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'Pianos of his own Manufacture' – Wesley Whitaker, Raleigh, N.C., 1788-1858

Updated: May 4, 2023

Piano Forte at the NC Executive/Governor's Mansion (North Parlor)

Figure 1. The Wesley Whitaker pianoforte in the North Carolina Executive Mansion, Raleigh. It is the only piano known to have been made by this nineteenth-century craftsman. Courtesy North Carolina Museum of History

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 65 no. 4, December 2012

by Maria V. Shevzov

Since the early 1920s, a piano labeled by a local craftsman, Wesley Whitaker, has stood in the North Carolina Executive Mansion, built in 1891 as a home for the state’s chief executive. Tours of the Executive Mansion routinely show the piano, and yet very little was actually known about the maker. My research into Wesley Whitaker and musical-instrument makers in Raleigh, North Carolina, from 1800-1850, is grounded in the sole known example of Whitaker’s work, and also the only known Raleigh-made pianoforte (Figure 1).

The piano’s craftsmanship and provenance reveal it as a lens through which to consider craftsmanship, women’s education, and the development of Raleigh as an urban center in the first half of the nineteenth century. The piano’s purchase for the Tarborough Academy, around 1828, speaks to the growing popularity of small, private academies in North Carolina, as well as the importance of music in young women’s education. The piano remained in Tarboro (the modern spelling of Tarborough) throughout the nineteenth century, residing for many years with the Pender family who gave it to the state of North Carolina in 1901. By the 1920s, the piano had been moved to the Executive Mansion, home to North Carolina’s governors since 1891. (During this period, pianoforte, fortepiano, and piano were used interchangeably to describe the same instrument. For simplicity, the term piano will be used throughout this article, although any of the above terms would also be correct.)

leather label W. Whitaker/Forte Piano Maker/ Raleigh, NC.

Figure 2. The brown leather label from the only known Wesley Whitaker piano. The label, now damaged, read “W. Whitaker/Forte Piano Maker/ Raleigh, NC.” Photo courtesy of the author

A quick glance at the piano reveals immediate evidence of its Raleigh origins: a rich brown leather label embossed with an ornate gold border typical of book-binders’ work reads: “W. Whitaker/Forte Piano Maker/ Raleigh, NC” (Figure 2). With few pieces of labeled North Carolina furniture from any early period, and even fewer labeled pieces from Raleigh, the piano is unusual for its form and the identification if its maker. (The label is missing a large section of its right side, a condition that has worsened in the last decade as additional pieces have been lost. A Plexiglas cover has been added in recent years to help mitigate further losses to the label.)

The piano has long been prized by the state for its Raleigh origins, but Wesley Whitaker has remained a shadowy figure from times past. In the early 1740s, Wesley Whitaker’s grandfather, Robert Whitaker of Virginia, was granted an 840-acre tract of land by King George II in Craven County, now part of southern Wake County. The Whitaker family established a plantation and built a home called Echo Manor in the 1740s. Echo Manor still stands, and architectural surveys of the area suggest that it may be the oldest structure on its original foundation in Wake County, with sections of the house dating as early as the 1740s. The property was situated along the main artery leading from Raleigh to the town of Cross Creek, which was renamed Fayetteville in honor of the Marquis de LaFayette’s visit in 1825. Robert Whitaker’s son, John, inherited the house and property, married three times, and raised his amily of thirteen children on the plantation. John Whitaker was active in the North Carolina militia during the American Revolution and was heavily involved in the establishment of Wake County government. On an 1808 map, the plantation is marked, “Col. Whitikers,” and is located southwest of Raleigh (Figure 3) (1)

Figure 3 (above and detail at right). The 1808 Price and Strother Map of North Carolina. Raleigh is to the right of the center of the map. The detail shows Wake County and the city of Raleigh, and to its south is marked “Col. Whitiker,” the plantation of Wesley’s father. Credit: Library of Congress

By the time John Whitaker’s seventh child, Wesley, was born in 1787, the family had extensive holdings throughout the county. It is likely that Wesley Whitaker was trained by his father. Little is known about John Whitaker, but an 1804 advertisement in the Raleigh Register by “J. Whitaker” seeking an apprentice suggests that he may have been a joiner and chairmaker. John may have been seeking a new apprentice knowing that Wesley would soon strike out on his own and open a shop. (2) An advertisement one-and-a-half years later, when Wesley Whitaker was 17, supports the theory that Wesley would soon open his new shop.

THE Subscriber, living in Raleigh on quarter of a mile from the Market-House on Hargett-street, respect-fully informs the Citizens of Raleigh and its vicinity, that he has lately commenced the Riding and Windsor Chair making Business, and is now ready to undertake anything in that line. He trusts from his particular attention to, and faithful performance of what he undertakes, to merit public Patronage. Wesley Whitaker. (3)

Within a year of establishing his Hargett Street shop, Whitaker took 15-year-old Michael Humphries as his apprentice, although Humphries proved less than ideal, running away in February, 1809. Whitaker’s displeasure with the young man is evident in his Raleigh Register advertisement:

ONE CENT REWARD RANAWAY from the subscriber on the morning of the 20th instant, MICHAEL HUMPHREYS, his apprentice-Whoever shall apprehend the said apprentice and bring him back to the subscriber, will receive One Cent Reward, but no thanks. All persons are cautioned from harbouring said apprentice, at their peril. (4)

By September 1809, Whitaker sought “one or two boys of about fifteen or sixteen years of age, as apprentices to learn the business.” (5) Either Humphries served the remainder of his apprenticeship, or perhaps Whitaker obtained a new apprentice better suited to his shop. Whitaker’s next apprentice on record was Elias Hail, age 16, taken on in 1814. William Nilms, age 13, began his apprenticeship in 1819.

Figure 4. A bird’s-eye view map of Raleigh, North Carolina, 1872. In the early 1800s, Wesley Whitaker purchased Lot 124 on the corner of Hargett and Bloodworth Streets (marked by the arrow) and built his home and business there. Library of Congress

Although no surviving Whitaker chairs are known, chairs from Whitaker’s shop probably looked similar to two chairs of the same period in the collection of the Joel Lane House in Raleigh. Made in Raleigh, both chairs show a strong connection to Petersburg, Virginia, Windsor chairs. Joel Brown, whose label appears on one chair, was like many craftsmen who, after training in bustling Petersburg, Virginia, later moved to the growing city of Raleigh. (6) Whitaker was by no means the only carriage-maker or chairmaker in Raleigh during his career. There were several other related craftsmen, including some whose work survives or is documented by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) files. Nearly every chairmaker advertising in the city’s newspapers offered other services or products, ranging from gilding and sign painting to house painting and carriagemaking. (7)

Even though no Whitaker chairs are known, Raleigh was strongly influenced by the chairmakers of Petersburg, Virginia, and two prominent Raleigh chairmakers served their apprenticeships in Petersburg, so images of their surviving chairs could illustrate the type of chairs made in Raleigh.

After that first advertisement in 1805, Whitaker continued to advertise periodically in the Raleigh newspapers until 1823. (8) His typical offerings included “elegant top GIGS, made of the best materials and newest fashion, which he is disposed to sell at very reduced prices” (9) or “ready finished, several dozen Windsor Chairs of different forms and colours which he is disposed to sell very low for cash or on a short credit.” (10)

Other Whitaker advertisements indicate that he was involved in real estate in the growing city. In 1815, Whitaker owned four improved city lots, and an additional group of lots in partnership with W. Peach and William Scott of Raleigh. (11) On Fayetteville Street, “one of the most public streets in the city,” he invested in two lots, built “on each lot a convenient dwelling house neatly finished inside, with all necessary out houses,” and sold them as “Great Bargains” within an eighteen-month period. (12) The Fayetteville Street properties were apparently investments and not Whitaker’s home, because just one year later, he advertised his “house….convenient dwelling and store house” on Hargett Street for sale. (13)

By 1819, Whitaker had acquired Lot 124, where he would live and work for the remainder of his life Lot 124, at the corner of Hargett and Bloodworth Streets, in the southeast quadrant of the city, was just four blocks from the state house and three blocks from Fayetteville Street, the primary North-South avenue terminating at the state house. (14) A birds-eye view map from 1872 shows the appearance of the city at that date, including a group of buildings at the corner of Hargett and Bloodworth that may be the Whitaker home (Figure 4).

In August 1828, Wesley Whitaker placed an advertisement in the Western Carolinian that was unlike any of his previous ads for Windsor chairs, carriages, or real estate. This advertisement spoke to Whitaker’s efforts to create a new avenue for his business that combined his existing woodworking skills with the growing market for luxury goods in the city of Raleigh. He wrote:

Pianos Mr. Wesley Whitaker, of Raleigh, has manufactured a piano, of a new construction, which is handsomely finished, and the tone is full and agreeable. This improvement is the fruit of great perserverance and ingenuity, and may be considered a triumph of mechanical science. It is hoped he may be patronized…..especially by those who wish to encourage native skill and enterprise. He sells his pianos for half the price of imported ones. (15)

“Imported” may have meant from London, but it could also have meant from Philadelphia or New York, where there were pianomakers actively producing instruments by this time.

Before Whitaker’s piano advertisement, and unlike the many chairmakers and carriagemakers that operated in Raleigh in the early decades of the nineteenth century, ads for pianos in local newspapers made no mention of local manufacture. A local engineer offered to tune and repair pianos, occasionally rent out his daughter’s piano, and offered two pianos and a house organ for sale at his office. A prominent cabinetmaker occasionally advertised pianos for sale, but did not state that he made the instruments.

Otherwise, piano tuners and repairers appear to have been itinerant, traveling from community to community plying their trade. In at least two examples from the 1820s, they used these other skills while they were on concert tours. The advertisements for the concerts emphasized the music but also noted that those interested in having their pianos tuned or repaired should schedule appointments in advance with the musician through a local agent. One musical instrumentmaker was itinerant from 1819 in New Bern, North Carolina, until at least 1822 in Nashville, Tennessee. (16) Most of these advertisers referenced the instrumentmaker’s knowledge of London and New York pianos, which were the primary centers at the time. Boston and Philadelphia also produced some pianos, but not on a large scale until later in the nineteenth century.

Inside the Whitaker Piano A close look at the construction of the Whitaker piano supports Whitaker’s claim in his 1828 advertisement that he was a self-taught maker (Figure 5). Whitaker probably copied an existing piano in his home or shop, improvising as needed, which may explain his emphasis on the ingenuity and perseverance involved in his piano making. The piano is a combination of styles: the plain rectangular case veneered with mahogany and cross-grain mahogany bands references pianos made around 1800. The bulbous turned and reeded legs are Whitaker’s effort at updating the piano to reflect the tastes of the 1820s.

Whitaker piano end detail

Figure 5. The Whitaker piano end detail. The case is veneered with mahogany and cross-grain mahogany. The legs reflect the style of the 1820s, although pianos of this period would have normally been made with five or six legs. Maria V. Shevzov

Comparing Whitaker’s piano with other square pianos of the early-nineteenth century clearly illustrates how he combined design and construction elements used in piano manufacture over a twenty-five-year period. The two American-made pianos shown in Figures 6 and 7 illustrate the transitional style of Whitaker’s piano. The Charles Albrecht piano, made in the first decade of the nineteenth century, was typical of designs coming out of New York, Philadelphia, and London. The light, vertical case construction, with four delicate, tapered legs, contrasts strongly with the 1828 piano by Boston maker Alpheus Babcock. Babcock’s piano, with its dark, heavy case and six heavily turned and carved legs, in addition to the two pedals, was typical of the latest taste in pianos for that date. The Whitaker piano (see Figure 1) was a combination of the earlier case style, but with the heavily turned legs of the later style. Instead of the standard six legs of the 1820s, however, Whitaker chose to use only four legs on his piano.

Albrecht piano

Figure 6. Whitaker’s piano took inspiration from typical pianos of the time. The case was similar to Charles Albrecht’s piano, which dates from the 1810s. The four delicate legs of the Albrecht piano, however contrast to the turnings that were popular later in the nineteenth century. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Figure 7. The turned legs of Boston maker Alpheus Babcock’s piano contrasts with strongly the Albrecht piano. These legs resemble Whitaker’s, but unlike Babcock, he had only four legs, not six to support his case. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Details of the keyboard and surrounding keywell show strong influence from pianos made in the third decade of the nineteenth century. The tiger maple name-board has pierced lattice fretwork flanking Whitaker’s label, a feature that became popular in the 1820s, which helps date the construction of this piano (Figure 8). Originally, green or gold silk fabric was affixed behind the lattice fretwork, although no fragments remain. The fabric added additional color and contrast to the keywell area, along with the black and white piano keys, the rich browns and gold of mahogany and maple, and the Whitaker label. Only the tops of the keys have ivory veneer, a common feature in early square pianos (Figure 9). The front edges are veneered with a less costly wood.

Figure 8. The Whitaker piano name board.

Figure 9. Key detail showing ivory veneer key with wooden veneer fronts.

Inside the piano, the original painted blue dustboard is a rare survivor (Figure 10). The medium blue paint accented with a thick and a narrow black line around all edges does not appear to have faded significantly, although there is some loss on the back edge. An opening allows the dampers free movement. The dustboard terminates over the soundboard with a serpentine end. Cut to fit precisely in the case, the dustboard accommodates a music desk that swivels on six nails to disappear behind the nameboard when not in use (Figure 11).

Figure 10. The original dustboard was painted a medium blue with black lines around the perimeter.

Figure 11. The music desk.

In the early 1980s, the piano was restored with the goal of preserving it as an artifact, but not as a working musical instrument. The piano has not been played since the mid-nineteenth century, and because it was not re-stored as an instrument, most of the mechanical parts remain intact. These mechanical components provide additional insight into the construction and “ingenuity” of Whitaker’s English Double-action piano. Approximately eighty percent of the strings are in-tact, although most of the hammers are missing. Parchment or vellum jack hinges, action cloth, and leather are mostly gone, although some fragments remain. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the pianos internal construction is that Whitaker, or an unlucky apprentice, shaped each key lever from an individual piece of wood, rather than using a single glued-up board, as a skilled pianomaker would have used. This can clearly be seen near the key numbers, possibly in Whitaker’s hand, because the wood grain varies on each key (Figure 12). The Whitaker piano is the only known example from a career that spanned fifty three years, thus providing significant insight into the range of Whitaker’s skill as a craftsman.

Figure 12 (left). The keys are numbered individually, possibly in Whitaker’s own hand. The wood grain varies on each key, indicating that they were shaped individually.

A Piano for Young Ladies The early-nineteenth century saw an explosion in small private schools throughout the country, and North Carolina was no exception. For young women from the most prosperous families, the strongest influence was often placed on needlework, music, and other “feminine pursuits.”

Around 1828 when Wesley Whitaker first advertised his own ingenuity, Tarborough Academy, seventy miles east of Raleigh, expanded its curriculum to include piano instruction. Ann Ragsdale, superintendent of the Female Department of the Tarborough (Tarboro) Academy traveled to Raleigh and purchased a new piano to strengthen the school’s offerings to include music instruction for young ladies. Miss Ragsdale taught all subjects including chemistry, astronomy, history, and rhetoric, and for an additional fee, young women at the academy could also learn needlework, painting, and music. The Wesley Whitaker piano was used at the Tarborough Academy for nearly twenty years.

Although limited records survive from the Tarborough Academy, another academy provides some additional context on both the Tarborough Academy and the presence of pianos in Raleigh during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. An 1816 painting by Jacob Marling shows female students from the Raleigh Academy celebrating May Day 1816 (see cover). In the painting, a square piano sits between two trees on the right side of the painting. It may be the same piano that was reported on in the Raleigh Register when it arrived in Raleigh shortly before Marley executed this painting. By the eighteen tens and twenties, pianos were increasingly available from manufacturers in Philadelphia, New York, and London. But they were difficult to transport, and expensive enough that it was newsworthy when the Raleigh Academy received its first piano around 1815.

Figure 13. The Whitaker piano in the North Carolina Hall of History (on the right to the left of the archway opening), where it was displayed for twenty years before it was moved to the Executive Mansion in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

The Whitaker piano at the Tarborough Academy was eventually phased out at the school, when, in 1845, Ann Ragsdale sold the piano to William Pender. Mrs. William Ann Gray, who gave the instrument to the state, remembered “seeing the piano taken from the wagon” when her father, William Pender, brought it to their plantation home, Oak Grove. Although Mrs. Gray recalled her father buying the old piano for the local children to play on, she also recalled that “after a while he had it tuned, so I suppose we did injure it a little.” The Pender family kept the piano at Oak Grove until 1900, when Mrs. Gray offered it to the state. Recalling that the piano made “pretty good music about twenty-five years ago,” she apologized that she didn’t know its current condition, but hoped “the cost of repair would be small enough to be able to show the people of the good city of Raleigh what artists they had in the musical line” three quarters of a century earlier. (17)

H.H. Brimley, curator of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, gladly accepted the donation to add to the growing collection of North Carolina natural specimens, craftsmanship, and ephemera. Brimley displayed the piano in the Hall of History (Figure 13), along with firearms, a cannon, photos, and reprints of the famous John White watercolors from 1589. For twenty years, the piano was on exhibit until it was moved to the Executive Mansion in the 1920s.

While little evidence remains of Whitaker’s craftsmanship, his contributions to the city of Raleigh are well documented in local newspapers and church and city records. Whitaker’s will, written in 1857, continued to express the enthusiasm and pride for pianos of “his own Manufacture” first seen in an advertisement thirty years before. His first bequest, to his granddaughter Augusta, was that her father, Wesley Jr. (and later Mayor of Raleigh), choose for her “one Pianoforte, to be selected from among the pianos belonging to me.” (18) In addition to the piano, Whitaker further specified that two of his sons, Lee H. Whitaker and Lucius Whitaker, were to receive “all the materials and tools used in the making and repairing of pianos, to be divided between themselves.” (19) All remaining property, real and personal, was to be sold and divided among his four sons. Of all Whitaker’s property and business ventures, the fact that his pianos and related equipment are the only specific material bequests made indicates their significance to him. It also suggests that he continued to build and repair pianos long after his 1828 advertisement.

Wesley Whitaker headstone Raleigh City

Figure 14. Wesley Whitaker’s headstone in the Raleigh City Cemetery.

Whitaker died in 1858 and was laid to rest next to his wife Sarah among many family members in Raleigh City Cemetery (Figure 14). Their original headstones, although damaged, remain in place.

After providing the city of Raleigh with chairs, carriages, and pianos for over fifty years, the master crafts-man, Wesley Whitaker, was buried and largely forgotten while the capitol city faced the Civil War, and then rapid growth during the twentieth century. Two hundred years after his shop bustled on the corner of Hargett and Blood-worth Streets, Wesley Whitaker’s sole surviving example of craftsmanship provides us in the twenty-first century with a material link to North Carolina in the nineteenth century and leads to the consideration of questions of craftsmanship, entertainment, commerce, and education. The piano is a reminder of a family that played an active role in establishing the city of Raleigh and continued a leading citizens throughout the nineteenth century. The piano does “show the people of the good city of Raleigh what artists they had in the musical line,” (20) and it is evidence of the rich history of craftsmanship and entrepreneurship in North Carolina’s capital city.

Notes 1. “To David Stone and Peter Brown, Esq.: this first actual survey of the state of North Carolina taken by the subscribers is respectfully dedicated / by their humble servants, Jona. Price and John Strother engraved by W.H. Harrison ” 1808. Library of Congress. Accessed online, February 8, 2013 ( 2. Raleigh Register, July 9, 1804. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) research files. 3. Raleigh Register December 23, 1805. MESDA research files. 4. Raleigh Register, February 23, 1809. MESDA research files. 5. Raleigh Star, September 14, 1809. MESDA research files. 6. Nancy Goyne Evans, American Windsor Chairs (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), 590-591. 7. Graves Matthews and David Ruth advertised in the Raleigh Register, The Star and North-Carolina Gazette on January 30, 1818, that “they have established the Business of Chair Making, Sign Painting, Turning, &c” in downtown Raleigh, while George Grimes made it known in June, 1815, that he intended “carrying on the Windsor chair making, in all its various branches. He will also carry on the Sign and Military Colour painting in the neatest and most elegant manner.” MESDA Research Files. 8. Raleigh Register, October 27, 1806; Raleigh Register, September 14, 1809; Raleigh Register, February 18, 1814; The Star, Raleigh, N.C., November 3,1815, 3-4; The Star and North-Carolina State Gazette, Raleigh, October 25, 1816, 3- 4; The Star and North-Carolina State Gazette, Raleigh May 7, 1819, 4-4, Raleigh Register, Feb. 4, 1820; The Star and North-Carolina State Gazette, January 3, 1823, 3-5. MESDA research files. 9. The Star and North-Carolina State Gazette, May 7, 1819, 4-4. MESDA research files. 10. The Star, November 3, 1815, 3-4. MESDA research files. 11. “Raleigh craftsmen with improved lots, 1815,” North Carolina Museum of History curator’s research files. 12. The Star, November 3, 1815, 3-4, MESDA research files. 13. The Star and North-Carolina State Gazette, October 25, 1816, 3-4. MESDA research files. 14. From 1805 to 1814, Whitaker worked on Hargett Street. In 1814, he moved to Fayetteville Street, “near the Court-house.” 15. Western Carolinian, Salisbury, N.C., August 19, 1828. 16. MESDA research files. 17. Gray Letter, Object file, M.1965.109.1. North Carolina Governor’s Executive Mansion collection files, North Carolina Museum of History 18. Wesley Whitaker will, dated November 6, 1857. North Carolina State Archives. 19. Wesley Whitaker will, dated November 6, 1857. North Carolina State Archives. 20. Gray letter, object file, M.1965.109.1. North Carolina Governor’s Executive Mansion collection files, North Carolina Museum of History.


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