Since it opened in 2010, the exhibit Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker has received three national awards and been featured on PBS’s “The Woodwright’s Shop with Roy Underhill” and in The New York Times.
Only five weeks remain to see this acclaimed exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. On view through Monday, Dec. 31, the exhibit features furniture made by Thomas Day, a free man of color who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s largest cabinet shops prior to the Civil War. Admission is free.
In addition to showcasing approximately 60 pieces of furniture crafted by this accomplished artisan and entrepreneur from Milton, Behind the Veneer explores the extraordinary story of a man who succeeded and flourished despite shrinking freedoms for free people of color in antebellum North Carolina.
Behind the Veneer presents a remarkable range of items produced in Day’s shop from 1830 to 1860. He created furniture in popular 19th-century styles — from the very “neat” and “plain” to the ornate Rococo Revival — and infused many of the styles with his exuberant motifs.
The late Patricia Phillips Marshall, curator of the exhibit and co-author of the book Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, said that Day can rightfully be called one of the fathers of the North Carolina furniture industry. She noted that his surviving furniture and architectural woodwork still represent the finest of 19th-century craftsmanship and aesthetics. Day’s pieces are highly sought after today by collectors of antebellum furniture and African American material culture.
Exhibit pieces, such as a mahogany veneer sideboard, mahogany side chairs and a faux-painted wardrobe, reflect his creative genius. Behind the Veneer features furniture from the collections of the Museum of History, private and public lenders, and Thomas Day House/Union Tavern Restoration Inc. in Milton.
Insightful and informative, the exhibit goes behind the veneer of antebellum North Carolina to reveal its complexities. Many restrictive laws applied to free people of color; the right to own property was the exception. By capitalizing on this freedom, Day built a life for himself and his family and ran a thriving business. The master craftsman gained the respect of white clients, the movers and shakers of the Dan River region in North Carolina and Virginia.
Day was one of a few cabinetmakers who could design the architectural elements for a room and then create the furniture to complement it. People of the Dan River area came to him because of his extraordinary skill.
Engaging interactive offerings enhance the visitor experience. Walk through a re-created workshop filled with hand tools from an early 19th-century cabinet shop. Turn the shop’s great wheel lathe and press a treadle to run a jigsaw. Throughout Behind the Veneer, video “portraits” come to life to highlight aspects of Day’s life and the antebellum period.
Whatever frustrations Day endured as a free person of color, he found refuge in his Milton shop. There, he expressed freedom through his incredible designs and experienced a high degree of autonomy as master of his shop. His workforce included journeymen, apprentices, day laborers and enslaved workers, with a racial makeup of white, black and people of mixed races.
Visit Behind the Veneer to learn more about this artisan, entrepreneur, early industrialist, and devoted husband and father who left behind a tangible legacy. Discover how Day set a course for survival and success in the face of injustices, hardships and uncertainties in his life.
Progress Energy is title sponsor of the exhibit, with additional support from Raleigh’s News and Observer, The Broyhill Family Foundation Inc. and Mr. and Mrs. H. Nelson Rich.
For more information about the N.C. Museum of History, call (919) 807-7900, access the museum’s website or connect with the museum on Facebook and Twitter. The N.C. Museum of History is a unit of N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. For more information on North Carolina arts, history and culture, visit Cultural Resources online.