Day, Thomas – American Cabinetmaker – North Carolina

Thomas Day, Cabinetmaker

In the mid-19th century, Thomas Day (1801-circa 1861) operated the largest furniture manufactory in North Carolina — a remarkable achievement for a free Black in the pre-Civil War South.

Day learned his trade from his father and his urban style from design books and observation of what was in vogue on America’s East Coast. Day’s primary base was the small village of Milton, near the Virginia border. After working in Milton for a number of years, Day’s success allowed him to purchase the former Union Tavern in 1848. The remodeled tavern became his home and workshop until 1858.

During that ten-year period, Day perfected an idiosyncratic, mix-and-match style that emphasized scrolls — some elongated, others tight. His preferred woods were mahogany, mahogany veneer and rosewood. Everything he made was solid and substantial.

His business failed for at least two reasons: the Panic of 1857 and laws prohibiting free men of color from testifying in court against whites who did not pay their bills. Backed by local white business leaders, his son, Thomas Day, Jr., kept the business going through the Civil War and early Reconstruction. After defaulting on a loan, the younger Day closed the business in 1871 and left Milton.

Despite his prominence, there was never an obituary published for the older Thomas Day, and his death date of 1861 is assumed from census records.

The largest collection of Thomas Day furniture can be seen at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Reference note by Contributing Editor Pete Prunkl.

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