Friday, January 31, 2014

The Mysterious Life of John Shaw

On March 5, 1829, both the Maryland Gazette and the Maryland Republican ran an identical article of remarkable length for an obituary of that day. The obituary described the deceased, an Annapolis cabinetmaker called John Shaw, in glowing terms: “He was not afraid to die! … He was a good man, who lived sincerely beloved by his family, and deservedly esteemed by his fellow-citizens; and has, we trust, passed from this world of care, to partake of the joys promised to the righteous.”[1]

Doubtless, followers of this blog have noticed the recurrence of John Shaw’s name in various capacities throughout the construction and operation of the eighteenth-century Maryland State House. Today, the cabinetmaker has played a critical role in research for the renovation of the Old Senate Chamber. Recent research into John Shaw’s life has uncovered new and exciting details, perhaps sometimes raising more questions than answers. All the same, in gaining a better grasp on the biographical details of Shaw, we are better able to understand how and when he would have furnished the Old Senate Chamber.

Signature of John Shaw on a receipt for candles to illuminate the State House for Washington's ball, December 1783. Maryland State Archives, Scharf Collection, MSA S 1005-83-117.

In this entry, we will focus specifically on recent research that uncovered details on his early life, fostering the man who would become one of the greatest contributors to the interior appearance of the Maryland State House.

For understanding the origins of John Shaw, one of the most important sources is the Shaw Family Bible, owned by Historic Annapolis. The bible, given by John Shaw to his daughter, Mary Shaw, on August 2, 1827, recorded the birth, marriage, and death dates of many of the early family members. Very significantly, at the top of a crowded page of genealogical records, it noted the birthdate and birth place of the family patriarch, John Shaw.

The Shaw Family Bible, Courtesy of Historic Annapolis, Inc. The top line of this page records the birth of the family patriarch and matriarch, John Shaw and his wife.

John Shaw was born on April 25, 1745 in Glasgow to a John Shaw and Mary Cassels.[2] Both of his parents were natives of the regions - his mother was born in Kirkintilloch, not far outside of the city, and his father likely in Glasgow. At the time of Shaw’s birth, Glasgow and Edinburgh were becoming vibrant cities that particularly fostered artisan creativity. Details of Shaw’s youth in Glasgow remain largely unknown to researchers today, but it is commonly thought that he served an apprenticeship in Scotland before his emigration to Maryland.

Shaw’s first definitive appearance in Annapolis wasn’t until 1770 when, at the age of 25, he accused a local silversmith/engraver, Thomas Sparrow, of assault.[3] Though the case dragged on for two years, it was never officially brought to court and charges were eventually dropped. Shaw and Sparrow even went on to work together in the future.

By 1772, John Shaw had entered a business partnership with fellow Scotland native and cabinetmaker, Archibald Chisholm. They opened a shop on Church Street at an advantageous location near all the activities of the dock.[4] Together, Chisholm and Shaw created one of the largest and most successful shops in Annapolis. They hired a multitude of apprentices, including William and Washington Tuck. In 1778, John Shaw also took on a female seamstress apprentice named Jane Lewis, who may have assisted in the construction of the flag raised above the State House when Congress was in session.[5]

The pair also had a prominent role in their support of the Revolutionary War. Shaw’s shop worked to supply the state with articles that ranged from stocking gun barrels to supplying coffins for the soldiers. Chisholm and Shaw stayed in business until 1776, and then resumed business again temporarily from 1783 to 1784 when John Shaw’s shop burned down.

A mahogany document box created by Shaw and Chisholm, c.1784. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-0814.

When considering travel in the eighteenth-century, many people assume that colonial artisans like Shaw would have made at most one trip across the Atlantic in their life. Descriptions of discomfort aboard ships and the length and dangers of travel abroad have doubtless played into this common assumption. Recent research into John Shaw’s life, however, reveals a man much more well-traveled than previously believed. In fact, it is very likely that Shaw went abroad multiple times in the 1770s. This information factors in hugely to our research into Shaw’s furniture. At a time when furniture styles were rapidly evolving in Scotland, Shaw would have been able to observe up-to-date neoclassical styles on his trips abroad and bring them over to include in his work in Annapolis. Unfortunately, why Shaw would have made these journeys across the Atlantic will have to remain a mystery.

By 1777, Shaw seemed to have at last settled down into Annapolis. He married Elizabeth Wellstead Pratt and was officially appointed armorer of the state. Shaw’s shop was booming, and state records indicate that he was the only cabinetmaker supplying the new State House with furniture. In the coming years, he would supply the State House, and notably the Old Senate Chamber, with a multitude of items ranging from desks for the Senate to candles for the ball in honor of George Washington.[6] Shaw’s work in the State House would help to secure his name in history as one of the most prominent cabinetmakers of colonial Maryland.

[1] The Maryland Gazette, 5 March 1829.
[2] "Scottish, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950," index online, Family Search, last accessed: 7 November 2013.
[3] Provincial Court (Judgement Record), 1770, MSA S551-85, vol. DD 17, f.75 and f.320.
[4] The Maryland Gazette, 27 May 1773.
[5] Anne Arundel County Register of Wills (Orphans Court Proceedings), 1777-1779, MSA C125-1, MdHR 9524, p.11.
[6] Maryland State Papers (Scharf Papers),13 December 1783, MSA S1005-11772, MdHR 19,999-077-103

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