Thomas Elfe: Charleston’s Most Famous Furniture Maker (You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

While most of us have probably heard of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) who was born in Otley in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and went on to become the most famous cabinet-maker in London, designing furniture in the mid-Georgian, English Rococco, and Neoclassical style, I’ll bet over 99% of the population is less familiar with another man named Thomas: Thomas Elfe.

Thomas Elfe was born one year after Thomas Chippendale in 1719 London, England. He was an accomplished and extremely deft furniture and cabinet-maker craftsman of the American Colonial Period. Elfe, who happened to be a contemporary of Chippendale, was considered Charleston’s best furniture craftsman of the eighteenth century. Spanning close to thirty years, his working career provided wealthy Charlestonians with the most beautiful home furnishings, established his personal fortune of over 6,200 English pounds. (An insane amount of money for the time at just over $1 million dollars.)
In the mid-eighteenth century, Charles Town was an economic booming city. The average resident was several-times richer than anyone in New York or Philadelphia. The people of Charles Town considered themselves as English citizens that just happened to be living in an American Colony of South Carolina. Their wish was to be exactly like the upper crust of London society. The wealthy Charlestonians loved the London style of furnishings and would buy almost anything in keeping with the fashions that were handmade by local woodworkers. This robust economy made Elfe’s woodworking shop wildly successful and lucrative. In fact, Elfe’s accounting book of transactions can be found at the Charleston Library Society. This remarkable document shows that between 1768 and 1775 Elfe, with several employees, hand made over 1,500 furniture pieces including fine detailed cabinets. These records denote that Elfe averaged about 17 pieces of furniture per month. Very impressive!
So, back to Thomas Chippendale. “The Two Thomases” have quite a few uncanny similarities. Here are a few of those facts:
*  Both were born in England about the same time (as we already learned)
*  Both apprenticed in the 1730s
*  Elfe apprenticed under his uncle; Chippendale apprenticed under his father.
*  Elfe married in 1748, as did Chippendale, and both were eventually widowed.
*  Both remarried.
*  Both had a son named Thomas who took over their furniture businesses.
*  Both lived during the uncertain times leading up to the American Revolution without both being personally affected.
*  Both had large furniture shops with many employees.
*  Both died within four years of one another. 

So where did Thomas Elfe work and live in Charleston? His restored house can be found at 54 Queen Street in Charleston’s French Quarter District. It was at one time two buildings, one along the street front (which was moved several yards back during the last restoration) and the other on the back of the property. (Most likely his workshop.) Thomas Elfe designed the house and it was built in 1760. It is commonly known as a colonial Georgian style house. The dimensions of the two-story house are 16′, 5 3/4″ by 30′, 2 1/4″. It is two bays by three bays. The main entrance to the house faces west, the street entrance for parking faces south. The house has two bedrooms and three bathrooms today. Its size is a comfy-cozy 1,670 square feet.
Elfe sold the house in 1763 to Richard Hart, a chairmaker. There of course have been several owners over the years. The house was restored by then present owner of the time in 1967-1969 to represent the eighteenth century as Elfe would have lived in it. The property last sold in 2003 for one million dollars.
To get a closer look at Thomas Elfe’s house, book my High Society II: Art & Wine walking tour. Together we’ll discover his and several other artists, artisans, and architects’ homes around the Charleston Historic District.

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