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Cottage Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IT is necessary to consider briefly cottage furniture separately from the household furniture reviewed in the fore-going chapters, especially in those chapters referring to the developments of furniture following certain well-known styles, and the furniture of stated periods. The first thing to note is that so-called cottage furniture, with which may be classed much of the furniture used in farmhouses, and even in the kitchens and bed-chambers of middle-class houses, which in the eighteenth century was chiefly locally made.

The village wheelwright made much of the stout and substantial " old oak " ; but the village carpenter or joiner continued to make tables and other furniture for many years afterwards — indeed, until the day came for every small town to possess a local cabinet-maker. In later years, although the village cabinet-maker made some of the furniture he sold, he bought much of it ready-made from furniture-manufacturing centres. The tendency to produce factory-made furniture, and to do so in certain localities by specialists—some making chairs, others tables and kitchen furniture, and yet others cheap suites—has not sprung into existence suddenly. It has been the out-come of steady growth of trade, in some cases until the fame of that particular town or maker became widespread. An instance of the process of development in the furniture trade is seen in High Wycombe, where so many kitchen chairs are made, and where the trade all over the country is catered for by perhaps a hundred different makers. Although High Wycombe had, like many of the villages round about in Buckinghamshire, and in other counties in England similarly situated, carried on trade as local makers of chairs, it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that any real progress was made. In the year 1830 there were only two men making chairs there. Thirty years came and went, and at least one of the chair-makers had gained fame far from home. In 1862 one of the makers described his growing trade thus : " When I began to trade I loaded up and travelled to Luton. There was a scramble for my chairs ; when I came home I laid my receipts upon the table and said to my wife, ` You never saw so much money before.' " It was customary then, as at a much later period, for local chair-makers who employed journeymen and apprentices, and were thereby able to do more than supply local demand, to " load up and take their chairs to other towns and there sell them.

Family records of a prosperous chair-maker in Manchester at the close of the eighteenth century told the same tale. When that honest trader had made a sufficient supply he loaded up one or two waggons and drove them through some of the surrounding towns and villages, selling chairs as he went, and when his stock was exhausted he returned home with many golden guineas, in lieu of the Windsor and lath back grandfather chairs he had started out with, once more to commence the making of stock, and to repeat the same process.


The story of local chair-makers in Bristol and a score or more of towns could be told ; all had their clients, and probably their local supply of timber. The chair-making industry of Buckinghamshire flourished on account of the beech wood, the foundation material, the elm used for the seats, and the ash for the bows of Windsor chairs, all of which woods were grown there.

Wooden furniture making, mostly chairs and wood turnery, was carried on in the Chiltern district from quite early times. That perhaps accounts for the number of family surnames traceable to the wood-turnery employment, so extensively engaged in locally. As far back as the fourteenth century there were men bearing such names as Hubert Turnator and Peter le Turnur, and in later records Turner is a common name. Some say, What is in a name ? Much to the enquirer into old customs and ancient practices ; but the origin of most old names is very obvious, and many are associated with the various branches of the wood-working industry.

Chesham was a place where many " turned " chairs were made. Defoe, writing in 1725, tells of the beechwood growing in Chesham and used for chairs and wood-turnery. It was, however, towards the close of the eighteenth century that the chief progress was made, and furniture of advanced types, frequently altered, was made in London and many of the chief towns in England. It was then that chairs and wood bedsteads were locally made for cottage and farmhouse. The trade of Buckinghamshire in chairs went forward, but waned during the early years of the eighteenth century, but again revived as transport improved, and there were greater facilities for marketing cheap chairs and kitchen furniture. The trade in Windsor chairs grew apace in High Wycombe after one firm had executed an order for chairs for the seating of St Paul's Cathedral. Many church chairs have been made since then ; but they are not antique yet, and it is to be feared the price at which they are turned out does not admit of the same careful workmanship and strength once appertaining to old - Windsor and similar cottage chairs being assured.

The two chairs shown in Figs. 107 and 108 are splendid examples of early Windsor chairs, one having a beautifully shaped central splat, the legs in both instances being of the early cabriole type. They are of the William and Mary period, circa 1702.


In the correct order of things, some of the older locally-made chairs have been referred to in chapter xxiii. (Chairs and Settees), especially the early carved and plain oak chairs of pre-Restoration times. Such chairs were at all periods made locally, and the village wood-worker made chairs of great strength for yeomen and cottagers, as well as for their wealthier patrons. Some of the best-preserved specimens of old oak chairs and settles, which now command high prices, have been rescued from cottage kitchens and farm out-houses. It is probable that many of the plainer types of antique oak chairs, and some of the plainer articles of furniture which collectors find difficulty in obtaining, were the state chairs of men of small estate; and such pieces of furniture, which were but poor imitations of similar pieces used in wealthier homes, were regarded as masterpieces by the village carpenters by whom they were fashioned.

Many chairs are passed over by antique dealers as of small value, because of their nondescript character, and their failure to conform to any well-known approved style. They should not be despised by the collector, for many of them are genuinely old and contemporary with the two or more styles traceable in their form and decoration. The home connoisseur often possesses such specimens, and he is induced to regard them as connecting links between certain periods, because they do not fit the description which he has learned to associate with any given period or style. That is not quite the view to take, because at all periods simple furniture has been made locally, and in almost every cafe the chairs used in cottage and farmhouse were procured in the neighbourhood, often made from locally-grown timber. The more expert craftsmen copied what they had seen in other places, and as time went on, when catalogues were issued by London makers and designers, local craftsmen followed to the best of their ability the designs given in such works ; but they had not always the necessary materials, neither had they the expert trained skill which enabled them to grasp the technique of the master designer. Oak was used in the country long after walnut had begun to be generally employed in the towns, and many local chair-makers made more or less ineffectual attempts to copy walnut designs in oak. It was the timber available.

Chairs were made after the Restoration for the yeomen class by local makers, who had not then learned the art of caning backs and seats. They copied the shape, but filled in the backs with narrow laths of wood, and made solid seats of the same material, sometimes using a different wood, not infrequently employing elm or ash for chair seats in conjunction with oak frames. A little later chairs almost identical in style with the walnut chairs of Queen Anne's reign appear to have been made, but instead of beautifully upholstered backs, shaped splats of oak were inserted, and the seats were roughly cushioned ; such chairs were used in the parlours and the house-places of farmers and others a little higher in the social grade than labourers.

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century country cabinet-makers had advanced, some of them making excellent copies of the patterns of Chippendale, such as they might have seen in the pages of " The Director." Others, less skilled, made very inferior copies, and such chairs are met with in many provincial dealers' antique shops, often to the bewilderment of collectors who not infrequently find them labelled " genuine Chippendale." The suggestion of Chippendale's back with Cupid's bow, and even the ribbon ornament, is apparent ; but, oh ! what a gap there is between the originals and the copy, although the latter may be almost contemporary ! The Hepplewhite shield was much admired, and parlour chairs were made on that pattern ; so were roughly-made ladder backs, reproduced in oak instead of mahogany, the result being far from pleasing. Still worse were the inferior copies of settees of that period.

A very common country-made chair was the spindle back, with single, double, and even treble rows of spindles ; some of them had rockers, and were known as nursing chairs. Then the rush seats appeared, and they made really comfortable and cheap chairs. Early Windsors had " stick legs," plain and round, some slightly shaped. Then came the splat backs, and later the round-top Windsors, contemporary with the Hepplewhite period.


Most cottage tables were very plain and small ; like the chairs, they were made by the village carpenter, and often roughly finished. They were of " white " wood, locally grown and sawn. Such tables were scrubbed clean, from time to time, although the condition of many antiques, especially those old tables found in taverns and inns, indicates that the cleansing process was seldom practised, and that they were often subjected to rough usage.

There was a vast difference between town and country in the eighteenth century. Every village was isolated, roads were bad, and there were few opportunities of local workmen gaining town training ; still some very fair attempts at keeping up the town work were made. Some of the gate-legged tables then used in farmhouses were stout and substantial, but instead of turned legs (lathes were not commonly owned then) they were square, relieved by chamfered edges. The legs had stout rails and stretchers at the ends, not unlike the oak stools then made by wheelwrights. In the best parlour of the farm there might have been seen in the year 1745 or thereabouts a mahogany gate-legged table with some turnery, the legs possibly terminating in a Spanish foot.

Some very interesting tables were made between 1700 and 1750, known as " cricket " tables. They were small and handy, and supported by three legs braced together in the form of a tripod. " Cricket " tables are chiefly met with in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex, and Cambridge.


Country-made settles were at one time very plentiful, and as they were discarded in common use for more modern furniture they were broken up, used as garden seats, and even cut up for garden gates. Most of those originally made for cottage use were very plain. They were just an oaken seat with a panelled back, but they served their purpose as well as the more elaborately carved settles. Some were fixtures against the cottage wall, and under the seat was a capacious box. Such settles were very common in Lancashire, and are not infrequently met with there yet. From the north of England have come some very fine dressers of undoubted age, where they were used very extensively, their form being of a local type.

In a similar way Welsh dressers became important kitchen furniture. Upon them was placed an array of pottery, including grotesque pieces and the best tea china, often in very glaring colours. The cottage dresser was always useful, and in all its forms its development could be traced to the table or dresser-table, such as those illustrated in Figs. 30, 31, and 97. The shelves above the dresser grew in number, and they were eventually enclosed in a corniced frame. Then came useful cupboards, some at the ends of the dresser top, others in the centre ; indeed, there were many varieties according to no standard pattern. The village carpenter followed his own ideas, and altered his pattern to suit special requirements, or peculiar environment and space. Some very good split-ornament and turned vase-shaped legs are met with, and one and all show traces of regular use and much scrubbing, and here and there of plenty of beeswaxed polish, for no doubt some cottagers were very proud of their dressers, just as much so as wealthier dames were proud of their court cupboards and sideboards.

The bacon cupboard appears to have been an institution in many homes. It was like an ungainly oaken arm-chair ; the seat was hinged and covered a useful box. The high - panelled back of the armchair was in reality a cupboard door, which on opening revealed the home-cured flitch, the cupboard being very shallow.

The chief cottage furniture of the seventeenth century, and indeed in many instances of the early eighteenth century, consisted of little more than dresser, table, chairs, bedstead, and chest. The bedstead was often a plain stumped stand with low head rail, and upon it was placed the chaff bed.

Chests of drawers or oaken chests were luxuries in a cottage, but they were there sometimes, and very often were home-made.

The wooden cradle was an institution, and often an heirloom ; it was strong and substantial, of the simple rocker type, although sometimes cottage cradles had hoods, and less frequently rocking posts. In olden days the woman sat at her spinning wheel, and with her foot rocked the cradle. The cradle stood on the hearth when the weary mother was at the wash-tub, or surrounded by some half a dozen older children. It is a matter of no surprise that few oak cradles of that period have survived in fit condition for the collector's gallery !

The last, and yet surely not the least important piece of cottage, farm, and yeoman furniture in olden time—the days of oak—was the Bible box. The vogue of the family Bible came in with the authorised version of the " Mighty and Illustrious Prince James," during whose reign so many old family registers were commenced. The Bible was for many years the book, often the only book owned and read in cottages and farmhouses. The book was costly and worthy of a box, often devoutly made, much labour being expended upon its carving, although frequently very amateurish. It is said that along with the Puritanic workmanship there was often a touch of foreign design in the carving of the flat tops. The boxes were about 2 ft. 4 in. in length, 1 ft. 4 in. in width, and about 10 in. in depth. They were frequently fastened by a strong outside trunk lock with a large piped key.

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