The Butterfly Man of New Orleans

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

May 2008 | The armoire is the most significant form of colonial French furniture made in the Americas.1 In Louisiana, armoires were crafted by immigrant cabinetmakers from the first quarter of the eighteenth century and were frequently listed in estate inventories from as early as the 1740s.2 Details of the construction and style of a group of twenty important Louisiana Creole3 examples reflect manufacture in a New Orleans workshop between 1810 and 1825.4 Local collectors have come to know the anonymous maker as the “Butterfly Man” for his signature use of the double dovetail—a bowtie-shaped interior patch also known as a butterfly or flying Dutchman—to strengthen the glued panels that comprise the side walls (see Fig. 11).5 This common reinforcement method has not been found on any other armoires made in Louisiana.

Of the twenty surviving examples of the Butterfly Man’s work, all of which are in private collections, six are inlaid with Anglo-American motifs including bellflowers, leaves and vines, barber pole stringing, and pictorial paterae depicting an eagle with stars or an urn with flowers.6 These are typical embellishments of East Coast furniture that are uncommon in Louisiana.7 Hence, the six inlaid Butterfly Man armoires, all of which are illustrated here, represent a highly sophisticated and distinctive fusion of French colonial and American Federal design.

Although the identity of the Butterfly Man has long been a mystery, recent scholarship suggests to us that the English-born cabinetmaker George Dewhurst may have been responsible for the inlay work. A lecture presented by the furniture historian Stephen P. Latta at the 2007 Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum revealed that Dewhurst, one of the best-documented inlay makers in the United States, was working in New Orleans when the armoires were made.8 Though it is not known exactly when he arrived in the city, “George Dewhurst, cabinetmaker” is first mentioned in the New Orleans newspaper Le Courrier de la Louisiane on October 1, 1817, in a list of individuals who had letters in English waiting for them at the post office.

Dewhurst is again described as a cabinetmaker, at 29 Bourbon Street, in the New Orleans city directory of 1822, where he is one of just four cabinetmakers with Anglo-American names listed. City directories indicate that the number of cabinet–ma-kers work——ing in the Vieux Carré doubled be——-tween 1811 and 1822.9 While Dewhurst was part of a larger influx of crafts——men to New Orleans, he alone has surfaced as a probable candidate to whom the Butterfly Man’s complex inlays may be attributed.

In the early nineteenth century, the French émigré cabinetmaker Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) crafted Empire style armoires in New York City. Termed a French press in the 1810 New York price book, Lannuier’s armoire typically had “two flat panelled doors, with two panels in each” and was crowned with a broken pediment.10 An advertisement in the New Orleans Louisiana Advertiser of December 10, 1827, for “bedsteads, armours, & c—Received per brig Ivory Lord, an invoice of high post Bedsteads, Armours, & c for sale by C. D. Jordan, 35 Gravier street” not only documents the arrival of such northeastern manufactured armoires in the deep South, but offers a clue to the local use (and pronunciation) of the term armoire (see Fig. 2). Quite unlike Lannuier’s more architectonic works, the Butterfly Man’s cabinets resemble one produced for Stephen Girard (1750–1831) in 1796 in Philadelphia by the Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) émigrés Jean Baptiste Laurent and Charles Domballe (Fig. 3).11 Common details include flush (rather than recessed) door and side panels, a detachable cornice, rounded stiles, scalloped apron and side skirts, cabriole legs, and brass fiche hinges terminating in decorative finials.

Between 1791 and 1812, following the Haitian Revolution, the number of émigrés arriving in New Orleans from Saint-Domingue is estimated to have surpassed fifteen thousand.12 On an 1803 to 1805 visit to New Orleans, the Frenchman Charles César Robin (b. c. 1750) noted: “A fugitive from San Domingue who arrived here in New Orleans without a sou has, in three or four years, already built a house worth thirty to forty thousand francs, without counting the capital of his establishment.”13 Numerous surviving indenture contracts verify that often Saint-Dominguans were apprenticed to master cabinetmakers in the Vieux Carré,14 and so the similarity of the Butterfly Man’s work to that of Laurent and Domballe is unsurprising. For instance, the use of flush panels in the doors and sides is a construction technique that appeared in Louisiana with the arrival of émigrés from Saint-Domingue.15

While such flush panel armoires are not confined to Louisiana and the French Caribbean, their scarcity elsewhere reflects their significance to the region. Such panels appear occasionally on East Coast neoclassical rail-and-stile pieces, but were not a preferred feature. According to Louis Malfoy, characteristics of eighteenth-century armoires made in Saint-Malo, France, include flush panel doors separated by a false center stile, which is another feature of the Butterfly Man pieces.16 West Indian craftsmen may have copied Saint-Malo or other similarly made French armoires and brought their construction techniques to Louisiana. The flush panels of the Butterfly Man armoires are sometimes highlighted with bandings that suggest more typical, recessed ones (see Fig. 1).  

The facades of the Butterfly Man armoires have full-length doors featuring bookmatched panels without waist rails, and interior struts or braces dovetailed into the door frames (see Fig. 12). The frames are mitered and there are flush joints between the panels and frames. These intersections are occasionally inlaid with bellflowers or stringing, a design practice atypical in Louisiana (see Figs. 5b, 8a).

The side panels are always divided by a waist rail. Additionally, the upper and lower side panels are often made of two vertically butted and glued boards. Occasionally these boards are oriented diagonally and bonded on an angled line—probably to disguise the combination of mismatched pieces that were used in an effort to economize on wood by saving wider stock for the door panels. The use of double dovetail joints on the interiors of the side panels is found in nearly every Butterfly Man armoire. This can be easily explained. The hide glue that cabinetmakers used to bind and reinforce panels is sensitive to heat and moisture. In the lower Mississippi River valley, the hot and humid climate probably caused the glue to fail on thin-paneled joints. The double dovetail reinforced the joints and testifies to the extra care lavished on these pieces by their maker. Another key feature of the group is the detachable cornice joined to the case by two tenons that rise from the top front rail of the armoire.17 Rounded front stiles that soften the facade are carried up into the cornices, which are also characterized by rounded corners. A classic spurred scalloped skirt adorns the lower register of each armoire. On at least two the front apron is cut from the exact same template (Figs. 1, 5), further evidence that the group was made in the same workshop.18 All of the side skirts have a spurred scallop with a central arch, a design element that is unique to this group (see Fig. 4b). Finally, there is a small notch near the knee of each of the cabriole legs.

The interiors of the Butterfly Man armoires are finely appointed. They generally include an interior belt of three drawers with two shelves above and one below, although the one in Figure 5 has a second belt of two drawers at the bottom (see Fig. 5d). Two types of patterns occur on the skirts of the drawer belts—a simple gentle swag or a scallop that mimics the case’s skirt. Most of the armoires are constructed with a six-panel back with pinned (or pegged) joints. Back panels and the bottoms of interior drawers feature tongue-and-groove construction, and the dovetails of the drawers are small and precisely made. The edges of the four shelves are usually scored with two lines referred to as a scored bead. By comparison, the interior of the armoire made by Laurent and Domballe is roughly finished.

The Butterfly Man armoires incorporate specific combinations of materials. Mahogany is used in the more elaborate pieces, though cherry and walnut also served as primary woods. Secondary woods used to construct the cornice, interior, and back panels include poplar, cypress, and, occasionally, walnut. Each is fitted with brass hardware that includes exposed fiche hinges, escutcheons, pressed neoclassical drawer pulls, and a French lock (see Fig. 5c). The hinges and escutcheons were long thought to be of French manufacture, despite the fact that most French provincial hinges are made of handwrought iron known as fer forgé. In fact, the majority of the brass hardware on the Butterfly Man armoires was likely ordered out of widely distributed metalware trade catalogues from firms in Birmingham, England. Several such catalogues in the library at the Winterthur Museum contain illustrations of hardware of the exact sort used on Louisiana armoires (see Figs. 6, 7). In the catalogues, fiche hinges are called “French hinges,” confirming the origin of this particular variety. Beyond what was ordered from England, the nineteenth-century New Orleans brass foundry of Ives and Bass or other American firms may have supplied some materials. Finally, handmade rosehead nails are used throughout the armoires, confirming manufacture in the early nineteenth century.

While characteristics of style, construction, and materials have established the Butterfly Man’s oeuvre, they do not confirm his identity. However, Latta’s investigation of Dewhurst may hold the key to identifying the person responsible for the decorative work on the six inlaid examples. George Dewhurst and his father, John (b. c. 1749), both born in England, were in business in Boston as Dewhurst and Son from 1802 to 1809. Tax records identify them as cabinetmakers between 1802 and 1807, but in 1808 and 1809 they were explicitly called “string makers,” a term for inlay specialists.19

Latta discovered that George Dewhurst moved from Boston to Baltimore to Lexington, Kentucky, to New Orleans in the early nineteenth century in pursuit of markets for his work.20 He is known to have provided inlays to the Baltimore merchant William Vance (w. 1806–1813), who advertised “banding, stringing, and other ornaments” in Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on October 18, 1806.21 Perhaps inlaid furniture was becoming less novel on the East Coast and the burgeoning community of New Orleans represented an ideal location for Dewhurst to carry on his enterprise, prompting him to settle in the city by 1817.

Did George Dewhurst introduce the practice of pictorial inlay to New Orleans? It would account for the abrupt appearance of such devices on the Butterfly Man armoires coincident with his arrival in the city. In the absence of any known nineteenth-century New Orleans newspaper advertisements for other inlay makers—local or otherwise—as well as a paucity of locally made examples prior to the time of Dewhurst’s arrival, it is plausible that he was responsible for the sophisticated patterns on the Butterfly Man group. Robin wrote: “Ébenisterie is only done here by the Anglo-Americans, whose work is inferior to that of France, especially Paris. However, the diversity of the hardwoods available in Louisiana could make this art extremely productive.”22

Certainly the cabinetmaker and inlay maker of these armoires worked together on them. Dewhurst was surely sufficiently skilled to have made the cases as well, although this would be more challenging to prove. According to Latta, “Although Dewhurst listed himself as a ‘stringing and banding maker’ for nearly a decade, his primary occupation was that of a cabinetmaker. He listed himself as such during his years in New Orleans. Consequently, it is logical to assume that Dewhurst had the skills necessary to execute the casework of the armoires. Still with the frequency of subcontracting going on between carvers, upholsterers, inlayers, turners, and others, attributing their overall construction to his hand would be a stretch. Much more research is necessary to draw that conclusion.”23 

Leaf and vine (see Fig. 4c), tasseled swag or jabot (see Figs. 1, 8), and bellflower patterns (see Figs. 5, 8), all clearly from the same hand, are common to most of the six inlaid armoires and appear on no other Louisiana-made case pieces. That the inlay maker incorporated a variety of regional patterns makes the case for Dewhurst’s authorship, since he had practiced in various cities and could have absorbed local traditions of workmanship.24 For instance, the leaf and vine arising from a neoclassical urn can also be seen on the front legs of a miniature two-drawer chest from Kentucky or Tennessee (Fig. 13).25 Rope and tassel inlay similar to those elements of the Butterfly Man’s tasseled jabots is strongly associated with nearby eastern Tennessee.26  

The armoires’ barber pole (see Fig. 4a), checked, and toothed bandings are all associated with East Coast manufacture. The toothed pattern (see Fig. 1a, top) has been studied by various furniture specialists including Charles Montgomery, Vernon C. Stoneman, and Robert Mussey Jr., and is closely associated with the Seymours of Boston.27 Because the Dew-hursts may have produced such inlays for the Seymours, as Stoneman and Mussey have pointed out,28 George Dewhurst’s own use of a toothed pattern inlay in Louisiana would not be surprising. Further, Mussey tentatively attributes to Dewhurst and Son a pattern of light and dark adjacent triangles.29 This stringing pattern is found on the Butterfly Man’s work and on armoires by other New Orleans cabinetmakers. Importantly, a virtually unknown, though less complex domino pattern also appears on the armoire in Figure 1 (see Fig. 1a) and on one other Louisiana armoire that is not by the Butterfly Man.30 A similar zigzag stringing can be seen on a Baltimore sideboard in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.31

Pictorial paterae including an eagle, fans, initials, and neoclassical vases decorate the friezes of the six inlaid pieces. One found near Oak Alley Plantation in Saint James Parish bears the initials JR, possibly for Jacques Telesphore Roman (1800–1848), the plantation’s original owner (Figs. 9, 9a). The practice of inlaying initials and monograms into decorative oval paterae in some Creole armoires comes from France, where armoires made to commemorate marriages and store wedding trousseaus often displayed the carved monogram of the betrothed couple in a cartouche. The patera on one Butterfly Man armoire depicts an eagle surmounted by eighteen stars within an ovoid nimbus (Fig. 4a). The use of highly similar eagle inlays by the New York City cabinetmaker Michael Allison (1793–1855) suggests that this element may have been imported from the Northeast. Similar eagle inlays are found on four other early nineteenth-century Louisiana armoires made by four different cabinetmakers.32       

Close examination of the group of armoires attributed to the Butterfly Man reveals their maker as a gifted and inspired artisan. The accomplished stringing and pictorial inlays on six of them were likewise created by a sophisticated craftsman whose patterns are associated with Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Lexington—quite possibly George Dewhurst. While we wait in hope of confirming the identity of the Butterfly Man through future scholarship, his work remains our treasured consolation.33

1 The word armoire is derived from the Latin word armarium, meaning a place for storing arms. The related terms armoire, armarie, aumaire, and almaire, all meaning cabinet or wardrobe, abound in French literary references. For examples, see Henry Havard, Dictionnaire de L’Ameublement et de la décoration…, 4 vols.(Paris, 1887–1890), vol. 1, pp. 150–163.
2 The succession inventory of Jean Rondot, compiled in 1747, lists a walnut armoire in the chamber; SC 28, 882, French Superior Council 1714–1769, Colonial Judicial Records, Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, New Orleans. In Louisiana, the terms wardrobe and clothes press were used interchangeably with armoire in such documents. A study of early Louisiana inventories written by Brian Costello will appear in Jack D. Holden and H. Parrott Bacot, The Furniture of Louisiana, Colonial and Federal Periods, Creole and Vernacular, 1735–1835 (Historic New Orleans Collection, forthcoming 2010).
3 For definitions of the term armoire as it is used in Louisiana, as well as “Cajun armoire” (armoire Acadienne, armoire cajenne) and “Creole armoire,” see Jay Dearborn Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton, A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2004), pp. 10–11, 41, 78.
4  Building on a foundation of early Louisiana furniture studies pioneered by Jessie J. Poesch, a new study of armoires from 1735 to 1835 will be included in Holden and Bacot, Furniture of Louisiana. See Jessie J. Poesch, “Early Louisiana armoires,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 96, no. 2 (August 1968), pp. 196–205; Jessie J. Poesch, Early Furniture of Louisiana (Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, 1972); and Francis J. Puig, “The Early Furniture of the Mississippi River Valley, 1760–1820,” in The American Craftsman and the European Tradition, 1620–1820, ed. Francis J. Puig and Michael Conforti (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 1989), pp. 152–168.
5 The name was coined by the New Orleans collector Hugh E. Smith in the 1970s.
6  The armoires were made in three heights of approximately six, seven, and eight feet. The maker disregarded scale and simply added to or subtracted from the height. As a result, the short ones appear wide for their height.
7 The added expense of inlay could explain the relative rarity of embellished examples.
8 Stephen P. Latta, “‘Lately received from the manufactory of Duhurst and Son’: The Documentation on Imports and Domestic Production” (paper presented at the Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum, Delaware, March 1–2, 2007).
9 Whitney’s New-Orleans Directory and Louisiana and Mississippi Almanac for 1811 lists twenty-eight cabinetmakers, ten joiners, six turners, eight wood merchants, three upholsterers, and one leather tanner. John Adems Paxton’s New-Orleans City Directory and Register for 1822 lists fifty-eight cabinetmakers, two joiners, four turners, seventeen wood merchants, twelve upholsterers, and three leather tanners, plus two carvers-gilders, one pianoforte maker, and six furniture stores. By contrast, over one thousand cabinetmakers were active in Philadelphia between 1816 and 1830. See Deborah Ducoff-Barone, “Philadelphia furniture makers, 1816–1830,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 145 no. 5 (May 1994), pp. 742–755. A list of all recorded cabinetmakers in New Orleans in this period, compiled from primary sources, will appear in Holden and Bacot, Furniture of Louisiana.
10 Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier, Cabinet Maker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French Ébéniste in Federal New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), p. 84. Of Lannuier’s three known mahogany presses dating from 1812 to 1819, one descended in a Natchez, Mississippi, family.
11 See Robert D. Schwartz, The Stephen Girard Collection: A Selective Catalogue (Girard College, Philadelphia, 1980), No. 33.
12 Paul Lachance, “Repercussions of the Haitian Revolution in Louisiana,” in The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, ed. David Geggus (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2001), pp. 212–215. For more on émigré cabinetmakers, see Margo Preston, “New Orleans Free Men of Color: Cabinetmakers c. 1800–1850” (master’s thesis, Sotheby’s Institute, London, 2006).
13 Charles César Robin, Voyages dans l’intérieur de la Louisiane, de la Floride occidentale, et dans les îles de la Martinique et de Saint-Domingue, pendant les années 1802, 1803, 1804, 1805 et 1806, 3 vols. (Paris, 1807), vol. 2, pp. 82–83.
14 For a discussion of these indenture contracts, see Paul Lachance, “A Graphical Overview of New Orleans Indentures, 1809–1843,” Index to New Orleans Indentures, 1809–1843, City Archives and Special Collections, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library, http://nutrias
.org/~nopl/inv/indentures/graphs.htm. The authors thank Irene Wainwright for assisting with these contracts and other period documents.
15 See Jack D. Holden, “Echoes of an Island Past: Flush Panel Armoires in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana,” Southern Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3 (Spring 2007), pp. 118–126.
16 Louis Malfoy, Le meuble de port: un patrimoine redécouvert (Editions de l’Amateur, Paris, 1992), pp. 82–83. We thank John Lawrence of the Historic New Orleans Collection for bringing this publication to our attention.
17 This detail was noted in Poesch, “Early Louisiana armoires,” p. 204.
18 This detail was discovered by Steven Huber.
19 Robert D. Mussey Jr., The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, 2003), p. 96.
20 See n. 8. Latta has attempted to match Dewhurst’s moves and possible authorship to the reoccurrence of specific inlays; see Latta, “‘Lately received from the manufactory of Dewhurst and son’: Inlay in Federal America” (master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University, 2008). 
21 See n. 8; and Deanne Levison, “The symbolism of floral inlay,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 145, no. 5 (May 1994), p. 709.
22 Robin, Voyages, vol. 2, pp.  82–83.
23 Latta, e-mail correspondence with Cybèle Gontar, March 6, 2008.
24 The cross-pollination of regional accents, especially between Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee furniture, was discussed in Marianne Ramsay, “Early Kentucky Furniture: Selected Examples of Inlaid Decoration;” and Anne S. McPherson, “Birds, Busts and Bellflowers: The Idiosyncratic Inlay of Tennessee Furniture” (papers presented at the Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum, March 1–2, 2007).
25 See n. 8.
26 See Derita Coleman Williams and Nathan Harsh, The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and Its Makers Through 1850 (Tennessee Historical Society, Tennessee State Museum Foundation, Nashville, 1988), pp. 37–38.
27 See Vernon C. Stoneman, John and Thomas Seymour, Cabinetmakers in Boston, 1794–1816 (Special Publications, Boston, 1959), Pls. 22, 23, 83; and Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, pp. 93–95. For toothed pattern inlay on a Philadelphia worktable, see Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (Viking Press, New York, 1966), pp. 420–422, No. 426.
28 Stoneman, John and Thomas Seymour, p. 375; and Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, pp. 95–96.
29 Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, p. 96.
30 It is in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wade Hollens-worth.
31 See Gregory R. Weidman, Furniture in Maryland, 1740–1940: The Collection of the Maryland Historical Society (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1984), p. 154, Fig. 115A.
32 They are in the collections of the Beauregard-Keyes House, New Orleans; Robert E. Smith; Dr. and Mrs. F. Wayne Stromeyer; and Harold L. Williamson Jr.
33 The authors offer profound gratitude to the Historic New Orleans Collection for its support of the forthcoming Louisiana furniture book, which prompted this investigation. Both Stephen Latta, associate professor of cabinet and wood technology at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the furniture maker and restorer Steven Huber of Natchez, Mississippi, generously shared their noteworthy insights. Special thanks is also owed to Pat Bacot; Sarah Doerries; Jessica A. Dorman; Elizabeth Feld; Donald L. Fennimore; Mary M. Garsaud; Daniel Hammer; Teresa Kirkland; Elizabeth Laurent; Keely Merritt; Peter W. Patout; Anne Robichaux; and the library staff of the New-York Historical Society.

CYBÈLE GONTAR is in the PhD program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a contributing author of The Furniture of Louisiana, Colonial and Federal Periods, Creole and Vernacular, 1735–1835 (Historic New Orleans Collection, forthcoming 2010).

JACK D. HOLDEN is a preservationist and collector of Louisiana’s material culture. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book The Furniture of Louisiana.