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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Country Furniture - Part 4

[Country Furniture - Part 1]  [Country Furniture - Part 2]  [Country Furniture - Part 3]  [Country Furniture - Part 4] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

A low, two-seat settee may seem at first glance to have been made for children. It wasn't. Instead, it was a portable seat to be carried out and placed in the bed of a wagon for a comfortable ride to town. It is properly called a wagon seat. Actually, the seat was 14 or 15 inches from the floor, which is not much lower than the average chair. Wagon seats had two outer arms. Three uprights, each tipped with a finial and with slats, were used for twoseaters. The uprights and legs were sturdy and round with simple turnings; the stretchers were more slender. The wood was maple, hickory, or other hard varieties, and often two or more kinds were used. It was either painted or left its natural color. Seats were rush or woven splint. Believe it or not, some of these wagon seats had attached rockers.

Children were not forgotten when country furniture was made. For them Windsor, slat-back, Hitchcock, and everyday side-chairs were turned out in small sizes. So were Boston and other styles of rockers, decorated in the same manner as their elders' chairs.

If it is possible that any category of furniture was more important than chairs, chests and cupboards were. After all, no matter when or where a person lived, he had some possessions that needed to be kept safe. Not only were chests and cupboards generally functional; many of them were cleverly built for particular types of storage. Of course both these storage pieces and hutches can be pretty battered if they've been used since 1840 or even 1870 or 1880. Nevertheless, their like will not be made again-and fresh paint works wonders.

Oldest, of course, was the ordinary chest with a lid. This was made in all lengths and depths, chiefly of pine and maple. Some were so precisely joined that it's a pleasure to look at them, however worn their corners. Many of these plain ones were made as late as the 1870's.

Individual styles of chests have been made in this country since before 1700. The chest with a lid that lifts up and two drawers beneath it was for blankets. One of the most famous of this kind was the Hadley chest. It was deep and three-paneled, and there was all-over carving of tulips, stems, and foliage. Only about 100 real Hadley chests were made in Hadley, Massachusetts. Many similar ones appeared in the Connecticut River Valley, farther south. These Connecticut ones were usually called sunflower or sunflower and tulip chests because of the type of carving on the three panels. Chests with one divided drawer were made in Pennsylvania. These, the dower chest, which had no drawers, and later chests of four drawers were painted and decorated in vivid colors in the Pennsylvania Dutch region. The dower chest had varicolored designs painted on the three panels. Incidentally, the motifs of the decoration differed typically from one county to another in this farmland area. Both dower and everyday chests often had the owner's name or initial carved or inlaid in the center panel.

Chests of drawers made from about 1730 onward were from three to six or eight drawers in height. They varied somewhat from state to state, but the highest ones are said to have been made in New Hampshire and Vermont, where the men were taller than average. A six-drawer chest also sometimes might consist of two threedrawer ones set side by side. Most of these plain chests were painted.

Cupboards range from milk and pie safes to even smaller spice cupboards and boxes to hang on the wall. Drug cupboards and some spice cupboards were made up of tiny drawers, each generally with a small wooden knob. Cupboards of this kind were placed atop either a slant-top desk or a wide chest of drawers, usually set well back from the edge on a chest of drawers.

The hutch and the dresser were primarily country styles. They were the forerunners of the twentieth-century kitchen cabinet, but much more attractive than the latter. Many styles of hutch and dresser were made, with the details and the arrangement of closed and open spaces changing with the locality. Although they were made in quantity into the 1870's, these pieces are worthwhile today.

A hutch consisted of two pieces. The bottom was an arrangement of either, or both, cupboards and drawers. The hutch top was removable and consisted of two or more railed shelves for the display of pewter or china, with either a cornice or an open top. A dresser, which was a cupboard to hold dishes and cooking utensils, also usually had two parts: a bottom of drawers and cabinets, and a top with either open or closed shelves. The top section normally was recessed to provide counter space. A kitchen cupboard also sometimes consisted of two deep cabinets under a row of drawers, but it had no upper section. A rail along the sides and back of the top kept objects from falling off the work surface.

The water bench was about as high as the hutch. The cupboards below were for storing water buckets; the counter provided a surface on which to place them when filled. Instead of having two or three shelves like the hutch, it had a row of shallow drawers attached near the top of the back, well above the counter. Dry sinks with part of the top depressed were smaller than water benches.

Cupboards, hutches, dressers, and sinks were painted, more often than not. However, when the wood-maple, cherry, pine, or birch-had been carefully chosen, the piece was sometimes only waxed and polished to display its natural wood color. These pieces make up probably the most sought-after and salable group to be found today.

Beds were less affected by changing styles or individual whims than any other country furniture. There were no towering four-posters in rural homes. Instead, throughout the 1700's and most of the 1800's, the low-post bed was made everywhere in single and small-double widths. It was often called the "under-eave" bed. The two low head-posts, which were slightly higher than the foot-posts, usually supported a low headboard. The headboards were plain and the posts simply turned and almost stubby. These bedsteads included two side and two end rails with either holes or knobs for holding the bed ropes (there were no springs), which had to be drawn taut. An important accessory was the wooden bed wrench used to tighten the ropes.

After 1825, beds were made occasionally with a sort of footboard between the foot-posts - two rails framing stock spindles-but the posts themselves and the headboard were no fancier than those of the under-cave bed. Hitehcock's fame rests on his chairs, but he or one of his imitators also made very plain headboards painted and decorated with stenciling in gilt.

Only one style of desk rounded out country furniture. The little desk known as the schoolmaster's desk may be found from the East Coast throughout the Midwest and the Plains states. It had no pigeonholes or drawers in the interior of the body. It did have one drawer under the slant top which formed its writing surface. The top had to be lifted to get at the materials stored underneath. This type of desk was small and set on comparatively high legs. It was made of maple, pine, perhaps cherry, or two woods, and was usually painted.

Native woods always were used for country furniture. Pine and maple predominated, but oak was an early choice and in the nineteenth century cherry was not uncommon. Hickory, walnut, butternut, ash, poplar, chestnut, and whatever wood the region offered came in handy too. Two or more kinds of wood were common in even the smallest object, and that-as has been pointed out-was why so many pieces were painted. Not only were several colors of paint employed, but in the 1800's paint was often applied to represent the grain of wood.

Restoring country furniture does not necessarily consist of scraping off all the various coats of paint down to the original pine, maple, or hickory. Of course some pieces entirely of pine, maple, or cherry will gleam beautifully if reduced to the wood, polished, and waxed, but a thorough cleaning and the application of a coat of paint in a suitable color and texture are fre quently the most appropriate treatment.

Country furniture is bound to show signs of hard usage. Judge its quality on the basis of how good its proportions and scale are, how well joined it is, and how good the turnings are.

The most likely finds in country furniture are such pieces as hutches, dressers, and painted chairs of the kitchen variety. However weary you may be from cleaning out an old house, never neglect to look in the cellar, the shed, or what was formerly the barn. It's in such spots that you may unearth a chest appealing for its small size, or a schoolmaster's desk discarded long ago because it was starting to come apart. Amazingly, a11 country furniture, no matter what its condition, has marketable value. A piece in good condition can be sold for a surprising amount of cash. A bona fide early-eighteenth-century chest is worth anything Lip to $1,000, depending on the amount of its carving and decoration and state of preservation. The plainest nineteenthcentury pine or maple chest with no more decoration than a molding around its lid can bring $35 to $50. Cupboards have an equally wide price range, and painted hutches and dressers are worth almost as much as current, unpainted but polished, wood reproductions.

Among chairs, the Windsors are the best gamble. Depending on its age and quality, a Windsor chair can be sold for from $10 to $1,000. A signed Hitchcock chair is worth more than Hitchcock-type chairs. The latter may bring no more than $20 or so each, even though they were made more than 100 years ago. A set of six, including one armchair, to use around a dining table can be sold for a tidy sum.

A slat-back rocker, uncomfortable as it is to sit in, may be worth $50 to $250. A Boston rocker, depending on how true to type it is and how good its condition, sells for perhaps $10 to $150.

An arrow-back kitchen-chair, painted and faded to a dingy gray, is bound to be worth a few dollars to someone. If you find one with a crest rail stenciled as well as painted, its selling price can be anything from $10 to $150. Just one wagon seat-not the complete set of two or three in which they were usually made-will bring not less than $25 and, depending on its workmanship and condition, perhaps $50 or more. Occasionally, a wagon seat is sold for $100 to $125.

No one can argue about a Hitchcock chair because it was signed. Some other makers of this sort of chair between 1830 and 1860 also stamped their name and town on the back, so it's possible to trace the date of origin. However, Hitchcock chairs are being made at the present time in New England. Although Lambert Hitchcock's original patterns are used and his stamp placed on the back, they are not antique chairs. A nineteenth-century Hitchcock may be worth only about $25 or it may be good enough to bring $150. The twentieth-century Hitchcock chairs with rush seats sell for $50 and up, in their gleaming newness.

Windsor chairs, slat or ladder-back chairs, captain's chairs and other lowback armchairs, Boston and other types of rockers, are reproduced too. Not as many types of Windsor chairs are being manufactured, but it can be difficult to tell one made in 1850 from a similar one made in 1950. All styles include sizes for both adults and children. Many of the current reproductions are copied faithfully from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples in museums and restorations. The excellence of the reproductions and the continuing manufacture of long-popular pieces are all the more reason for authenticating the approximate date when a more worn-looking counterpart was made.

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