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Buying Apparent Wrecks

( Originally Published 1907 )



IT is not only the pleasure and the fascination of successful pursuit that appeal to him who searches out old furniture. It is the feeling that the prize won is to be established in his house, and that it is to be an ever-present satisfaction there. For our own part we found, as many others have found, that the feelings and the pleasures are precisely such as these. The initial triumph, the sense of satisfaction in getting our own pieces of furniture into the once-while inn, the keener pleasure of placing them in the best position, and the lasting satisfaction of having them where their shape and their associations speak to us, are what constitute the charm. And if a number of the articles cost but a trifle, the pleasure is augmented. Just as the Metropolitan Museum, of New York, recently told with pride of the acquisition of a splendidly carved ancient newel post and panels, secured in France, at a house in course of demolition, for two dollars each!

A friend, who also loves the old shapes, likes to say : "I will get my furniture in modern reproductions. What pleasure is there in buying junk?"

Well, there certainly would be but little pleasure in buying old furniture if it were to remain as junk. Apparent junk must be viewed with the eyes of common-sense and faith. If a piece is too badly broken to be satisfactorily repaired it ought not to be acquired. Of this class was a great four-poster we once saw, that had possessed splendidly carved posts and pineapple ornamentation, but which, to make it fit into a low-eaved corner, had been ruthlessly sawed off at the tops of all four posts to a ruinous shortness; and then the sawed-off pieces had been burned. That bed was not worth accepting even had it been offered as a gift. But many a broken or hard-used article of furniture can be restored to its pristine strength, and, so far as appearance goes, may almost fit the lilting old rhyme about being given a polish of so brilliant a hue as to make it look newer than when it was new.

And so, it is one answer to our friend that no pieces should be gathered except those which are susceptible to treatment (in our own case he recognizes, albeit with grumblings, that there may be something in this practical view), and it is still another answer that by far the greater part of modern reproductions miss the precisely perfect proportions. This, which seems absurdly unnecessary, is just as absurdly true. It is with copyists of old furniture as it is with copyists of old buildings : the infinite personal care of the past is likely to be lacking in these modern days, and to copy accurately is an art hard to acquire even with the aid of measurements. At the same time the copyist feels an almost irresistible tendency to "improve" upon the original with little changes or adaptations here and there : little in themselves, perhaps, such changes, but vastly important in effect.

Moreover, all the fascination of the veritable touch of the past, the tender or stately charm of association, is lost in the modern copies of the old.

Not only may it be expressed, as a general rule, that nothing of the broken should be purchased which is not capable of good and adequate repair, but conversely it may be stated that nothing which is wanted and which is capable of repair should be passed by on account of its wrecked appearance. But the art of knowing what is reasonably capable of repair is a difficult one to master.

Naturally and unavoidably, the beginner will make some mistakes. It is only by experience, and a gradually acquired knowledge of what it is possible for him to do or to have done, that he can gain the ability to decide. And what is possible for one man may not be possible for another. It is well for a collector to find one of those old-fashioned craftsmen, usually French or German, who make a specialty of doing curious and clever handiwork.

But, although broken furniture ought often to be purchased, one should not permit himself the accumulation of broken glass or china. That is something which will surely be regretted, for broken china gives an effect of dilapidation to an entire house that all else in the way of strength and solidity cannot off-set. It is seldom that broken china or glass, except for very simple breaks, can be so repaired as to be satisfactory in both strength and appearance; and if it cannot be thus repaired-if it be a pitcher with a handle gone, or a sugar bowl with a great chip in its side, or a platter with a section missing-do not listen to the voice of the inward tempter, telling of what a rare design it is or of what a beautiful color.

Except for a museum, all furniture and china should be capable of handling and use. There is little pleasure, and much inevitable dissatisfaction, in the possession of china that must not be touched or chairs that must not be sat upon, in tables precariously patched or glass bowls perilously pieced.

With furniture, much can be done. In our own collecting, in the earlier days, we allowed a number of valuable articles to escape us because we did not then have the necessary knowledge and experience. But when one reflects that many of the most sincere dealers, who really love the goods they handle, sell old furniture just as they find it, whether broken or whole, one begins to realize that there must be high potentialities of mending.

In our own experience, no piece that we ever re-stored was so broken, so utterly a wreck, as a mighty fireside chair that we picked up on one of our South-ern visits. It is so tall as to hide with its magisterial back the tallest man who seeks its comfort; it is portly of width (it is three feet and ten inches across the arms) and of stately, rounding curves. In age it is well over a century.

When discovered, in a shed, the chickens had been roosting upon it, which was far from adding a distinguished air, and there was no trace whatever of the seat. That had completely vanished. The leather covering was hanging, here and there on the sides and back, in strips and fragments. The chair had suffered the penalties of popularity. Little was left, indeed, but the outline shape and the frame-work, but the framework was mighty and the shape was fine. Yet even the frame, although intrinsically strong, had become racked and loosened.

But the chair was full of possibilities, and was purchased. Wrapped in burlaps, it was shipped up by water and rail. This wrapping was for two reasons. For once, enthusiastic collectors though we were, we fear we were not proud of having quite such a forlorn wreck, quite such a thing of rags and tatters, carried into our home, past the eyes of our friends. But better reason than this regard for appearances was our desire not to let the freight handlers know how bad it looked. It was sure of more careful handling, wrapped carefully, than as an apparent jumble of fragments. And we knew that until it should be repaired it could not stand much more of hard usage. The chair cost four dollars, but that included wrap-ping in new burlaps and the cartage.

The pads on the sides and back were fortunately still in place; they were of good curled horsehair; and as their proportions would bear mightily on the comfort of the rehabilitated chair, they were taken off carefully and kept separate, so as to resume their places unaltered in quantity, and each pad was thoroughly cleansed by a soaking in gasoline.

The next task was to take out all the tacks and nails. And although the time-worn query of where all the pins go to is still unanswered, we felt that we had found a complete reply to the question of where all the tacks go. For it seemed as if their number in that chair was legion. Every one was taken out, thoroughly to clean the chair, and to make sure that old nails should not interfere with the placing of the new ones, and to preclude the possibility of annoying scratchiness through the new upholstering.

Then the great frame was thoroughly blocked, for the old blocks had fallen away and permitted it to waver. Square new blocks were placed where the solid mahogany legs join the frame of the seat, and firmness was restored.

The chair stood, now, a bare wooden frame, and the next task was to scrape and polish it; an easy task, because all the wood that was to show was the four short legs and the strong cross-braces-strong enough, these, to illustrate the old rule in regard to chairs, that the heavier the underbracing the older the chair.

A new seat was next provided. Originally, the chair had no springs, but there was no reason why springs should not be used, and so a number of upholsterer's springs were set in place, with webbing and hair. The pads were then replaced on the back and the sides, and stout muslin was stretched over all.

The chair, which had thus gradually grown and developed, was no longer just a form, but a form clothed in white, and showing by this means all of its proper lines.

Next came the final upholstering. We needed it to be in yellow, and so it was covered with a yellow linen taffeta, fastened with brass nails all around the edges-a total of precisely 379 brass heads in sight! Yet they are scarcely noticeable, so long are the curving lines they follow and so merged are they in the yellow covering of this most comfortable old Heppelwhite fireside chair.

And now the chair stood once more perfect: once more it was what its builder had intended it to be, a thing of beauty and promising to be a source of comfortable joy forever. And it may be added that a point to consider, in choosing such a broad-backed chair, with arms, is to see that the line of the arm continues, with a slight projection, to the back of the chair, thus giving a comfortable elbow support throughout the whole width of either side. Numhers of these old chairs were made with the line of the arm merged wholly into the sheltering sides, and they thereby lack in comfort.

No one can understand the handicraftsmanship of the old days till he has stripped a fine old chair to its skeleton. Many a little structural secret will be discovered which would never have been guessed had the chair merely been sent to an upholsterer, without examination. For example, with this great fireside chair it is really marvelous that, without weakening the structure a particle, there should be long narrow spaces, almost the length of the back and the sides, left in the framework for the purpose of allowing the covering to be drawn through and cinched. No upholsterer's needle was necessary on this chair, and every line of its shape is clean-cut and clear.

Early in your collecting, search out some man who is a deft repairer of furniture, a man who has come to some inheritance of the ways of the olden time; and then fasten to him with hooks of steel. The man who will "putter" patiently over a broken fragment, who will handle it intelligently, is a prize to the lover of old furniture. For there are many re-pairs which one cannot do himself ; many which only the skilled' craftsman can accomplish.

Good fortune gave us the acquaintance of an old German who had a little shop in that picturesquely rambling part of New York still known as Greenwich Village, and at that queer corner where Waverley Place bifurcates. He died a year or so ago; he and his wife, who was his companion in a strangely solitary existence in the heart of the great city, were taken away by a call which came with little warning and simultaneously to both of them. But while he lived he was the perfection of a furniture repairer.

He was from Mainz; this man of patient skill and infinite pains; and, learning that we knew his native town, he spoke, now and then, with a shy pleasure, of the majestic Rhine, of the islands, of the vine-yards and the wine, of the old-time streets of Mainz, and of the great old Cathedral, the Dom, with houses built so closely against it as to leave only two narrow entrance ways into its wide interior. His eyes glowed with pleasure at a reference to his be-loved Mainz or to the Rhine ; but it never stopped his slow and patient work, his thoughtful, near-sighted peering. He possessed in rare degree a knowledge of the furniture craftsmanship of the Old World. He could polish to perfection, too-but he was old, and his arm easily grew weary, and so, although now and then polishing a piece for us, he taught us the valuable art by careful precept and example, so that if we wished we could do it ourselves on any of our own furniture.

He had little patience with those who did not possess some knowledge of furniture making, and it was amusing to see him use shiny varnish or, worse yet, what he called "daub," for such customers as he did not consider of the elect. "It is just so good for them," he would say with a shrug of the shoulders. "They know not the difference, they!" He had goodly store of old mahogany boards, for use in mending, and could do wonders with them.

His apron of blue ticking, his dry-smoke cigar, his favorite phrase following his peering examination; "I make it all right! I make it flush mit dat!" his nodding self-communion as he planned how to go about some difficult job, all were suggestive of the completed success that was sure to follow. It was a pleasure to watch his delicate handling of a piece of French Boulle, wrecked by the steam heat of an American home, or his masterful relaying of the inlay of a shattered Sheraton table.

One can usually find such a man in any of the great cities. Generally, too, such a man's prices are inversely as to his skill. This old German carved for us, in mahogany, a piece of ornamentation several inches long, to replace a lost fragment and match a piece on the opposite side of a table; the copy was exact, the carving was fine, and the charge was only half a dollar!

An especially difficult little job was the straightening of the warp in one half of the top of a swingand-turn fine mahogany card-table ; one of those tops that turn on a pivot and fold up into half space. The table had drifted into a kitchen before we acquired it, and had been used for ironing and pressing clothes, and one of the halves was exceedingly warped.

The man of Mainz tried, first, the usual panacea of removing the offending board, scraping off the varnish, wetting the board upon the reverse side, and then letting it stand in the sun. But this simple-seeming remedy for once would not answer, efficacious though it generally is. Then he studied it long and carefully. "I cut it into strips!" he cried exultantly. Whereupon he cut it into six pieces and, reversing them alternately as he laid them down, and using the plane a little, he triumphed completely. There was about a quarter of an inch lost in sawdust, and for this width he put in a strip of mahogany from one of his many boards; and the job was done. And so beautifully glued and polished were the pieces that it is almost impossible to discover the joinings, even by close examination.

But there was one time when even the old German could not help us, once when we learned that every-thing is not so easy as it seems. We had found two oval Sheraton tea-boards (one thinks of Franklin's letter home to his wife, telling her of the English way of using tea-board and tea-cups). The tea-boards were of rare design, delicately inlaid in the centre and brass-handled on the ends. But the encircling upright edges of thin wood, an inch in height, had left their sockets and sprung out of place, and unless this could be remedied the tea-boards would be hopeless wrecks.

But they seemed to be particularly easy to repair; it was almost the kind of thing we could have done ourselves, so we rashly thought, even though we had then had but little experience in repairing. But, alas! it was not an easy thing at all. The old German solemnly shook his head. It irked him to say that there was something he could not do. But the boards must, he said, go to some one who had a steaming room and could steam the rims into shape. No glue could possibly make the strips, as they were, stick in their precarious grooves. "If they were but square-cornered!" and he shrugged his shoulders in despair.

Finally the man with a steaming outfit was found, a French cabinet-maker and repairer so far over on the East Side as to be beyond the numbered avenues and on a lettered one. He was an expert worker and at the same time an enthusiast. He did the needful steaming, and he found it necessary, too, to make a mold the exact size of the rail-edges, for the forming of a new section of rail. All of which was an object-lesson as to the difficulty of doing some repairs.

Of course, in this case the game was worth the candle; and being human, it soothed us for our worry and trouble that,after paying the skillful Frenchman's most reasonable charge, he courteously asked permission to copy the boards, so highly did he admire them.

A comparatively simple case of repair, though at first it had much the appearance of being hopeless, was in regard to a fine mahogany table with clawand-ball feet, dating back into the eighteenth century. Such a wreck it was, that the man who unearthed it charged only a dollar for it and then believed that he was taking an unfair advantage! "Don't buy it," he said; "you can't possibly get it re-paired, and I don't like to sell such a thing."

And he would have been right had it been our intention to have it restored as it originally was. That would have been impossible, or at least so difficult as to cost an unreasonable sum. It was a table, two legs of which turned most unexpectedly on wooden hinges, to support queer wings. It was a highly elaborate affair, and must have been the pride of some one's heart in an old Colonial home.

It was a pity to reduce its dimensions; but it was best to restore as much as possible, and without reduction nothing at all could be done. Heroic treatment was imperatively called for.

The top was so mangled as to be worthless. But a wing, hanging precariously by a broken hinge, was made into the top by the man of Mainz. Then, retaining the fine original four legs and all of the frame, and having it all polished, the table became a beauty, and its surface was still considerable, being three feet nine by one foot eleven. Upon the sides it was unavoidable, in the rejuvenation, that the original wooden hinge should show; but such a blemish may readily be overcome by spreading over the side a covering of veneer.

The restoration of a fine Heppelwhite piece, which had been the lower half of a high-boy or perhaps of a cabinet desk, is another illustration of the miracles that can be done. The upper part having vanished into limbo, there was only an open space where the top ought to stand, and the veneer and inlay had all sprung from the drawer fronts and from the face of the framework and were hanging loose in dejected sheets. The satisfactoriness of design, and the beauty of the wood itself and of the inlay that was still upon the tapering legs, made it seem worth while to take some trouble.

And it was not so desperate a matter, after all. The veneer was entirely removed and all the glue cleaned off. Then the veneer was carefully relaid -and with that simple task the thing was done, except for the top; and for that, a new top was cut from a fine piece of mahogany. The very simplicity of many such a task in the hands of an intelligent and skillful cabinet worker is often a surprise even to those who have had experience in restorations.

We had a chair, of Chippendale design, so filled with worm-holes that it seemed an impossibility to restore it; and the bottom ends of three of the legs were so worm-eaten as to be positively feathery. There were special reasons why we wished to pre-serve this chair. Nor was the task a specially difficult one, in spite of appearances. First, corrosive sublimate was painted over all the holes. This was colorless, and effectually disposed of any life that might exist in the depths. Next a cement of bees-wax and resin was applied, to fill the holes, and it was mixed with enough of dry vermilion to give the needful color.

A simple way to apply such a cement is to run it in with a chisel heated in a candle flame, using a worn-out chisel, as its temper may be ruined by the heat. Lay the cement on the hole and draw the heated chisel over it. Then, with a sharp knife, scrape off all that is superfluous.

The chair was now ready for the German cabinet-maker. He cut the feathery bottoms from the three offending legs, taking from an inch and a half to three inches from each, and then, with the care that goes only with workers of his class, he modeled three new pieces to match. And it is not an easy thing to do, with an old-time, hand-made chair whose legs run down in different and heedful proportions.

With small things, wonders can often be worked. There was a Sheffield-plate candlestick, ten and a quarter inches high, of absolutely perfect shape, but broken into two pieces and lop-sidedly fastened with a rat-tail file pushed up through the middle where the cement filling had fallen out. It was a wobbling, broken wreck; it was excessively dirty; and it seems preposterously impossible to say that all the owner wanted for it was ten cents; one cent an inch and the final quarter inch thrown in!

The ten cents was at once forthcoming, and the seller was pleased. It was so far from being a case of belittling on the part of the purchaser; of "It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer : but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth" ; that it was the seller who belittled it and who was ready to boast of having got anything at all for so worthless a thing.

We took it to a silversmith, for it was a case for delicate work. It was beautifully mended and polished, and would now command a considerable price at any antique shop.

More doubtful was an impulse which led us to secure, one day, a silver-plated soup tureen, corpulent in shape and long in the legs. For a soup tureen it had a lofty, not to say spindly, aspect, and although it might once have had pretensions as a silver-plated article, almost the last of the plating had disappeared. There was, however, much of the graceful about the article if it could but find its proper niche in the world.

One day, at Tiffany's, he of the favrile glass, we saw a workman securing a beautiful green color by brushing acid over bronze-that shade of green which gives a metal the aspect of the pieces dug up at Herculaneum. Here was the hint-and acid was experimented with upon the tureen. But it was not of the same metal as that upon which the work-man had been operating, and acid only turned it black. But it was an idea not to be relinquished, and there was further experiment, and finally a green paint, diluted to attenuated thinness, was stroked over the silver-denuded tureen, making it the color of beautiful green bronze. The village black-smith was next seen and he cut a hole through the cover of the tureen. Then, through the lid, a fat lamp-bowl was set, the hole where the soup-ladle handle used to go through giving a space in which to get at the filling hole of the lamp. A green shade of proper hue was easy to find, and we had a unique and most pleasing lamp!

So strangely are some things acquired and with such sequence of good fortune, that one is over and over again tempted to believe that nothing is impossible. Now, here are two actual happenings. And they are told as encouragement to those who seek in hopes of finding.

A mirror came to us as a gift; a good mirror, in a narrow mahogany frame, the measurements being eighteen inches by fourteen. It had been a dressing-table mirror and had once swung between two slender uprights above some little drawers, to which they were attached. It was a good mirror even by itself, but we naturally regretted the absence of the drawers and the uprights, which had been lost or destroyed.

Then, at an auction sale, not long afterward, what should be put up but a set of little drawers, for the top of a dressing-table, surmounted by slender pillars between which a mirror was intended to swing. The wood was of mahogany, with profusion of fine inlay. But there was no mirror! And on that account there was no competition in bidding.

When we say, literally, that without changing the mirror frame or the uprights, that mirror which had come to us from one source precisely fitted the frame and uprights picked up at an auction, surely nothing could be much more curious.

Once upon a time we became the possessors of a brass fire-shovel with an exceptionally fine handle, but with the shovel portion so worn out as to be both useless and unattractive. A year afterward, for twenty-five cents, we secured a brass shovel of fine openwork pattern, which had no handle! And it precisely matched our handle! A worker in metals put the two acquisitions together, and the result is an unusually long-handled fire-shovel, of fine design and workmanship, all of a brass which takes a splendid polish, and with the parts so well matched that no one could ever guess, what is really the case, that the two pieces came together from places six hundred miles apart.

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