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The Story Of Victorian Furniture - Part 3

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

( Originally Published 1963 )

Bedsteads continued to have wide sideboards and very high headboards. A bed was a bed, and fairly undistinguished. Probably to make them higher, headboards often had two or more rows of wood paneling separated by boards with incised decoration. Generally, these beds are too high to look right in present-day bedrooms with lower ceilings. Better scale and proportion are achieved by having a woodworker remove one row of panels, thus reducing the height of the bed and making it not only more usable but also more attractive-looking.

By the 1870's, two other influences became noticeable in the Victorian grab bag of styles. These were oriental, chiefly Chinese, and Turkish. The oriental trend in a way was natural, for Americans had a long-standing acquaintance with blue and white china, teakwood chests, Kashmir shawls, and tables with fretwork carving and mother-of-pearl inlay brought by sea captains and sailors from China and India. Late-Victorian furniture made in the United States, however, displayed pseudo-oriental touches. Fretwork and Chinese-type carving did replace some of the earlier, heavier carving. Lacquer and bamboo were popular. The Turkish influence also was purely American in interpretation. Another style of the 1870's was known as American Eastlake because it was derived from the published writings of an Englishman of that name. Furniture took on a still different look because dark wood was used as decoration on naturally light-colored wood. To accomplish this, greater use was made of walnut, ash, cherry, maple, chestnut, and particularly oak than of the longpopular rosewood, mahogany, and black walnut.

Wood in itself is not necessarily indicative of any one Victorian style. Rosewood and mahogany were preferred, especially by the cabinetmakers, and were used from beginning to end. About 1855 black walnut came into favor, and continued to be used fully as much as rosewood.

Veneer, particularly of burl or with an unusual grain, was used a great deal after 1870. Panels in the doors and drawers of cupboards, sideboards, and commodes frequently were veneered. Similar panels fancied-up the cylindertop desk or secretary. This cylinder was supported by brackets when raised. From 1840 into the 1860's, cabinetmakers used rosewood and some satinwood veneer and moldings on mahogany and rosewood pieces. Belter, of course, made extensive use of laminated rosewood, which is not technically veneer, in shaping his pieces.

Between 1840 and the 1860's, drawer pulls were made from rosewood, mahogany, or black walnut to match the wood of the piece. These drawer pulls, 4 inches or more wide, were beautifullv carved to represent leaves or leaves centered with fruit. Rarely, as on a commode, they were the only carved decoration. After 1870, metal drawer pulls became the thing. These consisted of a large plate, embossed with elaborate, rather meaningless designs, from which hung proportionately large, rectangular bails.

Upholstery on Victorian furniture was almost as typical as marble tops. Satins and velvets were used on the elegant Rococo sofas and chairs. Flowersprigged fabrics and some brocades were well-liked. Velvet was used to some extent throughout the Victorian years, but by the 1870's plush was well established. Thereafter, plush, shiny horsehair, and tapestry weaves were popular. All pieces in a set of furniture were upholstered to match, but the extra rocking chair in the room quite likely was plush-covered and edged with deep fringe. It is interesting to peel off the upholstery on an armchair made in the 1840's and note the various materials with which it has been covered. In the process of reupholstering one pair of husband and wife chairs during the 1950's, remnants of seven other fabrics were found.

Throughout its span, the Victorian era produced a good many oddities. One of these, the ottoman or stuffed and upholstered footstool, was a sensible piece of furniture. It was outsized and overstuffed, on variously shaped , and often carved, wood legs. This large footstool was common during the early and middle years, but had disappeared by the time the so-called Turkish influence flowered. The Morris chair had its forerunner in fancier reclining chairs with a high adjustable back and a leg-rest that could be pulled out from under the seat to which it was attached. Couches with a headrest like a bolster appeared late, competed with Morris chairs, and were equally undistinguished.

Belonging chiefly to the early years but never entirely out of fashion were small tables and stands made with mother-of pearl inlay and gilt. Similar pieces were made of papier-mâché with mother-ofpearl inlay. The hatrack and combination hatrack and umbrella stand were as indispensable as whatnots and far more imposing. Usually a mirror was worked in someplace in the framework, which was always tall and loaded with some kind of hook or spindle on which to hang outerwear. Hatracks took on strange shapes and outlines.

While first the elegant, then the indifferent, furniture was being produced for urban areas, country adaptations were being made. Instead of rosewood, mahogany, or black walnut, the country pieces were produced from maple, ash, hickory, birch, some cherry, and, of course, pine. Many country pieces made of light wood trimmed with dark are still to be found, and many that were stained or painted. Drawers continued to have plain wood knobs. Turnip feet became common on chests and bureaus, although bracket feet were not forgotten.

Instead of commodes with marble tops and marble splash rails, country bedrooms relied on the washstand of all wood, even including the splash rail. This washstand often had two cupboard doors under the top drawer, and behind one of the doors would be shelves. This was easier construction than one cupboard and three narrow drawers with pulls. One of the popular and common bureaus consisted of a chest of four drawers with two shallow, narrow drawers attached to the top on either side. Recessed between these two drawers was an attached mirror. Tables were more likely to have wood than marble tops, and skirts were scalloped or jigsawed. Rocking chairs and side chairs with frames of walnut or lighter-colored wood such as maple, and with cane seats and backs, were made in quantity during the 1860's and 1870's.

The quality of Victorian furniture must be judged according to the standards by which eighteenth-century furniture is. The kind of wood and its patina, normal signs of wear and general condition, and the amount and kind of restoration required must be noted shrewdly in order to set a valuation and selling price.

Since Victorian furniture was produced both by cabinetmakers and factories, the origin is an important part of identification. Sound workmanship predominated. Still, the products of cabinetmakers are bound to be valued more highly, for many reasons, than those from factories. Not that all cabinetmakers worked with the same degree of skill. Some of them were less adept at carving and veneering, and some of them handled proportions poorly, such as shaping too delicate a leg for an upholstered chair or adding one shelf too many to a whatnot.

The fact that many factories were flourishing by the 1$70's did not put all of the cabinetmakers out of business. Remember that furniture with scrolled and shaped parts and bold carving came from the cabinetmaker. Later, he also used moldings. However, the flat applied molding and the shallow decorative cutting were typical factory work.

A pair of husband and wife chairs, factory-made in the 1870's or 1880's, with rather angular lines, flat molding, and incising, have been sold at auctions recently for as little as $35 to $50. A pair with Victorian Rococo lines, however tattered the upholstery, start at $50 and may bring as much as $150.

Spool-turned furniture, for which there is a demand, brings higher prices than the later nineteenth-century factory pieces. A small spool bed in only fair condition can be sold for $50 and one in excellent condition may bring $70 to $85 in some areas, $100 or more in others. A washstand with only two spool-turned members-the rods on which towels are hung-will bring $10 even if it's rickety, and one in good condition may sell for as much as $35.

A Belter bed ranges between $200 and $500; other beds of the same period (1840-60), between $100 and $300. On the other hand, it may not be possible to sell a three-piece bedroom set in Victorian Jacobean for more than $75 to $100 in many parts of the country, even though the bureau and commode have marble tops. It is sometimes possible to obtain more money

by selling a bureau and a commode separately.

A commode, incidentally, should be downgraded in price if the splash rail has been removed or lost.

Some pieces of Victorian furniture are disposed of more readily than others. Sofas, particularly those made between 1840 and 1870, find a ready market. Side chairs and armchairs that are not too heavy sell whether they are early or late Victorian. Prices begin at about $15 per side chair and go on up to $50 or higher, according to condition, kind of wood, and the amount and kind of carving and scrolling. One possible weak point should be examined in side chairs: the crest rail topped with carving and shaped to carry out the curved lines of the uprights. This may break off during current use if the wood is excessively dried out or if someone leans back too heavily, or even in carrying the chair. The break usually will be a clean one, but since the crest rail was originally doweled into the uprights, successful and long-lasting repair is tricky.

A market exists for anything with a marble top. Granted, some people who buy marble-topped furniture do so only for the marble, which they remove and use in some contemporary fashion. Commodes and small tables, even some round center-tables, are sold and bought on their own merits.

It's the cumbersome beds, the heavy bureaus, the undistinguished dining tables and large living-room tables; the peculiarly decorated sideboards that are hard to sell. This is-well known to anyone who has had to clear out the furnishings of an old house during the last ten years. Even desks and secretaries, however handsome the wood, are not easy to sell. The chief disadvantage of these pieces is their size. However, I consider it a mistake to strip off excess ornament and curlicues in the hope of making a quick sale. Let the buyer do the stripping if he wants to. After all, Victorian styles are not likely to be repeated in the forseeable future. The patience to wait for an interested buyer and then to agree on a modest price will free a person of any Victorian monstrosity eventually.

The hobbies and interests with which leisure time is now filled inspire a certain number of sales. China closets and bookcase-cupboards have been bought with the intention of converting them to gun cases or racks. The transformation is not complicated, and because these pieces have glass doors which can be locked, they display their contents with safety. These bookcase-cupboards are space-consuming, late-Victorian pieces. A typical example is a case piece, 5 to 6 feet tall, on short legs. One half is shelves behind a glass door, the other side consists of a chest of three or four drawers topped with a multitude of shelves and small cupboards.

On the other hand, some of the most unlikely Victoriana predictably finds buyers. The towering and usually ugly hatrack sells more often than not. Some people claim they buy it as a whimsey. Actually, even if no one wants to admit it, a hatrack can be most convenient in spite of its size. Parlor organs or melodeons, which became popular after 1850, are having something of a vogue again. These probably vary more in the wood and workmanship of the case than in musical quality. The selling price may have to be much less than the appraised value, depending on how much interest there is in your part of the country. Whether you charge extra or throw in the plush-covered and fringed stool or bench is your decision.

The prices that can be obtained for Victorian furniture, even the oldest and finest pieces, are comparatively modest, but they will undoubtedly increase a little with every passing decade. If you are unwilling to wait for better prices, however, you still will not have to pay to have nineteenthcentury furniture carted away. Sooner or later, someone will give you something for even the most tasteless piece.

Reproductions of Victorian Rococo sofas, chairs, and tables, from the size that displayed the Boston fern to the large round center one, already are being sold in furniture and department stores. The scrolled lines and contours ape those of authentic Victorian origin but seldom are in as good proportion to the whole. The carving of any piece and the wood details of table supports are not comparable either, nor is the wood usually rosewood or mahogany. 'These twentieth-century reproductions are priced higher in most cases than the selling prices that can be obtained for Victorian originals in good condition.

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