Classical Cylinder Secretary

Classical cylinder desk attributed to John Needles, 1820-1825

Classical Cylinder Secretary with Gothic Interior, attr. JohnNeedles (1786-1878), Baltimore, Maryland, 1820-1825 (FR1096)

Mahogany with curl and burl maple veneers. Height 79 ½”, Width 38 ⅜”, Depth 22”


This fine classical desk has four bold columnar legs ending in distinctive block-and-ball feet features a lower case with a figured mahogany cylinder lid and an interior featuring a frieze formed by maple drawer fronts. Above, the delicate mullions against the pleated interior curtains and the bold scrolled pediment combine to create a seemingly unconventional, but successful, form. These features appear consistently in Baltimore during the late 1820s, particularly in the shop of renowned Quaker cabinetmaker John Needles (1786–1878). Needles learned the cabinetmaking trade in what are arguably the city’s two finest cabinetmaking shops of that era—those of John Priestley and William Camp. Needles’ works represent the finest of classical Baltimore taste in an era when the city was second only to New York as a center of commerce and cultural innovation.

Writing Table and Bookcase, Baltimore, 1820-1840. Attributed to John Needles (fl. 1810-1852). Maryland Historical Society, bequest of Lucy Winchester Williams and Elizabeth Hawkins Williams, 62.83.1

When Needles arrived in Baltimore in 1808, he worked briefly for John Priestly before signing an indenture with William Camp. While he had already served a five-year apprenticeship with James Neale of Easton, Maryland, the skills he learned there may not have met Neale’s standards, or suited his taste. Needles must have been adept, for he established his own shop in 1810, and flourished from the time he opened his doors, until he closed the doors in 1852.

The desks legs bear a striking resemblance to those of a labeled Needles pier table in the collection of Centre Hill Mansion, Petersburg, Virginia. A pier table in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society (left) is likewise attri-buted to Needles because its legs are identical to those of the table in the Center Hill Mansion collection. The treatment of the desk’s legs parallel the labeled and attributed tables of the cylinder writing desk, and the legs of another writing table attributed to Needles, also owned by the Maryland Historical Society. The carving of the capitals, the tapering of the legs, and the double-ring bases terminating in block-and-ball feet are typical of Needles’ work. Indeed, the legs of a Maryland Historical Society’s writing table and bookcase attributed to Needles are largely identical to those of the cylinder writing desk.

Pier Table. Baltimore, 1815-1835. Attributed to John Needles (fl.1810-1852). Maryland Historical Society, Eleanor S. Cohen Collection, 18.6.3

The cylinder writing desk appears in American Antique Furnishings with a caption indicating that Mr. James E. Steuart owned the desk when the book was published in 1937.

A desk and bookcase with a stenciled label reading “John Needles / Cabinet Maker|54 Hanover St. Balto,” possesses similarly legs with block-and-ball feet. However, the columns are of maple, and the ball feet have a carved design. The use of mahogany, rosewood, and maple in striking contrasts is reminiscent of the cylinder writing desk. The cylinder writing desk appears in American Antique Furnishings with a caption indicating that Mr. James E. Steuart owned the desk when the book was published in 1937. The desk pictured in the book is positively identified by an identical blemish in the maple main drawer front just below the centered key escutcheon. In the photograph, the spire cap of the finial is also missing; an examination of the cylinder secretary shows the repaired area where this finial spire has now been reattached.


The “Mr. James E. Steuart “ identified as the owner is probably James Edmondson Steuart (1872-1954), an attorney who lived at 1035 St. Paul Street, Baltimore. He also maintained a family estate called Mt. Steuart at South River, south of Edgewater in Anne Arundel County. The desk may have descended from his grandfather, General George H. Steuart Sr. (1790-1867) or from his uncle (Sr.’s son), Civil War General George H. Steuart, Jr. (1828-1903).

Detail of writing surface and interior compartments

General George H. Steuart, Sr., a prominent Baltimore citizen who fought during the war of 1812, owned Maryland Square (built circa 1795, and later known as Steuart Hall), a large mansion at the present-day junction of West Baltimore and Monroe Streets in Baltimore. General George Hume Steuart, Jr. grew up at Maryland Square, which was confiscated by the Federal government when Steuart resigned his U.S. Army commission to join the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Family papers at the Maryland Historical Society show that one of the George H. Steuarts purchased many of the furnishings belonging to General Steuart Sr.’s brother-in-law, Dr. Thomas Edmondson, after his death in 1856, including a secretary located in the “Dr.’s Room.” George H. Steuart Sr. married Ann Jane Edmondson, the oldest daughter of Thomas Edmondson, Sr, a wealthy Baltimore merchant. Her brother was Dr. Thomas Edmondson (b 1808), and it was his estate that sold the secretary.

It seems probable that Dr. Thomas Edmondson commissioned this cylinder secretary. Edmondson was a prominent horticulturalist and prolific art collector in 19th century Baltimore, and supported local Baltimore artists through purchases of their works. Edmondson’s collection—said to contain more than 200 paintings—included works by Alfred Jacob Miller, Richard Caton Woodville. It is logical to think he also supported local artisans such as John Needles. Edmondson owned a country house called “Harlem.” When Dr. Edmondson died in 1856, he left 4 young children (his wife died in 1852) with the result that an executor, John H. B. Latrobe, sold Edmondson’s assets to benefit the children’s trust. It is in this sale that George H. Steuart, Sr. or Jr. (which is not indicated in the Maryland Historical Society documents) purchased a secretary, as well as most (or perhaps all) of the other furnishings.

After Maryland Square was confiscated during the Civil War, General George H. Steuart, Sr. went to live with his son George at Mt. Steuart, the family estate in Anne Arundel County. An inventory taken of Mt. Steuart’s contents in 1909, four years after the death of George H. Steuart, Jr., shows a writing desk among the listed furnishings. Mt. Steuart subsequently became the country home of James Edmondson Steuart (1872-1954), the owner of the cylinder writing desk in 1937.

Classical cylinder writing desk, open

James E. Steuart, nephew of George H. Steuart, Jr., was the last administrator of the trust estate of Confederate General George H. Steaurt (1828-1903) established in 1861. The James Edmondson Steuart Papers, 1785-1955 (MS 758) includes Steuart’s house inventory.


The desk survives in a fine state of preservation, with a superb old surface that appears to be the original. It retains all of the original elements intact, including the finial, the broadcloth on the writing slide, the cut-glass pulls, and the glazing of the bookcase doors. Recently, conservators Leckemby & Buish of Libertytown, Maryland, inserted several small patches where original veneer was missing. They then polished and waxed the finish, and carefully vacuumed the broadcloth on the writing slide.

PRICE: Upon request

Fitzgerald, Oscar P. Four Centuries of American Furniture (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1995).

Kirtley, Alexandra Alevizatos, “A New Suspect: Baltimore Cabinetmaker Edward Priestley,” American Furniture (Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation. 2000).

Miller, Edgar G., Jr. American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs, Volume 1 (Baltimore, MD: Lord Baltimore Press, 1937).

Weidman, Gregory R. Furniture in Maryland 1640-1940 (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1984).