Wilmington carpenter, Charles B.F. Smith, builds this miniature chest of drawers at the Betts, Pusey & Harlan railroad car shops at West and Water Streets in Wilmington. Founded in 1837, Betts, Pusey & Harlan was a very early incarnation of what would later become the mighty Harlan & Hollingsworth Company. This company started out building railroad cars but soon expanded its operations to include shipbuilding, becoming one of the preeminent ship and railroad car building firms in the country. The glory days of the firm spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the company continued to produce railroad cars until the early 1940s.
This lovely little chest of drawers, measuring only 17 inches high x 18 ¾ inches wide x 10 inches deep, provides us with an intriguing connection to one of the workers from the very early days of the company. It is made from mahogany with tulip poplar and pine as the secondary woods and has a hand-written inscription inside the top drawer that reads: “This miniature bureau was built by Charles B.F. Smith at Harlan Hollingsworth car shop in February 1837.”
A terrific little snippet of historical information, but, as is sometimes the case, a little information sometimes only deepens the mystery in new ways. We know that the maker, Charles B.F. Smith (1812-1881), made his living as a carpenter in Wilmington, where he married Mary Kitchen and had a family of ten children. Unfortunately, we know nothing about why the piece was made or for whom. Was it made for one of his daughters? Was he allowed to work on it during his off-hours at the shop, perhaps even using scrap materials from the railroad cars? We simply don’t know at this point but this piece certainly sheds some welcome light on the lives of the individual car builders.