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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Spinet Desks

THE development by American cabinetmakers of a new form of furniture to encase the radio and the phonograph, and the effort of French craftsmen to create new designs for old types of furniture, illustrate the evolution to which home furnishings are subjected. Among the interesting adaptations, must be placed desks reconstructed from ancient spinets. These now add a quaint touch to rooms done in Colonial or eighteenth-century English style. Old-time clavichords, dulcimers and square pianos are often used for this purpose. All these instruments were early forms of what we know as the piano; but the name "spinet" has such a charming sound that it is used rather broadly. In the seventeenth century and for a time thereafter the terms "virginal" and "spinet" were used synonymously in England, although on the Continent a distinction was made.

A few spinets were produced at an early date in the American Colonies, but most of the oldest ones we find today were brought over from Europe. Picturesque Geof frey Stafford made spinets around 1691, when he was not fighting Indians in the Mohawk Valley. Fifty years later Gustavus Hesselius was building them in Philadelphia.

English spinetmakers such as Charles Hayward, a friend of Samuel Pepys, working in London in 1684, influenced both American and Continental craftsmen. George Astor, uncle of John Jacob Astor; John Broadwood & Sons and Clementi & Co. were other famous English makers of spinets, examples of whose work found their way across the sea.

In its early form the spinet was a plain, rectangular box, placed on a table for playing. When not in use it was kept out of sight in a cupboard. Later a special stand was provided, which gradually developed into attached legs. Then the spinet became a permanent part of the furnishing of the room.

The comparatively light weight of the spinet permitted the use of slender legs. Its tone was, like its lines, delicate and tenuous, with a quaint vibrating quality unlike that of any instrument today.

Just who the ingenious person was who first made a desk out of his old spinet we do not know. The idea of turning this ancient instrument to another use appeals to the imagination. For some time now, discerning persons have sought spinets and had handy cabinetmakers take out the keyboard and the internal parts. Generally an extension slide is put in so as to provide more writing space. Often cubbyholes and small drawers are added. Some, however, prefer to do as little altering as possible and, aside from removing the keyboard, leave the instrument much as it was before.

In any event, one has a handsome piece of mahogany and a serviceable desk that carries an antique air. So attractive in appearance are these desks that modern cabi netmakers now produce excellent reproductions, with all the charm of a Heppelwhite piece. Sometimes, too, adaptations are devised, better to suit modern needs. Lovers of the old are inclined to frown on these variations; nevertheless out of such variations has come a new form of desk, its design based on the delicate lines of the old spinet.

In estimating the age of a spinet, the type of legs may generally be regarded as an indication of period. The maker followed the prevailing fashions, as did craftsmen of other furniture, although spinetmakers were loath to change their style as quickly as did the builders of chairs and tables. Thus, in some instances, a spinet may really be of later date than the type of leg might suggest. For example, the fluted Sheraton leg and the Heppelwhite tapering spade foot, characteristic of spinet design in the eighteenth century, are found on instruments made as late as 1810. The round-turned vase-shaped leg of the Empire period was used by some makers up to 1830.

Many other points have to be taken into consideration in determining the age of a spinet. To the expert the mechanical arrangements of strings and keys give also a clue as to about when the spinet was built. The name of the maker found on some of the old instruments, or if not a name, perhaps a registry number or factory number, may aid in arriving at an approximate date. The spinets of Thomas and John Hitchcocks of London never carried their name, but every instrument they made was marked with a serial number.

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