Celebrating Thomas Day

Furniture designer, entrepreneur, and furniture industry pioneer, by Benjamin Briggs

A native North Carolinian and free man of color, Thomas Day was one of the most remarkable individuals in the history of North Carolina and the furniture industry. Over a span of nearly 40 years in the mid 19th Century, he designed and produced fine furniture and woodwork for wealthy white clients. At its peak, his cabinet shop in the riverside town of Milton was the largest in the state.

“As a furniture designer, I am always looking for inspiration, and Thomas Day is a source for some of my most vibrant and innovative designs,” said Scott Coley, owner of D. Scott Coley Designs. “Though he died more than 150 years ago, some of his themes, such as scrolled feet and bracketed tops, still enliven contemporary designs.”

Product development photo by American Drew

Product development photos by American Drew

Influence on the industry

The span of Day’s life, 1801-61 was, to put it mildly, a challenging time for people of color in the South. However, his designs – and execution of those designs – was of such quality that he excelled in attracting influential and high-powered patrons. He was most popular among clients who lived along the border of North Carolina and Virginia.

His designs were often highly individualized adaptations of the latest styles from New York and Philadelphia. Through these adaptations, he brought popular and affordable styles to local southern customers. This formula allowed him to expand his business to the point that, by 1850, his shop was making one-sixth of all the furniture built in the state of North Carolina.

Whatnot by Thomas Day, photo by the North Carolina Museum of History

Thomas Day Grecian Rocker from a private collection, photo by Daniel Lee

His business model was one of innovation, and his design and manufacturing expertise was a forerunner of North Carolina’s modern furniture industry. He was among the first entrepreneurs in the state to use steam-powered equipment to mass-produce furniture, manufacturing mahogany veneers, turned features, and decorative sawn work. His workforce included trained white and black apprentices, and he also owned enslaved persons.

An innovative designer

Day’s designs often interpreted popular themes of Grecian and French designs. He also designed a fantastic foot that he was using in some of his pieces by 1850. Though it was inspired by New York designers, it is Day’s artistic interpretation that has become iconic.

Thomas Day Secretary from a private collection, photo by Daniel Lee

Additional iconic Day features include the S-curve, scrolls, and pillars. He is also known for vibrant sawn-work that features a dynamic interplay between the positive space of wood ornament and the negative space of open areas between the shapes.

Photo by the North Carolina Museum of History

Photo by the North Carolina Museum of History

His accomplishments as an entrepreneur, industrialist, and artist are even more impressive when one considers that he achieved them as a free man of color in a Southern state where legal codes for black citizens became increasingly restrictive throughout his life. Even in this stifling cultural climate, Day earned the respect and support of his clients and neighbors.

For example, in the early 19th century, free black people were not allowed to move into North Carolina. Milton’s wealthy white citizens, however, signed a legislative petition in 1830 so that his wife could move to North Carolina from Virginia. Other traditions state that he built and donated church pews for the Milton Presbyterian Church, under the stipulation that he and his family be allowed to sit among white congregants.

Today, as America sees a deepening commitment to social equity and seeks to grapple with its troubled racial history, Thomas Day has grown in stature and importance. This is especially true in his home state of North Carolina, America’s furniture heartland.

Join our celebration

In recognition of this renewed interest in Thomas Day, Preservation Greensboro Incorporated and Blandwood Museum in Greensboro are presenting a six-month exhibit on Thomas Day. His pieces will be presented among the original furnishings and interiors of Blandwood, the home of John Motley Morehead, North Carolina governor from 1841-45 and founder of the North Carolina Railroad. The impressive façade of Blandwood was designed by New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis between 1844 and 1846. The house is the perfect backdrop for viewing the Day pieces, some of which are on loan from the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

Blandwood Museum, Photo by Preservation Greensboro

The ticketed exhibit will be open to the public from April 1 – September 30, 2022. Tickets may be purchased at the door of Blandwood Museum where tours will take place from 11am – 4pm Tuesday through Saturday and 2 pm – 5pm on Sundays. Sponsorships are available. Please call 336.272.5003 or visit www.preservationgreensboro.org for more information.

About Benjamin Briggs

Benjamin Briggs has served as executive director of Preservation Greensboro since 2003. The 56-year-old organization owns and operates Blandwood Museum, where it has cultivated narratives of Black history, women’s history, and the decorative arts. During his time with the organization, Benjamin has created an inclusive and proactive message of preservation advocacy to the community including economic re-investment, historical equity, and tourism.