Scandalous gossip found hidden in 1808 desk

Scandalous gossip found hidden in 1808 desk

An antique desk, which sold at auction in North Carolina for $300,000 last month, was discovered with a handwritten note secreted behind its back-panelling.  Pasted on the side of a drawer slot was a message from the desk’s maker, John Shearer.

“I made this desk for an honest Dutchman of the name of Philip Stover in Frederick County, Maryland, close by the river, in the year 1808 — the same year that I made John Mitchell’s desk close by Late’s Mill (?) in the same county, but a bigger Rascle as well as fool is not to be found in this county than this John Mitchell.  The running door that is in this desk was made for this very Rascle’s Desk Jno. Mitchell.  Not forgetting Sarah Skags the biggest Whore in this county lived there at that time.  My name is John Shearer, joiner from Edinburgh, North Britain.”

Desk inlay
Desk inlay

Little else is known about John Shearer himself, other than the clues he left behind in his furniture.

According to Elizabeth A. Davison in her book The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: ‘A True North Britain’ in the Southern Backcountry, he was born in Scotland around 1760 and emigrated from Edinburgh to America in 1775.  He appears to have retained his cultural loyalty to Britain rather than to the rebelling American colonists at the time, and this is later revealed in the desk’s inlay which commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British Naval hero killed in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  This probably resonated with the political leanings of Shearer’s customers in Virginia at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, whose sentiments favoured the British rather than the French.

Quite what poor Sarah Skags did to earn Shearer’s scurrilous attack on her reputation is unclear.  Census records show that a Sarah Skags, then aged 14, lived in Frederick County when the note was written and that she later moved to Kentucky and had seven children.

Apparently, Shearer had a reputation for hiding such accusatory notes about former customers in many of his finely crafted pieces, though whether he intended them for the consumption of his new customers, or just for posterity in general, is unknown.

John Shearer's note for posterity
John Shearer’s note for posterity

Source:  New York Times

Images: Brunk Auctions

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