Published February 13, 2024

How Thomas Lincoln Elevated Frontier Furniture

A unique object with deep connections to Abraham Lincoln’s family has recently come to the Indiana State Museum.

A one-of-a-kind bowfront chest handmade by Thomas Lincoln, father of Abraham Lincoln, was recently restored by our expert team of conservationists and is now part of the Lincoln cabin on the museum’s second floor. Made in Spencer County around 1820, the chest tells a story of the work ethic that raised a president as well as what Frontier life was like in Indiana.

When the Lincolns moved from Kentucky to Spencer County, where they lived for 14 years, Thomas Lincoln brought his talents as a skilled carpenter to the family’s new home. He established a thriving career within the community, making several buildings in the town and numerous pieces of furniture, like this chest, which are still being rediscovered today. Young Abraham Lincoln often worked side by side with his father to learn the woodworking trade as well as the work ethic that drove both men.

“A lot of those stories of the young Lincoln are Indiana stories, they’re Spencer County,” said Chief Curator and Research Officer Susannah Koerber. “But to have those objects that are in a way witnesses to that, there’s a real power to that.”

With its expensive cherrywood, intricate maple inlay and fancy veneer, this elegant piece goes against the grain of many common perceptions of life on the Indiana Frontier. It also features several hallmarks of Thomas Lincoln furniture, including the Federal style that was popular at the time that Lincoln used exclusively throughout his career as well as a beautiful star detail on the front legs.

“Prior to 1800, [the furniture] was a lot more rudimentary … but by the 1800s, a lot of these highly skilled craftsmen from bigger cities were moving into rural areas and they had the skill to be much better,” said Steve Haaff, the nation’s foremost expert on Thomas Lincoln furniture who helped the museum staff complete the chest’s restoration. “The people in the community liked nice things. In fact, they wanted something nicer than the guy down the road had.”

The changing standard of living in Indiana meant Lincoln’s work was in demand. This chest was commissioned by William Wood, a neighbor and frequent customer of Lincoln’s. At the time, this chest would have cost around $40, which was quite expensive for the day. It also took months of hard work to complete, but it was a labor of love for Lincoln, who built everything from Wood’s house to the furniture inside it.

The chest has remained in the Wood family for generations. The museum currently has it on loan from Mildred Moore, a direct descendant Wood, in the hopes that visitors will learn more about Lincoln as well as 19th century life in Indiana.