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Spool-Turned Furniture

The Victorian style reflected a variety of influences-the designs of Louis XV, the Gothic, and the Renaissance. This hybrid reached America by way of England about 1850 where it was quickly adapted to public taste. An American contribution to it was the ornamental detail known as spool-turning. Taking its name from its resemblance to a series of spools placed end to end, it replaced the baluster-shaped turnings that had been in favor for nearly two centuries with furniture of the less pretentious sort. Consequently spoolturnings are apt to appear on pieces of the American cottage type but are not a dominant characteristic of contemporary English and Continental Furniture.

It is an American detail and the reason for it lies in power-driven lathes for wood turning. These were developed by ingenious Yankees, beginning about 1820. Before that, turned parts were done on a lathe driven by a foot treadle. Slow and strenuous, even with the twelve-hour working day then current, it could not cope with the needs of the small furniture factories that were springing up and gradually forcing cabinetmaking shops to close. So the Victorian furniture makers in the 1850's turned to the larger power-driven ;~thes devised by Yankees like Thomas Blanchard of Massachusetts.

Here the turner had only to concern himself with guiding his cutting chisels. With water or steam power to do the rest, not only was the work done more quickly but the details of spool-turning called for less exact work than the earlier baluster design.

This spool-turned cottage furniture came into fashion about 1840 and continued into the 1880's. A familiar part of home furnishings between 1840 and 1865 was the low-post spool bed. Sometimes referred to as a "Jenny Lind" bed because it was in fashion at the time of her American concert tours, the early ones had four low posts with headboards and footboards either solid or constructed of short slender spindles turned to match the posts.

Much less numerous and contained within a special area was its close relative, the tall-post spool bed . Structurally, the main difference was one of height. The posts were from five and one-half to seven feet tall and either surmounted by a full-size tester or knob-turned finials. The parts were sometimes turned in other than spool-shaped units. With minor variations they ranged through bobbin, knob, sausage, vase-and-ring to a large plain ring-turning or that of two balls separated by a thin ring element. Which design unit was used was a small matter since all such lathe work went under the generic term of spool-turning.

The material was turned in large diameter for posts and rails and in small diameter for spindles, and a bed could be assembled readily by cutting off the required parts from the longer lengths of turnings as they came from the lathe. Beds like the one illustrated are mostly found in long established homes in the Middle West and as far south as Mississippi. They turn up with enough regularity in antique shops located in this area to indicate that they were popular in the region when they were new. This bed is part of the furnishings of the Hercules Dousman house, Villa Louis, at Prairie duChien, Wisconsin, now maintained as a museum under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Historial Society.

Tall-post spool beds were made from 1850 to 1865 of black walnut in the full-size, in single size, in child's and crib sizes. Several present-day furniture factories have now revived the style, but copies can be easily recognized by the posts which are much slenderer, not over two and one-half inches in diameter, as against three to four inches with the originals.

Along with the spool bed, room sets with matching details were developed so the list of spool pieces includes tables, chairs, bureaus with attached mirrors, desks, especially those of the schoolmaster type, settees, whatnots, music stands, dressing glasses, and towel racks.

With pieces like the dressing table , the legs were always spool-turned as were the spindles of chair backs. For small pieces, such as a mirror frame and supports on a dressing glass, spool-turning was largely used as applied ornament. Legs on chests of drawers were spool-turned as might be the cresting of backboards. Spool-turned supports of an attached mirror usually ended in urn-shaped finials. For such turnings a strong close-grained wood was necessary so spool pieces were usually of maple, birch, black walnut, and sometimes cherry. Pieces made of the latter are quite unusual.

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