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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Furniture Brasses

AN important industry created by the interest in early American furniture is the gathering up for sale of old-time handles and key hole plates for use in restorations. The same dealers often manufacture replicas of these brasses, reproducing them by hand. Sometimes complete sets of handles of a much later date have been put on a bookcase or chest of drawers by a former owner who wished to bring his old furniture up to date. Today, however, with our greater knowledge of what is correct and with our increased respect for the old designs, there is a demand that the brasses correspond in period with the piece itself. So if a chest of drawers picked up at auction or found in a farmhouse has an odd handle on if, or some keyhole plates are missing, an expert will supply just the kind of brass equipment the piece needs.

A popular belief is that any reproduction, whether of a piece of furniture or of a brass handle, is used to deceive people into thinking that it is the genuine thing. But slight examination of any honest reproduction by one who knows will disclose its character. In the case of brass handles, deception is difficult. The kind of brass made a hundred years ago had a different proportion of copper and zinc, and sharp eyes may discern in the old metal a greenish tone that is absent in modern brass.

Brass handles varied greatly in form after their introduction in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The first metal handles which replaced the wooden knobs formerly used-were pear or tear shaped pieces of brass hung from a small plate with indented edges and sometimes etched with a design. Often these handles were hollow. Jacobean furniture has this type of hardware. About this time also appeared a small type of the horizontal or bail handle. This was a curved bar hung at each end from a brass plate or escutcheon.

L. V. Lockwood in his "Colonial Furniture in America" gives the ending of the period when these types of brasses were used as about 1720. Then for fifty years the bail handle was in vogue, until Sheraton, Chippendale, Heppelwhite and the Adam brothers developed their round, oval and eight-sided designs, with pendent rings. The French Empire type, which came later and lasted from the beginning of the nineteenth century up to about the end of the first quarter, is recognized by its greater ornateness and use of ring handles with circular plates bearing rosette and other designs.

Few if any of the brasses used in Colonial furniture were made in this country. The importation from England was an important trade in those days, and New York cabinetmakers carried comparatively large stocks of "wrought escutcheons" and brass handles. Often seven or eight pairs would be needed on one chest of drawers.

Even after the Revolution the English makers of brass pulls did not let any hard feeling stand in the way of quickly providing the American cabinetmakers with handles of designs then in demand in the young Republic. The most popular was the eagle and shield pattern. Ovals of thin brass of that period carried also designs of marine and country scenes. They were remarkable for the grace and amount of detail wrought in a small space.

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