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Highlights of Penn's Furniture Collection

March 29, 2011, Volume 57, No. 27

Unlike the annual Antiques Show which brings antiques to Philadelphia for a brief stay, the University of Pennsylvania has been home to countless pieces of antique furniture for quite some time, although they are not all housed in a single location. They are located in various buildings on campus, including, but not limited to, the Biddle Law Library, the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library and the Architectural Archives.

The centerpiece of the Law School’s Biddle Law Library is this historic breakfront (left) that once belonged to James Wilson. Wilson, who is believed to have given the first law lectures in the United States, is credited, along with George Sharswood, with the founding of the Penn Law School. Among other accolades, Wilson served in the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence and was an appointed Justice on the first US Supreme Court. Perhaps the most unsung of all the Founding Fathers, Wilson is believed by some scholars to have drafted the entire Constitution on his own, possibly while seated at this impressive piece of furniture. 

Penn acquired the breakfront as a donation from James A. Montgomery, Jr. in 1944. For many years it decorated the Dean’s suite before being moved to its current location.

This flat-top desk (above), or writing table, that belonged to Benjamin Franklin, will be back on display upon the completion of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s current renovations. The desk, made of mahogany and brass is believed to have been made by John Mayhew and purchased by Franklin in 1772. A part of numerous traveling exhibitions celebrating Franklin, the desk was first exhibited in Independence Hall in 1856. After being passed around for some years after Franklin’s death, it was acquired by the University sometime before 1936.

One of the most valuable and unique pieces in Penn’s collection is the Rittenhouse Orrery (above) on the first floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. Built by clockmaker and former professor of astronomy, Trustee and Vice Provost of the University, David Rittenhouse, the Orrery is a mechanical representation of the solar system. Named for the Earl of Orrery, who commissioned the first one in 1713, Orreries demonstrated the astronomical principles set forth by Newton and Copernicus. Penn’s Orrery is the second of two developed by Rittenhouse, who sold the first to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), much to the dismay of then-provost William Smith. Built in 1771 and housed in a Chippendale case built by Philadelphia cabinetmakers John Folwell and Parnell Gibbs, the Orrery’s main cabinet represents the entire solar system. On the right is a lunarium, which depicts the movements and eclipses of the moon. The left side was likely never completed. The Orrery has a long symbolic tradition at the University and was pictured on its seal in the 1880s and on the University Mace.

This table (above), currently housed in Penn’s Architectural Archives, was created by Wharton Esherick as a writing table for novelist Theodore Dreiser.  Over 14 feet long and made from tropical padouck wood, it was completed in 1928. According to Lynne Farrington, who co-curated the February exhibition, Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern, Esherick made the table for Dreiser’s library at Iroki, his country home in Mount Kisco, NY. It came to Penn sometime in the 1940s or 50s as part of the Theodore Dreiser collection, which not only included his papers, but paintings, sculpture and other personal items.

Ed. Note: Members of the University community who are aware of other interesting pieces of antique furniture or other antiques around campus are encouraged to contact Almanac at almanac@upenn.edu

Related: Nation's Premier Antiques Show Turns 50


Almanac - March 29, 2011, Volume 57, No. 27