One of my never sell pieces is the Federal chest that sits in a corner of the front log room. I bought it several years ago at auction but did not have the opportunity to look it over very much until I got it home.
I have to be careful at auctions not to draw too much attention to any piece, as there are others there who are watching. An experienced antique trader must be able to show no emotion while on the hunt, either at a private sale, tag sale, public auction, or estate sale. At the small auctions around here, since I apparently have that dealer look, people think that whatever interests me should interest them. So when I saw the Federal chest, I gave it a quick look and moved on.
I bought it for $200, which was cheap enough, but would have been cheaper if the house bidder hadn't dropped two bids against mine. At home, I pulled out all the drawers and began a search for a maker's name. I found it, in brown ink, on the second large drawer in the back. Zaddock Shields. I got on the computer, pulled up Ancestry's Federal Census, and found him.
He was listed as a cabinetmaker on the Taylor County, Virginia census in 1850 and 1860. Taylor County is now a part of the state of West Virginia. Finding his name on the piece and on the census -especially with him being listed as a cabinetmaker -added two thousand to the value of the chest. I found some additional family information on Genforum- his father was a sheriff, and the family there seemed to have been well established.
Next, I photographed the chest and added closeups of the signature, made copies of everything, and mailed a packet to the West Virginia State Archives, asking if they had any files or were maintaining any files on their early cabinetmakers. The director said they were not, but with my file as the beginning, they would begin, as it was a great idea. I told him about the Birmingham Museum of Art's large catalog of early Alabama potters, quilters, silversmiths, furniture makers, and assorted craftsmen, and I suggested that West Virginia should have a similar ongoing project.
Beginning in 1850, the Federal census gives a person's main occupation, and although it takes time to go through every county's list of people, the information on who was making furniture or throwing pottery is there, at least on the ones who were doing it full time. I am glad that Zadock Shields of Taylor County, Virginia had enough pride in his work to dip the pen in ink and write his name inside the drawer.