Desk Made in 1808 by John Shearer Was Previously Unrecorded and Features Hidden Note

Winchester, VA., 11/26/13…The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) has purchased a rare nineteenth-century desk made by one of the Shenandoah Valley’s most recognizable and eccentric early artisans. Crafted in 1808 by John Shearer (active ca. 1798–1818), the desk was acquired by the MSV on November 16 of this year at an auction in Asheville, North Carolina.

According to MSV Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, the desk is a fine example of John Shearer’s work, and it perfectly tells the quirky cabinetmaker’s story. Shearer, who is known to have worked in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), typically signed his name multiple times on his objects, and he often also inscribed them with political sentiments or other thoughts. The elaborately carved MSV desk is no exception. Signed, dated, and inscribed in numerous places, the desk also features a hidden note that Shearer wrote and pasted into a tambour compartment. The note documents the desk’s story and references characters in Shearer’s life.

There may be as few as 57 known objects by Shearer in private and museum collections, including those of Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). The desk just acquired by the MSV was previously unrecorded. In the family of Charles H. Folwell of Mount Holly, N.J., during the 1930s, the desk may have descended from the original owner (Philip Stuber) through the Neill family of Hagerstown. At the MSV, the desk joins a ca. 1818 Shearer walnut sideboard—the only one by the artisan that is known to exist—which the MSV acquired in 2010. Prior to their acquisitions by the MSV, both the Shearer desk and the sideboard were in private collections and not accessible to the public.

The desk’s inlaid details include a shield, chains, anchors, and medallion. One inscription reads, “Lord Nelson and Victory”. Another inscription on the underside of the newly acquired desk reads, “Made by Shearer Joiner from Edinburgh 1808 in the fall”. An inlaid panel on a drawer panel reads, “By Shearer to Stuben”. The desk is inscribed “Martinsburg” in several places.

The lengthy note reads: “I made this desk for an Honest Dutchman of the name of Philip Stover in Frederick County Maryland Close by the River in the year 1808–the same year that I made John Mitchell’s desk close by Late’s [?] Mill [?] in the same County, but a biger Rascle as well as fool Is not to be found in this county than this John Mitchell. The running doors that is in this desk was made for this very Rascle’s Desk Jno. Mitchell My Name is John Shearer joiner from Edinborough North Britan Not forgetting a Sarha Skags the Bigest Whor in this county lived there at that time”.

According to MSV Director Evans, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley has established an endowment for the sole purpose of presenting exhibitions and building the Museum’s Collection.  Evans notes that while the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is young and lacks the purchasing power of many larger, more established institutions, this careful planning has made possible such significant acquisitions as the Shearer desk. These acquisitions are milestone achievements for the Museum, says Evans, for they bring important objects of Valley history home and place them on display in the MSV, where all may view them.

“The MSV is focused on acquiring objects that have a solid provenance, are relevant to the Valley’s history, and tell engaging stories,” comments Evans. “This desk was a home run on all counts and we couldn’t be happier.”

Following minor conservation, the desk will go on view in the MSV as quickly as possible. Those who visit the MSV to see it may also be interested in a book, The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790–1820, which is available for purchase in the MSV store. Written by Elizabeth A. Davison, the book was published by Alta Mira Press in partnership with the MSV, MESDA, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. 

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is located at 901 Amherst Street in Winchester, Virginia.  The MSV complex—including the Museum, the Glen Burnie House, and six acres of gardens—is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The Museum is open year-round; the gardens are open April through October. Admission to the Museum is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and youth (age 13 to 18). Admission is always free to ages 12 and under and is free to all every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until noon. The house is now closed until 2014 for a comprehensive preservation project. Additional information is available at or by calling 540-662-1473, ext. 235.