Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Hearth Furniture And Cabinet Brass Work

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE are many things associated with house-furnishing which are made of metal, and yet they are so closely allied to household furnishing that they must of necessity be considered by those who are interested in antique furniture. Some of these objects are artistic, and have been made for ornamental purposes. Others are essentially utilitarian, in most cases they supplement the wood-work of the builder and the house furnisher, and in some instances are used in conjunction with furniture.


The hearth place is at once the central attraction in a well-furnished home, and much metal-work may be seen upon the hearth. The mantel-piece itself is an architectural feature, which in earlier times was of stone or wood. Upon it the carver's and the sculptor's skill have frequently been expended with good results, the decorative ornament of the fireplace enhancing the beauty of the architect's work. Indeed, the mantel-piece was regarded as peculiarly indicative of the style of interior decoration adopted by the ancient builder.

It was round the fire on a winter's night that the household gathered in the days when rushlights and afterwards oil lamps and candles gave a dim light, sufficient, perhaps, to add imaginative grandeur to the scene and to the fireplace into which all were gazing, sometimes with superstitious dread and anxiety. The legendary myths, which were then related, would be familiar to sculptors and carvers, many of whose beautiful effects were fanciful combinations of the real and imaginary ; other decoration was emblematical, often loyal, and at some periods religious. Oak mantels, and afterwards the over - mantels with pictures, tapestries, and carved scenes incorporated in and upon them, gave the visitor as well as the resident something to look at ; and when their purport was understood the home life of the original owner, if not that of the present, would be realised. Many of these carvings were daily noticed and admired centuries after they had • been wrought, and yet years before the lover of the antique was known, or such things as mantel-pieces were connected with old furniture, or regarded as desirable objects.

During the last few years there has been a rapid appreciation in the value of such things, and almost fabulous prices have been paid for old mantel-pieces taken from ancient houses. There have been several robberies recently—extremely barefaced—in which mantel-pieces as well as more portable fixtures have been removed from empty houses. Wealthy collectors have bought old carved oak and stone mantels, and placed them in art galleries or public museums where they can now be seen. In the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington there are some fine mantel-piecesmany with coats of arms and dates; in some instances the carvings take the form of pictured incidents in the family histories of those for whom they were made. In not a few places the mantel-piece in style and decoration is in keeping with the carving by which it is surrounded, and is inseparable from the panelling of the walls, and the carving of the overdoors and windows. That is an important point for the collector to take note of in that if that view is accepted it goes to show that the home connoisseur, if the fortunate owner of an old house, should cherish the mantel-piece and the fireplace appointments of olden time as part of the scheme of furnishing ; and when replacing any of them, or buying something for the fireplace which has been lost or worn out, he will then remember that it is just as important to buy that article of metal or other material in keeping with the furniture of the room as it is to have chairs and tables of the same age or style as oak presses and court cupboards.

If an old house has lost its grate, that is to say the grate that was put into the house at the time it was built, and presumably in accord with the style of architecture adopted, it has lost one of its chief charms. If such has been the case the modern atrocity or more recent replacement should be exchanged for a replica of the old style grate, upon the manufacture of which some firms specialise, and wherever necessary introduce modern hygienic and radiating systems without interfering with the original scheme or form of decoration. In short, mantel-piece, grate, hearth tiles, kerb (if any), and the remainder of the hearth fittings — fender, fire-irons, bellows, coal box and other oddments — should be in keeping.


The mantel-pieces follow the architectural styles, and in olden times were mostly designed or sculptured under the superintendence of the architect ; in more modern days, however, ironfounders designed grates and iron mantel-pieces in keeping with well-defined styles and made many duplicates of each pattern. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there are many remarkable examples of the Renaissance of Italian art. The over-mantels of that period were often even more imposing than the under-mantels. In English houses the chimney-pieces, as they were then mostly called, followed the style of architecture and of furniture. Those chimney-pieces, which are available to the collector, date chiefly from the Restoration, although in some of the Tudor mansions and castles earlier examples in stone and oak are extant.

Inigo Jones, who studied the old Roman ruins, had a keen perception of the thoroughness desirable in architectural style, and he rarely deputed the designing of even minor interior decoration to others ; his master hand, and that of his nephew John Webb, are seen in the chimney-pieces in the banqueting hall at Whitehall, and in many of the rooms at Wilton House, Ashburnham House, and other houses of the nobility in London, in the execution of which work he employed Italian workmen. At a slightly earlier date Nicholas Stone, of Wood-bury, near Exeter, was master-mason to Charles I., and he designed some very important mantel-pieces ; some of them were decorated by the addition of chased metal mounts, a feature in mantel-piece ornament which is worth special note.

It was Talman who built Chatsworth House for the Duke of Devonshire, and his chimney-pieces were mostly of statuary or Carrara marble. Alabaster was also used. Sir Christopher Wren and Grinling Gibbons exercised a widespread influence on all kinds of architectural wood-work, especially so on mantel-pieces. There are many curious mantel-pieces in which there appears to have been combined action on the part of some noted scientists and a builder or architect. One of these curious chimney-pieces may be seen at Kensington Palace. Immediately over the fireplace is a map of Northwest Europe—as it was then—around which are the points of the compass, with a dial hand worked from a vane on the roof, showing at any time the way in which the wind blows.

There are many wonderful chimney-pieces in old London houses, especially those dating from the reign of Queen Anne—many of them just as they were first installed, complete, in some instances, with grates and dogs. The Adam chimney-pieces, so many of which may be seen in and around the Adelphi, bring us into close touch with the furniture of the eighteenth century. The Brothers Adam were very keen upon the correct ornament of mantel-piece and grate, and exercised great influence over builders and ironfounders. They took care, in common with some builders of even a later date, that the mantel-piece should be in accord with other architectural surroundings, and they took care to advise their clients, for whom the houses were built, in the selection of appropriate furniture. These and other influences give tone and character to the room in which the hearth place is generally found in the most prominent position, as it was in Georgian days.


There is much to admire in the work of the old Sussex ironfounders, who at their forges heated with timber cut from the adjoining forest lands smelted ore, and afterwards cast in their foundries Sussex backs, andirons, and other fire apparatus. There are many who make an effort to secure genuine Sussex backs—not modern Dutch replicas—and in the rusty old iron, which was once consigned to the melting pot, without so much as a glance, find valuable antiques, some exceedingly interesting, too, for the patterns chosen by the Sussex ironfounders were emblematical ; frequently such backs were moulded with patterns on which were cut fleurs-de-lis, Scotch thistles, Tudor roses, and royal and loyal mottoes. The Royal arms were frequently used, and crowns were common after the Restoration ; some-times the local magnates had specially-prepared patterns for houses on their estates, and it is no uncommon thing to find several of such backs in different farmhouses which were originally held under the same landlord. Such backs vary in size, and were, of course, used at the back of the andirons and dogs, being found more lasting than bricks.


In front of the Sussex back was a pair of andirons. Andirons had been brought into use directly after wood was burned on the hearth under the hood of the chimney which became a necessity as civilisation advanced, the wood rested one end on the floor and the other on the andiron, thereby giving a better draught through the fuel. Some of the old andirons, so many of which were made in the Sussex foundries, bear dates back in the seventeenth century, and they are often ornamented with elaborately designed patterns, and sometimes with the initials of their maker or owner. The andirons and the Sussex backs in combination were barred, the front bars being more convenient for brushwood, and afterwards for the consumption of sea-borne coal, readily suggesting the basket of the grate which became a feature in eighteenth-century houses. The evolution of the grate is some-what outside the scope of this work, although it is an interesting study, and not far removed from household furniture.


During the last few years there has been an energetic search among old household ironmongery for the beautifully pierced brass fenders, which were once polished so bright, and added such comfort to the hearths of eighteenth-century homes. Pierced fenders were some-times deep, measuring quite 12 in. in depth ; at others they were shallow, but in nearly all cases they were extensively perforated, sometimes in geometrical patterns, at others in ornamental scrolls. Possibly the original motive was that of admitting the warm rays of heat through the deep fender front, against which so many feet were warmed in olden times when chairs were drawn up to the hearth. When a bottom plate was added to the fender fret or front, which was to some extent equivalent to the modern fender kerb, in that the hearth was exposed, the front of the fender was raised on small feet. These were frequently of an ogee pattern, varied by lions' paws and ball feet. The fender-plate, with a stop in the centre, formed a convenient rest for the fire-irons or brasses, which had hitherto leaned up against the chimney-corner beside the grate.

The fire-brasses have seldom remained intact, for although pokers with much worn wrought-iron bits, and tongs, are often met with the set is generally minus the shovel, for the shovel-pan which was perforated like the fender front, was in many instances worn out long ago. Metallurgists who have studied this point explain that the brass used in the eighteenth century was of much softer type than that at present employed for fenders and fire-brasses. There was more copper in the alloy, and considerably less hard metal in its composition. Hearth sets are considered complete in modern days when the grate, mantel-piece, fireplace, fender, and fire-brasses have been purchased.

In olden times, however, there were a few other appointments considered indispensable on the hearth. Bellows were decorative objects, on which the wood-carver's skill was expended in no small degree. Choice pieces of wood-carving embellished the very useful and even necessary means of blowing up the fire in an age when there were neither slow-combustion grates, nor grates with regulating canopies by which sufficient draught could be obtained just as required. Wrought-iron and brass stools, or foot-men as they were called, stood on the hearth ; the brass trivet was frequently on the bars, and the toddy kettle sang on the hob. These and many other hearth appointments gave a cheery look to the eighteenth - century fireplace, and now provide collectors of furniture with many attractive sundries to add to their collection.


The metal-work applied to architectural and builders' fittings and to furniture overlaps ; in both cases it has formed a very important part of the trade in hardware —a branch known as cabinet brass- and iron - foundry. Locks and hinges constitute part of this metal-work, and the way in which they are made, and the amount of hand work in finishing them off, determine to some extent their age and appropriateness to the furniture on which they are found. Both locks and hinges wear out, so that in course of time there have been many replacements, and it very often happens that locks and hinges have been changed and repaired ; and in the past such replacements were seldom done in regard to the correct style suitable for the antique furniture undergoing restoration.

The locks on old furniture are chiefly cupboard locks, till locks, chest locks, trunk locks, and desk locks. Cupboard locks in olden times were always made "handed," that is to say "rights" and "lefts," but now many of the commoner cupboard locks are known as "straight" cupboard locks, and are screwed on to the wood inside the door without cutting any portion of it away, the bolt shooting both ways, so that " straight " cupboard locks can be used for either right or left hand doors, that is to say for doors hinged either on the right or the left hand stile of the door. " Cut" cupboard locks were let in flush with the wood back or frame of the inside of the door. For such locks escutcheons, either plain, " thread," or " fancy," were used. Cupboard locks have been made in both iron and brass, and they have for many years been screwed on, but in the days of oak they were frequently hailed with strong tacks or small " clout " nails, both of which were wrought, i.e., hammered by hand.

The " till " lock, so-called, was the lock used on drawers, the name having been derived from its first employment in a tradesman's till, which appears to have been the earliest type of drawer locked with an inside lock. Till locks have been invariably let into the wood-work of the inside of the drawer flush, and nailed or screwed from the inside, the bolt of the lock shooting into the rail or frame holding the drawer, oftentimes being made doubly secure by the use of a plate of metal let into the under-side of the frame.

The heavy trunk lock with hasp, cut in and fastened on the front of a chest or box, was an early form of fastening, and to some extent suggested, doubtless, by a hasp and staple fastened by a padlock. Following the trunk lock came the chest or box lock with its "link-plate," which was let in to the inside of the box or chest, not fastened on the outside, as in the case of the trunk lock. An ordinary desk with a sloping top requires a desk lock of ordinary type (the same as a chest lock but with a sloping edge and link-plate), but a bureau, the flap of which lets down, requires a lock with an inverted slope, such a lock being known in the trade as a sloping bureau-desk lock.

Such, briefly, are the locks found on old furniture. The early lock makers used large " pins " requiring massive keys with large bore " pipes." To make such locks secure the " bits " of the keys were cut to pass intricate wards. The number and variety of the wards and the curious twist or curl of the bit, together with its size or oddity of form, were matters relied upon for security. There were in olden time no levers or pins or other systems by which the chances of duplication could be reduced to a minimum, and mathematically calculated, as is the case nowadays. Attempts to put modern locks on old furniture end disastrously, both in effect and appearance—it is like " putting a new patch on an old garment."

Many of the ancient lock-plates were very ornate-especially those on doors. The best wrought-iron ornamental metal work on furniture is found on cupboards and chests, some of the straps of metal used in con-junction with strap hinges, and alternating with them on the covers of chests, being extremely decorative. Cup-board hinges have altered much during the last half a century. Those used on old cupboards and still older armories, court cupboards, and similar pieces were H or IL (H L) shaped, and the wings were often S or scroll-shaped, frequently cut and filed, and even engraved by hand. The same features are seen on brass locks and hinges, much used during the eighteenth century, the ornamental metal-work formerly confined to lock plates, hinges, and escutcheons, gradually increasing and becoming more decorative as metal ornaments were used by cabinet-makers, and handles and handle-plates became known.


Some interesting side lights are thrown upon the brass metal-work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the inspection of a collection of trade literature, dating back some hundred years or so. In the author's collection there are many examples of metal-workers' cards, loose pattern sheets, frontispieces (many were detached from catalogues to prevent the names of makers being known to the customers to whom they were shown), and catalogues. From these and from some of the old traders' catalogues, exhibited in the Department of Engraving of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the following list of metal-work sold to furniture manufacturers has been culled. The notes given in italics are added as explanatory :

BED CAPS.—Covers or caps to place over the sunk screws in wooden bedsteads.

BED PULL GRIPS.—The grips of the cord pulls or ropes attached to crank bells, usually hanging by the side of the bedstead.

BRASS FURNITURE ORNAMENTS.—SUCh decorative ornaments took the forms of eagles, bunches of grapes, animals' heads, etc.

CASTERS.—The earliest form of caster was that with leathern bowl or roller, used on furniture in the days of Queen Anne. These were followed by all - brass casters, decorative socket casters, and other varieties.

CHIMNEY HOOKS. Hooks were fixed in the chimney corner or on the chimney jamb or alongside the grate, on which were hung fire-implements.

CLAW FEET. Brass caps or feet were used on furniture both with and without under-casters.

CLOCK-CASE FURNITURE.—Sets of clock-case furniture included the gracefully modelled figures in pairs, and separate figures for the centre of clock-case pediments, as well as ball and other decorative ornaments.

COMMODE HANDLES.—The varieties of handles were illustrated in makers' pattern books, those following the French style being usually priced in French moneys and charged " per douz" or " paire."

COMMODE SETS.-A complete commode set consisted of six handles, three escutcheons, one frontispiece, two large ornamental pieces, two short pieces, and two strips.

KNOBS There were many varieties of spires and screw-knobs for pediments, as well as knobs for doors and drawers.

MASKS-Brass metal mounts for console and other tables, the varieties including lions' heads, dolphins, and rams' faces.

SCREEN FITTINGS.--The metal poles and rods for making up needlework fire screens.

TABLE SLIDES.-The brass slides for fastening or clamping dining-room tables.

TRENCHERS. These were plate-casters, often made of iron with brass frames and wheels.

TULIP CASTERS.-The special name given to casters, the sockets of which were decorative with acanthus-leafed ornament.


The period—1690-1730—during which walnut was the chief wood used calls for special notice, and it was during that time that many changes were made in door and drawer furniture. To commence with, drawer handles superseding the hitherto used wood knobs were of ordinary types, and apart from the handle - plates were of simple forms. The handle was slightly moulded square, gradually becoming rounded ; and although generally plain, now and then there was a break or turned ornament in the centre. The handle-plates on drawers were quite plain and smooth from 1690-1705, although in a few instances a little engraving was introduced in the centre of the plate ; in all cases the shape of the plate was irregular and ornate. Pierced or fretted handle-plates did not appear until about 1710, their use being general until 1730, makers continuing to sell them freely in country places until about 1740. After that as stocks were exhausted newer designs took their places. Such handle-plates were fastened by brass pins, not screws.

Drop - handles and handle - plates were used in con-junction with keyhole escutcheons. When such handle-plates were used on small drawers requiring only one handle the handle-plate served as an escutcheon, or in combination with it. The attachment was by split and flattened iron wires, bent or keyed-in at the back. A change was made, however, about 1710, when roses were used under the handles, and the wire fastenings gave place to the bolt which passed through the door, and was screwed by a nut. The handles made during the first half of the eighteenth century were expensive, as shown by the prices quoted in makers' catalogues. At that time much hand labour was expended in their finish, and file marks can still be noticed on the edges of the perforations, and on the backs of the plates. The escutcheon plates of 1695 - 1725 were larger than those which followed later.

It may be well to note here that brass has at different periods varied in its composition. The metal is, of course, an amalgam, copper being the foundation metal. The alloys used early in the eighteenth century were much lighter and whiter in colour than those employed at the close of the century. The colour of the old handles when cleaned and polished is, therefore, to some extent a guide as to their age and genuineness.

The brass drawer furniture made about the middle of the eighteenth century, from 1750 - 1765, showed a marked change. Handle plates were seldom used, the drop handles being made in pairs (handed), for at that time the style of ornament was after the Chippendale fashion, and the rococo shells and scrolls, almost invariably introduced, necessitated a reverse pattern, making the two handles different in the detail of their design. At that time both handles and the escutcheons which were used in conjunction with them were extremely decorative, many of the handles being finely chased, and both handles and handle-plates gilded. Chippendale, however, adopted the handle-plate, and evolved from the willow of Queen Anne's day a highly-fretted plate of extremely ornamental appearance, in accord with his Gothic and Chinese taste, with which the fretted plates were generally used.

Another change came about 1770, when the screwed handles, without plate or escutcheon, were attached and ornamented by the use of the small circular plate under each screw of the bail handle. Sheraton used oval handles, which were in general use between 1780-1790. The oval plates were placed horizontally, and formed an attractive background for the bail handle which was suspended, dropping into a groove. Then followed the ring drop-handle which continued in use till about 1800. The ring drop - handle differed from those which had gone before, in that it was attached with a single screw, and in order that the ring plate might be fixed in the centre of the drawer the screw hole had obviously to be made out of the centre. Therefore by examining the drawer of a piece of old furniture, whatever modern substitutes may have been put on, it is easy to determine whether ring drop-handles or other varieties were used by the original makers, and they may be taken as some guide to the age of the furniture under examination.

Now we come to the ring and rosette brass handle which followed, a style dating from about 1800. It continued a favourite pattern in the Empire days, and its decoration was somewhat similar to the prevailing style. In the more massive pieces the ring plates were in the form of lions' heads.

Glass knobs took the place of brass furniture between 1815-1820. The wood knobs (mahogany and other woods) came in during the first few years of Queen Victoria's reign, and lasted for thirty or forty years. It is said that whereas many beautiful old drop and ring handles were taken off old furniture, those of a still earlier date escaped, because of the two holes which had been made for the willow brass of the early period, and which could not be covered over by the Victorian knob. The restorer has at all times committed acts of vandalism, by putting genuine sets of old handles with willow handle plates upon Sheraton or Hepplewhite furniture, covering up the marks left by the knob or rosette. A careful scrutiny of antique furniture before purchasing a doubtful piece is strongly advised.

To summarise the foregoing notes in reference to cabinet metal - work, it may be pointed out that the carpenters and wood-workers who made oaken furniture in pre-Restoration times used wood knobs, sometimes of oak, often of yew. The pear drop-handles of brass and iron appeared towards the close of the Restoration period. About 1700 the bail handle came in, and was fastened to the extreme sides of the ornamental handle-plate by brass wire loops. In Queen Anne's reign the method of fastening was changed, round screws being bolted through the door. It was then that plain willow plates were in vogue. The willow plates became decoratively pierced during the first half of the eighteenth century ; extremely large about 1760. In 1770 came the circular or oval rosettes, and through them the bail ends were fastened to the drawer. Between 1780 and 1790 the oval plate was used. From 1790 to 1800 ring drop-handles were commonly employed. In 1800 rosettes were added to the ring drops. In 1815 glass knobs became the fashion, and later wood knobs and china knobs painted and ornamented came into use.

Home | More Articles | Email: