(4). Interestingly, the current owner of the cabinet found two documents at the back of the side drawers. One of them is of a newspaper from St Thomas called “The Home Journal”, dated July 4, 1861. The other document is a colour illustration from a lithograph for the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), published by The Orcutt Company, Chicago, IL.

It’s worth celebrating and appreciating our early history in the few cherished objects we can still find, live with, and use in our own homes. This secretary connects us to our early settlers, to the materials that were salvaged and created from the land, and to those who helped create the country we now know as Canada.

Dimensions

  • Height of whole piece is 82 inches overall (base is 29 in. high, book cabinet 46 in., and cornice 7 in.).
  • Length of desk top 74.5 in. overlapping cabinets by 1 in. all around.
  • Base Drawer blocks are each 27 in. high, 24 in. wide and 26.5 in. deep; kneehole is 22 in. wide and 24 in. deep and 22 in. high.
  • Centre drawer 21 in. wide by 22 in. deep and 5 in. high.
  • 5 right hand drawers are 22 in. wide and 22 in. deep with graduated heights as follows 2 @ 3”, 1@ 4” and 2@5”.
  • Left hand top 4 matching drawers are a false front concealing 3 large pigeonholes and 5 smaller ones while the bottom drawer is 5” high and acts as a rest for the false front when open.
  • 4 Drawers in left end of cabinet are 10” wide, 25” deep.
  • Bookcase is 73 in. long, 46 in. high and 12 in. deep with 10 movable shelves 9 in. deep.
  • Bookcase glass doors are 23 in. wide for two end doors and 27 inches for centre slider, with 11 panes of glass per door.  There is a groove track in the cornice for the centre slider.
  • Cornice length overlaps the bookcase by 4.5 in.; height 7 inches and 16 inches deep.

Special Thanks

Rogues’ Hollow Antiques would like to thank Bill Dobson and Bernie Gates for making this post possible.

Sources

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