In the late 18th century Baltimore was Maryland’s city on the rise– far surpassing the sleepy capital of Annapolis. Over taxation and an unfavorable harbor had caused Annapolis to go into a decline. As a result of the slower economy, fewer new buildings were built which meant many 18th century buildings were preserved. By comparison Baltimore’s flourishing economy and growing population led to the construction of many stately homes and an influx of skilled artisans who crafted fine furnishings to fill them. This breakfront bookcase was likely a statement piece meant for display in the home of an affluent Baltimore businessman who wanted to showcase his wealth and taste.
These units often held a combination of books, ceramics, and family mementos. Many English country houses have similar pieces, like the one at A La Ronde in Devon
which contains items collected
by the Parminter family after their grand tours in continental Europe. A late 18th century breakfront made in Charleston is an American example
modeled after a Thomas Chippendale design; it’s now owned by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
The breakfront at Hammond-Harwood House has a flat top above an inlaid dentil-molded cornice and four glazed doors. The lower section has a central secretary drop down flanked by drawers above four doors and is raised on bracket feet. The glass is all original. A true breakfront piece as opposed to a bookcase has a protruding middle section in which the lower level breaks down and can be a desk.
This breakfront is currently in the ballroom. Because it held books, it is appropriate for the space, as reading out loud was a popular communal activity in the 18th and early 19th century. Rising literacy rates and readily available books spurred the popularity of reading aloud in groups, an activity particularly embraced in the houses of the elite who had book collections. The Social Life of Books
by Oxford University professor Abigail Williams has a good description of this topic.
Medium: Mahogany with Satinwood Inlay
Museum Purchase in 1952
Maryland, c. 1790-1800