Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, New York City was the center for the manufacture of high-style furniture in the United States. The Meeks firm, run by three generations of the family from 1797 until 1869, was one of the principal furniture establishments in the city. Large and prolific, Meeks produced good to excellent quality furniture in most revival styles and expanded its markets beyond New York.
Joseph Meeks was born on September 4, 1771, in New York or New Jersey. He was one of eight children of Captain John Meeks (1739-1817) and Susanne Helene Marie de Moulinars (1745-1823). According to oral tradition, three of Joseph's Meeks ancestors-Edward, John, and Joseph Meeks-immigrated to New York City from Wales in the seventeenth century. The Moullnarses appear to have been French Huguenots who had immigrated to New York City by 1718 and settled in New Rochelle, New York, by 1726.
Joseph Meeks probably apprenticed under his father, who identified himself in his will as a 'Turner of The City and County of New York" In 1797 at age twenty-six, Joseph established the Meeks cabinetmaking firm on lower Broad Street with his brother Edward. In 1800 the brothers separated. The reason for this separation is not known, but it may be related to Joseph's marriage to Sarah Clark Van Dyk on June 29, 1800. For the next ten years Joseph operated alone under his own name.
The American economy began to decline sharply following the passage of the NonImportation Act in 1806 and the Embargo Act in 1807. Although the commercial isolation of the United States tended to stimulate some domestic manufacturing, the general recession made life very difficult for small businesses. Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that Joseph Meeks's name is absent from the New York City directories in 1811, 1812, and 1813. He may have worked for another cabinetmaker during these years, or perhaps took a brief leave from cabinetmaking. The city directories identify him as a chocolate maker in 1814 and 1815, and as a chocolate maker and cabinet-maker-from 1816 through 1818.
In 1819 Joseph Meeks appears to have become fully reestablished in the furniture trade, promoting himself as a cabinetmaker through 1825 and as a cabinet-and chairmaker from 1826 until 1828. From 1819 through 1828 he ran the business at 43 Broad Street in a modest two-story shop that had limited storage and work space.
As early as 1798, Meeks had begun to develop markets in the South for his furniture. Because of protectionist policies passed by Congress starting in 1789 and the disruptive War of 1812, the South found itself cut off from European imports, thus creating demand for northern goods. Recognizing these opportunities, cabinetmakers in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston began to market their wares aggressively in the South as early as the 1790s. In 1798, only one year after establishing his business in New York City, Meeks began exporting his furniture to Savannah. Unlike most craftsman who shipped their merchandise, Meeks made short trips there with his wares in hand. An advertisement in the Columbian Museum and Savannah Advertiser of March 6,1798, is the earliest document to record his activity in the city.
The earliest and only known documented commission received by the Meeks firm before 1828 is recorded in a receipt dated May 15, 1805, from Joseph Meeks to the estate of Henery Whitman for a mahogany coffin. (The earliest known description of the firm's product line comes from the advertisement in the Louisiana Gazette of November 22, 1820, which includes a lengthy list of articles from Meeks's New York line, including:
Sideboards and Beaureaus, Elegant armors, Ladies dressing tables, Writing desks & tables, Dressing tables in setts, Drinking tables, Breakfast and card tables, Mahogany bedsteads, elegantly carved and maple bedsteads, Clocks and cases, Wash and candlestands, A few dozen of the first quality Windsor chairs, And some other articles in the line.
This furniture inventory shows that a variety of forms were available in different quality levels. For instance, a customer had the option of purchasing a bedstead in maple or mahogany, left plain or embellished with carving. These options offered a broad price range for a single form, the most expensive choice being carved mahogany This concept of variety established by Joseph Meeks early in the firm's history is characteristic of its later product lines, and became a recurring theme in the history of the Meeks firm.
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