Issue 9 T.O.C. – “The Master is Free: The Legendary Skill of John Hemmings” – Canlin Frost

This is the last installment of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Nine.  

Please note that the subscription window which includes Issue Nine is open now through August 28th.

The south lawn of Poplar Forest
“The Master is Free: The Legendary Skill of John Hemmings”
– Canlin Frost


The name of John Hemmings should be held in esteem with the most skillful American makers of the early 19th century. Author Canlin Frost, period furniture maker and restoration craftsman at Poplar Forest (Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat), sheds new light on the life of this remarkably talented artisan. 

Born into a large enslaved family in 1776 Virginia, Hemmings began working wood as a young laborer in the forest, felling and splitting trees for fences and firewood. His talents enabled him to learn the trades of wheelwright, carpenter, and joiner, all of which he mastered. By the time he was in his early 20s, Hemmings was creating and installing elaborate architectural molding in Monticello, and at age 33 he became the master joiner of the Monticello joinery. In 1810, Hemmings also took on the task of overseeing the ongoing construction at Poplar Forest, a 3-day’s journey south. He managed all of this while raising a family in a humble log cabin on the Monticello estate. 

A reconstruction of John Hemmings' Cabin. ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Hemmings also created many pieces of furniture for Jefferson and his family, but his status as a slave precluded any signature or personal marks on these pieces. This fact was not only a grievous injustice for the maker himself, centered as he was within a system of dehumanizing enslavement, but it is lamentable for scholars today who are seeking to put together the whole story of John Hemmings. The only pieces that can be positively attributed to him today are those specifically mentioned in detail within Jefferson’s records or letters.

A re-creation of a campeachy chair attributed to Hemmings.

The ascent of Hemmings from teenage out-carpenter to master is, in Frost’s words, “an incredible 41-year journey.” It’s a story of overcoming tremendous odds to attain mastery of the craft, and the brilliance of his work demands greater recognition today.


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