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The Story Of Victorian Furniture - Part 1

[Victorian Furniture - Part 1]  [Victorian Furniture - Part 2]  [Victorian Furniture - Part 3] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

Victorian furniture is unquestionably plentiful. Every state from Maine to California, Alaska, and even Hawaii has its quota of odd pieces as well as parlor and bedroom sets. Not all of the furnishings that were fashionable during the long Victorian era are entitled to be called antiques at this time, yet restorations of gingerbread mansions already are under way in, for example, Connecticut and California.

Every year brings more Victorian furniture and the bric-a-brac so dear to Victorian housewives closer to the status of antiques. After all, the sofas and chairs of the first phase, which extended from 1840 into the 1860's, are a minimum of 100 years old. They are quite different from the American Empire style that preceded the Victorian era. Each decade of this twentieth century certainly will bring greater recognition to even late Victorian styles and foibles. With so little authentic eighteenth-century furniture likely to be found, that of the nineteenth century becomes more and more worth looking for.

Victorian furniture has made a more substantial return to favor in some parts of the country than in others. For example, starting in the 1950's, there was such a demand for sofas, chairs, and tables in Texas and many of the southern states that antique dealers bought heavily in the New England states and shipped their Victorian finds southward. Southerners prefer very dark woods and white marble because it is cool-looking. Many of the towering pieces fit nicely into large houses where the rooms have high ceilings (this is as true in any state as it is in southern ones). In New England and the Atlantic states where homeowners feel space is more restricted, sofas and other small pieces are preferred. Whatever market exists in the vicinity of New York City shows a preference for pieces topped with marble that has pink and chocolate variegations.

Everywhere, people have begun to learn that some pieces of Victorian furniture are highly adaptable. Used in moderation and chosen carefully, pieces in the Victorian style add a note of elegance and blend with the most contemporary furnishings. The marble-topped commode, indispensable to every Victorian bedroom set, makes a serving table or side table as charming as it is useful in a dining room. A pair can be used effectively along a long wall in a living room. A marble-topped bureau, with the large mirror detached and hung on the wall above, makes a good sideboard.

Victorian side chairs more often than not are treasures. Miscellaneous ones are snapped up by ones and twos. In one Connecticut dining room, the six chairs for the table all have naturalistic carving of flowers or fruit and foliage on the crest rail, but only two chairs have identical carving. All were made within a twenty-five-year period in the mid-1800's.

Much of the Victorian furniture actually is extremely comfortable. The sofas of the old parlor sets that were covered with shiny, slippery, prickly horsehair in the 1880's, and later, are comfortable after they have been reupholstered with a softer fabric. Admittedly, a Victorian bed with its wide sideboards into which spring and mattress sink is the most inconvenient one to make, but that does not mean it is not comfortable for sleeping.

The Victorian era was a long one, coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria of England. She was crowned in 1837 and died in 1901, but for convenience the period in this country is usually dated from 1840 to 1900. These were years when living for many people was elegant and leisurely: years when fortunes were being made in America, when many industries were being developed, when the shoe factory reduced the number of shoemakers but not cobblers, when the metal factory put the village brazier and itinerant tinsmith out of work. These also were the years of mass emigration to America.

More people, more homes, and more money led to a greater demand for furniture during the 1800's than the 1700's. A natural outgrowth of this need was furniture factories.

Lambert Hitchcock with his inexpensive painted and stenciled chairs had blazed the trail for mass production of furniture. The next, and an equally successful, attempt at mass production and assembly-line manufacturing came about 1850, with spool-turned pieces. They were much less expensive than the same pieces of furniture from cabinetmakers of the time, which were made of exotic woods, had more elegant lines and hand-worked details.

Factory-made spool furniture was produced chiefly between 1850 and 1865, and in smaller quantity to 1880. It was also called "Jenny Lind" because it first appeared in the years when that famous and popular singer was touring the United States. The term "spool" is descriptive of the turning done on the straight members of each piece (spindles, railings, and the towel bars on a washstand), which resembles a string of wooden spools. Beds, tables, chairs, whatnots, and washstands were made in greatest quantity, although probably some other miscellaneous pieces were also spool-turned. This furniture was usually made of maple, birch, or other native hardwoods. Often it was painted or stained a dark tone in imitation of the cabinetmaker's rosewood and black walnut pieces. Today, frankly, spool-turned pieces are cherished, and since less spool furniture was produced, scarcity has increased its value. It's impossible not to recognize spool-turned pieces. For one thing, they are lighter-looking and in smaller scale than most of the more elegant Victorian furniture.

The success of Hitchcock chairs and spool-turned furniture led to more and more factories' being established after 1850 in New England and the Midwest. The first factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was opened in 1847, and long before 1900 this city had become known as the furniture capital of America. It was not until the 1870's, however, that more funiture for general household use was produced in factories than in cabinetmakers' shops. Probably large-scale manufacturing, whereby furniture was produced faster and in greater quantity, to sell less expensively, led to the popularity of sets for various rooms. A parlor set, for example, consisted of a sofa, an armchair, and two side chairs, plus a marble-topped table. Because it was used only on special occasions, parlor furniture has survived in better condition than sets for other rooms. A bedroom set was highlighted by a ponderous bed with towering headboard, a commode, a bureau and possibly a dressing table, a chest, or in late years a chiffonier, a side chair and possibly a small rocking chair, and a small round or bedside table. The dining room set included a large table with undistinguished lines, a sideboard that at certain times during the Victorian era was quite fearful and wonderful, a serving or side table, six chairs with one usually a little larger than the others and having wood arms, and, in late years, a china closet or cabinet.

Most famous of the new pieces of furniture originated by the Victorians was the whatnot, made to fit in a corner or to stand parallel to the wall. This consisted of many open shelves, often with low railings, on which to display Canton china, art glass, dried flowers or wreaths under glass, daguerreotypes, Staffordshire dogs and figurines, and whatever appealed to the Victorian lady's fancy. A vase holding peacock feathers was a triumphant acquision for a whatnot.

The china closet or cabinet also was for the display and safekeeping of the finest tea set in the house, a set of dessert or cake plates, and cut glass, which became increasingly popular as the Victorian period progressed. China closets appeared toward the end of the Victorian period, and although they were an improvement on the whatnot, they displaced the lovely cupboards made during the eighteenth century and the open dressers found in rural homes of the nineteenth century. China closets were case pieces on short legs, with front and sides of glass framed in wood, and a wood back. The shelves inside also were wood. The chiffonier, another late-nineteenth-century piece, was not nearly so handsome as the previous century's highboy, high chest, or chest-on-chest.

The one new style of chair originated during the long Victorian era was the Morris chair, named for the English poet William Morris. This was a low, deep-seated chair with flat, almost straight, wood arms and a hinged back that could be adjusted to any angle and kept in position by a movable crossbar or rod that rested in notches. Separate, thick, soft cushions covered seat and back. The old Morris chair was far from handsome, but it wasand still is-mighty comfortable for reading, dozing, and, with its broad, flat arms, convenient for a writing pad or sewing equipment.

If it seems odd that a chair should be named after a poet, then let it be remembered that William Morris led a group of artists and writers in deploring the stifling of craftsmen and the repetitive, cheapened output from factories for home furnishings. Morris did more than deplore this state of affairs, for he became interested in decoration and started a business that concerned itself with furniture, tapestries, carpets, chintzes, and the like that emphasized natural decoration and pure color. The basic principle of this "Art Nouveau" movement, as it was sometimes called, was combining beauty and utility, and it soon became lost in the frills of the late Victorian years.

The rocking chair continued to be a great favorite and many changes were wrought in it. These chairs had a tendency to travel across the floor as a person rocked, and to correct this the platform and the stationary rocker were patented. Both types usually had upholstered backs, seats, and arms. The platform rocker, patented in the 1840's, had no legs, but the frame of the seat was bowed and it both rested and rocked on a stationary rectangular platform-base of wood. Another type of stationary rocker known as a "track" rocker was introduced in the 1880's. This had four, comparatively short, canted legs usually on casters, and the chair rocked by means of a mechanism under its deep seat. These chairs often were covered with plush tufted on back and seat, and had fringe hanging from the edge of the seat.

Rockers without platforms or other devices to keep them stationary took on new lines. One popular one was known as the "Sleepy Hollow," with its long, S-curved back and scrolled arms. The Lincoln rocker was so called because President Lincoln was sitting in one when he was assassinated. It had the scrolled lines of frame and arms popular in Victorian furniture from 1840 into the 1860's, and an upholstered back, seat, and arms. Often the wooden framework of the arms was elaborately scrolled and the crest of the back was carved.

Much simpler rockers also were made throughout the Victorian era. One of the nicest was the "lady" rocker, with either an oval or rectilinear back and seat. This was a low, armless, upholstered chair. Similar small upholstered rockers or small wood ones with cane seat and back were made as part of bedroom sets. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, mahogany rockers were made for downstairs rooms. These were usually comfortable but were of no particular style and bore no relation to the rockers that were popular much earlier. They might be fairly highbacked with turned spindles or lowbacked with a wide splat, a curved crest rail, and narrow, scrolled, downcurved wood arms.

As for furniture in general, the Victorian era was such a long one that not one but several distinct stvles were developed. Interestingly enough, each of these styles borrowed from some period of the past, starting with Medieval days and progressing to Renaissance and eighteenth-century Louis XVI. However, the Victorians managed to embellish everything made for their houses. The chief influences are summarized briefly as follows:

1830's-1850: Early or Transitional Victorian
1840-1865: Gothic
1845-1860's: Victorian Rococo or Louis XV
1850-1880: Spool-turned (factory made)
1855-1875: Renaissance Victorian)
1865-1875: Victorian Louis XVI
1870's--: Victorian Jacobean
1870-1880: Oriental, also Turkish

Although it is possible to confine some of these influences to a span of years, many of them continued to be followed to some degree long after furniture-makers had gone on to a fresh style. Also, American Empire pieces and details continued to be produced long after the first Victorian fashions were in full sway.

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