Warner, Elijah – Cabinet & Clock Maker

Elijah Warner – Cabinet & Clock maker of Lexington, Kentucky

An attributed Elijah Warner tall case clock with fancy wood trim and three finial pediment.

Elijah Warner was a cabinetmaker living and working in Lexington, Kentucky from 1810 to his death in 1829. He was born in 1787 at Hinsdale, in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, to Nathan Warner, Sr. and Jerusha Webb Warner, themselves descendants of New England Puritans. By 1810, he had relocated to Lexington, where he met and married Rebecca Wingate in 1817. They had two children, Elmira and William Alfred.

Warner established a significant business and a prosperous life Lexington, where he installed his family in a frame house on Upper Street and where in 1823 he purchased the “Old Methodist Meetinghouse” on Short Street, a brick structure originally constructed in 1806. His use of this structure has been described in period records as a “cabinet-shop and clock factory.” His 1829 will states that the property also included “stables, carriage house and sheds.” In addition to his workshop and the family’s home, Warner invested in other property, both in Lexington and in farmlands surrounding the city.

Warner’s success was also evident in the number of journeymen he employed, possibly including one named Dunn, who signed a Warner attributed case “J. Dunn No. 4″. Another journeyman, Cox, left Warner’s employ and is known to have worked in Frankfort, Kentucky and possibly Cincinnati, Ohio. One Cox advertisement is known and announces his ability to make clock cases just like Elijah Warner, but for $5 less. Exactly how many places Cox worked, for how long, and just how many cases he may have produced is unknown as he is not as yet surfaced in other period records.

The waist section of a typical tall case clock attributed to Elijah
Warner; note the signature scrolled crest at the head of the waist door
and the concave transitional molding at the bottom.

Elijah Warner was also sufficiently successful to employ others to peddle his wares, which explains how, since their time of manufacture in the 1820′s, while no signed examples are known, Warner attributed clocks have been found great distances from Lexington, appearing throughout the Midwest and South. Evidence that Warner hired men to peddle his products throughout the region is found in this intriguing passage by Christopher G. Cary (1806 to after 1893) in Pioneer and Personal Reminiscences (Marshalltown, IA, 1893): “In the fall of 1825 I hired out to Elijah Warner of Lexington, Ky., to sell wooden clocks. My pay was to be $200 a year – considered large pay for those times, as I could hire a man to fill my place on the farm for less than half that…”

Even more revealing is this reference in a 2009 doctoral dissertation at the University of Kentucky by Alicestyne Turley, titled Spirited Away: Black Evangelicals and the Gospel of Freedom, 1790 to 1890, which states on page 223:

“…in preparation for Adam Rankin’s return to the non-slaveholding state of Pennsylvania, he placed (slave) Lewis Hayden, his brothers and sisters on the Lexington auction block in February 1826 along with his furniture, livestock and other slaves. During the sale, Hayden was traded for a carriage and a pair of horses. Hayden’s new owner, Elijah Warner, was a well-known Lexington clock maker, manufacturer, peddler of clocks and cabinets. Warner died a wealthy man in 1829, willing Hayden to his daughter Elmira at a value of $325.”

Turley’s scholarship is intriguing for both collectors and decorative arts historians. It clearly identifies Warner as a “clock maker and manufacturer.” This fits well with Cary’s report of being hired to “sell wooden clocks” and other period references to Warner as both a cabinet-maker and clock-maker. Collectors have long considered Warner only to be a maker of clock cases. No clockworks or dials signed by Warner are known, but the possibiltiy that he made both clocks and cases still remains unresolved. This research also introduces the possibility that slave labor was used in the Warner cabinet and clock shops.

In addition to clock cases and cabinetry Elijah Warner may have engaged in retailing other materials as well. Entries in the published papers of Henry Clay hint at this possibility with mention of the purchase of “carpet rods,” a “hair mattress,” and a “sopha” from “E. Warner of Lexington.” The paper’s footnotes for these entries say they “probably” refer to Elijah Warner.

Warner’s clock cases themselves exhibit significant variety. They are most frequently found in cherry with poplar secondary woods, but examples have also been found in both mahogany and walnut. Some Warner attributed cases have mahogany or walnut trim around the waist door and bonnet shelf. Others have rondels terminating the pediment scrolls, while some are plain. Still other examples have three finials, while others were drilled for only for a single central finial. Some rare Warner-attributed cases have glazed oculi in the waist doors. Even more variations exist, with one example having two columns flanking each side of the glazed bonnet door. The finished cases range from 80″ to 92″ tall. One could surmise that Warner’s clientele were offered a variety of grades in both materials and features, or could commission special features based on their own preferences. Perhaps this is to what J. Dunn’s “No. 4″ refers.

An attributed Elijah Warner simplified tall case clock featuring few special trim elements and only
one central finial.

Despite all these variations, tall clock cases strongly attributed to Elijah Warner all share a number of stylistic attributes. All have the aforementioned scrolled or swan’s-neck pediment, and plain swelled columns flanking the glazed bonnet door. Most distinctively, these cases have a uniquely scrolled crest on the waist door, which many collectors consider Warner’s signature feature. The transition between the chamfered waist section and the box base is achieved by a concave molding that extends beyond the edge of the box, while all examples have simple straight Federal feet and a shaped apron below a 1/8″ molding.

Regardless of whatever other businesses Warner engaged in, clock cases were certainly a prominent part of his work, as 91 tall clock cases were listed in his 1830 estate inventory, which ran to ten pages. After Warner’s death, the estate hired eleven salesmen to travel the region selling the clocks. Records indicate that the estate received approximately $18 for each clock, mostly in barter, a price that suggests there were clockworks installed in the cases. It remains unclear where the works originated and scholars continue to puzzle over whether they were produced in the Warner “factory” or purchased elsewhere, possibly from Luman Watson in Cincinnati, and merely installed in Lexington.

Whether he manufactured cases, cases and works, or engaged in an even larger retail trade, by the time of his death, Elijah Warner was a wealthy man. His estate was appraised at $36,000, but actually realized $56,000 when it was settled. For comparison purposes, $56,000 in 1829, if viewed as the cost of goods and services, is the equivalent of $1.4 million today using CPI adjustments, enough to make him quite prosperous, especially by the standards of his peers and neighbors.

Although a number of mysteries still surround Elijah Warner’s clock cases, their appeal is no mystery to collectors. In the modern marketplace, Warner’s cases are valued as examples of the skill and stylistic aesthetic of the artisans working on the Midwest frontier in the early years of the nineteenth century.

-p4A editorial staff, June 2011

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