John Goddard, one of the eighteenth century’s most famous and skilled Newport cabinetmakers, was born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1723, the son of shipwright and housewright Daniel Goddard and Mary Tripp. Shortly after his birth, the Goddard family moved to Newport, where young John became apprenticed to cabinetmaker Job Townsend Sr. in the early 1740s. In 1746, he married his master’s daughter, Hannah, thus bonding the renowned Goddard-Townsend Rhode Island group of joiners and furniture makers. This connection was reinforced when John’s brother James, also a cabinetmaker, married Susanna Townsend, the sister of Hannah.
Goddard is known mainly by his work, for relatively little is known of his personal life. He built his house and small shop on Easton’s Point in 1748, held a few minor town offices during his career, including viewer of lumber, and belonged to the Quaker faith. Goddard’s clientele included many of Rhode Island’s political and cultural elite, but his work did not buy him wealth. When the British occupied Newport in December 1776, Goddard moved briefly to Providence, where he opened a sales warehouse on a wharf his client Moses Brown owned. Goddard’s business was hurt severely by dislocation and war. He returned to Newport after the conflict and died there insolvent in 1785, leaving his shop and tools to his woodworking sons–Townsend, Stephen, and Thomas. According to one genealogical account, John and Hannah had a total of sixteen children.
Goddard is best known for his walnut and mahogany furniture, especially block-front shell-carved secretaries, high chests of drawers with ball-and-claw feet, tables, and chairs. Unlike his most notable contemporary, John Townsend, he did not sign or label most of his work, and only a few documented pieces are known to exist. Two secretaries (desks with bookcases on top) at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design are among these. One of these secretaries is inscribed, “Made by John Goddard 1761 and repaired by Thomas Goddard, his son, 1813.” His famous six-shell desk/bookcase made for Providence merchant Nicholas Brown was sold in 1989 for $12.1 million–a record for a piece of American furniture at auction and an ironic twist of fate for a craftsman who died impoverished.
John Goddard was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1973.
For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlements to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.