The firm of J. & J.W. Meeks was founded in 1797 by Joseph Meeks. He worked first with his brother to establish the New York business, and later with his sons to grow the company as they produced a broad variety of cabinet and upholstered furniture. He not only did business in New York but was known to travel to Savannah, Georgia to sell his company’s wares. Meeks also opened a distribution warehouse in 1820 in New Orleans as the business thrived, and his two sons operated a furniture store therefrom 1830 through 1839, according to Art and the Empire City: New York 1825-1861 published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chocolate Maker and Furniture Craftsman
Interestingly, according to Antiquarian Trader, an online shop specializing in Victorian parlor sets, a slow economy may have interrupted the work of this firm as Meeks is not listed "in the New York City directories in 1811, 1812, and 1813. He may have worked for another cabinetmaker during these years, or perhaps took a brief leave from cabinetmaking. The city directories identified him as a chocolate maker in 1814 and 1815, and as a chocolate maker and cabinet maker from 1816 through 1818." He appears to have fully reestablished himself as a furniture craftsman by 1819 and is also advertised as a chairmaker in later directories.
All in the Family
Joseph Meeks retired in 1836 and his sons continued to run the business. The 1840s saw the firm producing Gothic Revival furniture and in the 1850s Rococo Revival furniture. Meeks is also known for making laminated rosewood pieces. The business was passed on to Meeks’ grandson in 1859 and it closed almost a decade later in 1868, according to The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, Volume 2 edited by Gordon Campbell.
While competitors like John Henry Belter and George Hunzinger were known for their innovation and filing new patents during their heyday, Joseph Meeks’ company concentrated on offering consumers nicely made but moderately priced goods. In that way, this firm compares to the later established R.J. Horner rather than Belter or Hunzinger. Meeks's business was driven by public demand, and this strategy kept them in business through many style changes for 72 years, according to an online article published by the Internet Antique Gazette.
The Famous Meeks Broadside
In 1833 J. & J.W. Meeks published a lithographed poster, or broadside, showing 44 pieces of their furniture with Grecian styling and English Regency influence. These selections included 17 pieces featured in George Smith’s Cabinet Makers and Upholsterers Guide. Only two of these complete lithographs are known to exist, making this an extremely rare example of American historical cabinetmaking documentation. This poster may have originally been distributed to furniture retailers since it had an order form on the bottom. Once the order was made the poster was likely discarded so few remain to be discovered today by collectors and furniture historians.
Identifying Meeks Furniture
Some Meeks pieces are still marked with paper labels. These labels depict the exterior of the business located on Broad Street in New York. The labels changed from time to time, however, making it possible to date a piece based on the style of the label with a little research. Marks can also be stenciled on, even inside the drawers of a piece.
According to Antiquarian Traders, the earliest known description of the firm's product line is found in an advertisement featured in the Louisiana Gazette published in 1820. The ad includes a lengthy list of articles made by Meeks including sideboards and bureaus, elegant armoires, ladies dressing tables, writing desks and tables, dressing tables in sets, drinking tables, breakfast and card tables, mahogany bedsteads, elegantly carved maple bedsteads, clocks and cases, wash and candles stands, and Windsor chairs among other articles. And since the business spans 72 years and kept up with popular demand, they made these items in a wide variety of styles including the aforementioned Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Neo-Rococo as well.
Meeks products were available in a variety of price ranges when new. Customers could invariably mix and match according to their taste and budget buying a highly carved bed frame, for example, with a more modest set of side tables in coordinating wood. The most expensive items sold by the firm were made of carved mahogany.
It is not uncommon for the work of Meeks to be confused with that of John Henry Belter, who was indeed a Rococo Revival competitor from about 1840 through 1860. However, Belter’s work tends to be more elaborate with rounder edges and usually has another layer of lamination when compared to the more angular pieces fashioned at the Meeks factory. It’s important to confirm attributions of unsigned pieces to avoid overpaying, since Belter’s work tends to be in greater demand and, in general, more highly valued than that of Meeks.
That’s not to say that pieces marked with a Meeks label, and even unmarked items correctly attributed to this company, aren’t going to be worth a good sum. A four-piece laminated rosewood Rococo Revival parlor set in the desirable Hawkins pattern sold for $24,150 in February 2013 through Stevens Auction Company in Aberdeen, Mississippi, according to an Antique Trader report.
The chair above is part of a matching parlor suite being offered for sale by Salado Creek Antiques in Salado, Texas for $28,000. A similar set residing in The Queen Anne Mansion in Eureka Springs, Arkansas is estimated to be worth $65,000.
These Rococo Revival pieces can be found for less when purchased separately, and condition should always contribute to the decision about how much to invest in a Meeks piece whether purchased by a collector or a dealer. An individual settee or pair of ornately carved matching chairs might bring $10,000 to $20,000 depending on the specific style. A table from the same period could sell in the $8,000 to $18,000 range, and possibly more.
Earlier museum-caliber pieces crafted in ornate revival styles can sell for much more. The asking price for a single pier table with marble top and column accents with large, gilded paw feet may go as high as $75,000. Before setting a price on a Meeks piece, calling in a qualified appraiser or doing extensive research on prior sale prices is recommended.