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Antique Furniture: Something On Wood
( Article orginally published May 1952 )
A Botanical slant on period furniture, in terms of the wood employed in its construction, is not the usual approach; but since ordinary antiques, out of the museum and collector's bracket, are winning new friends on the virtue of their fine old wood, a cursory glance in this direction might be expedient.
The principal woods of English and French antiques, at least so far as the majority of imports are concerned, hewed to cycles of popularity, in ages of oak, of walnut, of mahogany, and mahogany and satinwood with rare exotic inlays almost as rigid as the period identification. In America there was more overlapping, more of a mixture, necessity dictating the use of what was closest at hand, time being a factor in the arrival of new fashions from abroad and the early colonists themselves exercising choices suggested by a variety of cultural heritages. These were the figurative timbers which supplied the first planks.
English colonists along the Alantic Coast line followed contemporary modes as soon as they had something less serious to be concerned with than disease, starvation and hostile Indians. They fashioned after the Jacobean, using oak sometimes combined with pine, the latter being available in tremendous widths, and other local woods, birch, maple, ash, hickory, chestnut, acacia, red cedar, beech, elm and cherry; in the William and Mary phase, walnut, maple, fruit and nut woods, and in the Queen Anne and early Georgian, walnut and some mahogany for the finer furniture, nut and fruit woods, ash, oak, maple, cherry, gum, pine and hickory for the simple types.
The Dutch in the Hudson Valley up to Albany were carving and painting furniture in an unpretentious simplification of the blustering baroque, turning out such distinctive pieces as their kas in walnut, pine, cherry or maple. In eastern Pennsylvariia, settled by Germans and Swiss, the Pennsylvania "Deutsch" were reproducing their own traditions adapted to their needs and the materials of their new surroundings from native pine, maple, walnut, cherry and other fruit trees with a few unique types, such as their bride's chests.
The later colonial period catered to mahogany and walnut, plain or curly maple, but while lowboys of maple or pine were found in the less nretentious homes, their distinguished prototypes were executed in walnut and mahogany. This era, too, saw the introduction of the Windsor cottage styles with saddle seats of pine or soft birch and the turned parts of maple, ash, birch, oak or beech, painted so that they would weather or left in the raw wood.
Not only England but France, Spain and Italy had gone definitely mahogany--conscious in the 18th century, an importance which mahogany was likewise to assume as the chief hymadryad of the Federal period in American work. The Philadelphian and Rhode Island schools of cabinetmakers with the Salemites were paving the way. Goddard of Newport was to gain a reputation in his matching of mahogany and to leave a will bequeathing his stock to his wife as an indication of its value; Savery of Philadelphia was to become famous for his mahogany lowboys and Duncan Phyfe was to retire in the middle of tha next century still carving and polishing bits of his cherished specimens.
In the wealthy South, composed of English cavaliers, Scotch, Irish dissenters, Swiss, German Moravians and French Huguenots, the baronial system was provoking a constant hue and cry for cabinetmakers to satisfy their demands for luxury, the extravagances which brought the criticism that they were throwing away their substance for the work of the devil.
Be that as it was, they continued to number joiners among their retainers, indentured and slaves; they received shipments of furniture through funds left to the disposal of their agents abroad from their sales of tobacco, cotton and rice, more from Salem and Rhode Island and from the skilled craftsmen of the North who found it profitable to set up shop in Southern towns and still they advertised for the journeymen carpenters who passed from plantation to plantation doing their sint.
The best wood, native and foreign, was supplied. For the matter of that the ships clearing for abroad carried walnut plank for London and oak boards for Bristol. The quality of walnut was superior to that in England and in abundance with the cherry pine used by their own cabinetmakers until mahogany took precedence. Oak, too, was plentiful yet, but little employed later except for framework, and cherry was popular up to the Victorian period, particularly with the Moramans. Mahogany, the best of the West Indies and Santo Domingo, was part of the trade in the return cargo.
The Federal period in the North as well as the South ushered the swing to classicism fostered by the Louis XVI vogue in France and that of Adam in England through the designs of Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Shearer. Mahogany, then, was undisputed qucen. Empire styles created a taste for light-colored woods, light finished mahogany with blond wood inlays, curly maple being substituted for satinwood. Fine. maple and hickory were usod locally and with the beginning of mass production came the overdecorated mahogany and rosewood Phyfe called "butcher" furniture and such expressions of Yankee ingenuity as Hitchcock's fancy chairs painted to simulate rosewood.
The Victorian era fostered black walnut and rosewood and the mission oak which stemmed from the fumed-oak craze of the Arts Crafts movement. It remained modernistic furniture to mark a new era in style and a new movement taste in wood.