THE MACMILLIAN COMPANY
London: MacMillan & Co., LTD
“How much more agreeable it is to sit in the midst of old furniture like Minott’s clock, and secretary and looking-glass, which have come down from other generations, than amid that which was just brought from the cabinet-maker’s, smelling of varnish, like a coffin! To sit under the face of an old clock that has been ticking one hundred and fifty years — there is something mortal, not to say immortal, about it; a clock that begun to tick when Massachusetts was a province.”
H. D. Thoreau, “Autumn.”
THE furniture of the American colonies was at first of English manufacture, but before long cabinet-makers and joiners plied their trade in New England, and much of the furniture now found there was made by the colonists. In New Amsterdam, naturally, a different style prevailed, and the furniture was Dutch. As time went on and the first hardships were surmounted, money became more plentiful, until by the last half of the seventeenth century much fine furniture was imported from England and Holland, and from that time fashions in America were but a few months behind those in England.
In the earliest colonial times the houses were but sparsely furnished, although Dr. Holmes writes of leaving —
“The Dutchman’s shore,
With those that in the Mayflower came, a hundred souls or more.
Along with all the furniture to fill their new abodes.
To judge by what is still on hand, at least a hundred loads.”
If one were to accept as authentic all the legends told of various pieces, — chairs, tables, desks, spinets, and even pianos,— Dr. Holmes’s estimate would be too moderate.
The first seats in general use were forms or benches, not more than one or two chairs belonging to each household. The first tables were long boards placed upon trestles. Chests were found in almost every house, and bedsteads, of course, were a necessity. After the first chairs, heavy and plain or turned, with strong braces or stretchers between the legs, came the leather-covered chairs of Dutch origin, sometimes called Cromwell chairs, followed by the Flemish cane chairs and couches. This takes us to the end of the seventeenth century. During that period tables with turned legs fastened to the top had replaced the earliest “table borde” upon trestles, and the well-known “hundred legged” or “forty legged” table had come into use.
Cupboards during the seventeenth century were made of oak ornamented in designs similar to those upon oak chests. Sideboards with drawers were not used in this country until much later, although there is one of an early period in the South Kensington Museum, made of oak, with turned legs, and with drawers beneath the top.
Desks were in use from the middle of the seventeenth century, made first of oak and later of cherry and walnut. Looking-glasses were owned by the wealthy, and clocks appear in inventories of the latter part of the century. Virginals were mentioned during the seventeenth century, and spinets were not uncommon in the century following.
With the beginning of the eighteenth century came the strong influence of Dutch fashions, and chairs and tables were made with the Dutch cabriole
or bandy leg, sometimes with the shell upon the knee, and later with the claw-and-ball foot. Dutch high chests with turned legs had been in use before this, and the high chest with bandy legs like the chairs and tables soon became a common piece of furniture. With other Dutch fashions came that of lacquering furniture with Chinese designs, and tables, scrutoirs or desks, looking-glass frames, stands, and high chests were ornamented in this manner.
The wood chiefly used in furniture was oak, until about 1675, when American black walnut came into use, and chests of drawers, tables, and chairs were made of it; it was the wood oftenest employed in veneer at that time.
Sheraton wrote in 1803 : “There are three species of walnut tree, the English walnut, and the white and black Virginia. Hickory is reckoned to class with the white Virginia walnut. The black Virginia was much in use for cabinet work about forty or fifty years since in England, but is now quite laid by since the introduction of mahogany.”
Mahogany was discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595. The first mention of its use in this country is in 1708. Mr. G. T. Robinson, in the London Art Journal of 1881 says that its first use in England was in 1720, when some planks of it were brought to Dr. Gibbon by a West India captain. The wood was pronounced too hard, and it was not until Mrs. Gibbon wanted a candle-box that any use was made of the planks, and then only because the obstinate doctor insisted upon it. When the candle-box was finished, a bureau (i.e. desk) was
made of the wood, which was greatly admired, and as Mr. Robinson says, “Dr. Gibbon’s obstinacy and Mrs. Gibbon’s candle-box revolutionized English household furniture; for the system of construction and character of design were both altered by its introduction.” It is probable that furniture had been made in England of mahogany previous to 1720, but that may be the date when it became fashionable.
The best mahogany came from Santiago, Mexican mahogany being soft, and Honduras mahogany coarse-grained.
The earliest English illustrated book which included designs for furniture was published by William Jones in 1739. Chippendale’s first book of designs was issued in 1754. He was followed by Ince and Mayhew, whose book was undated; Thomas Johnson— 1758; Sir William Chambers — 1760; Society of Upholsterers—about 1760; Matthias Lock— 1765; Robert Manwaring — 1766; Matthias Darly— 1773; Robert and J. Adam — 1773; Thomas Shearer (in “The Cabinet-makers’ London Book of Prices “)— 1788; A. Hepplewhite & Co. — 1789; Thomas Sheraton — 1791-1793 and 1803.
Sir William Chambers in his early youth made a voyage to China, and it is to his influence that we can attribute much of the rage for Chinese furniture and decoration which was in force about 1760 to 1770.
Thomas Chippendale lived and had his shop in St. Martin’s Lane, London. Beyond that we know but little of his life. His book, ” The Gentleman’s
and Cabinet-Maker’s Director,” was published in 1754, at a cost of £3.13.6 per copy. The second edition followed in 1759, and the third in 1762. It contains one hundred and sixty copper plates, the first twenty pages of which are taken up with designs for chairs, and it is largely as a chair-maker that Chippendale’s name has become famous. His furniture combines French, Gothic, Dutch, and Chinese styles, but so great was his genius that the effect is thoroughly harmonious, while he exercised the greatest care in the construction of his furniture—especially chairs. He was beyond everything a carver, and his designs show a wealth of delicate carving. He used no inlay or painting, as others had done before him, and as others did after him, and only occasionally did he employ gilding, lacquer, or brass ornamentation.
Robert and James Adam were architects, trained in the classics. Their furniture was distinctly classical, and was designed for rooms in the Greek or Roman style. Noted painters assisted them in decorating the rooms and the furniture, and Pergolesi, Angelica Kaufmann, and Cipriani did not scorn to paint designs upon satinwood furniture.
Matthias Lock and Thomas Johnson were notable as designers of frames for pier glasses, ovals, girandoles, etc.
Thomas Shearer’s name was signed to the best designs of those published in 1788 in “The Cabinet- Makers’ Book of Prices.” His drawings comprise tables of various sorts, dressing-chests, writing-desks, and sideboards, but there is not one chair among
them. He was the first to design the form of sideboard with which we are familiar.
As Chippendale’s name is used to designate the furniture of 1750-1780, so the furniture of the succeeding period may be called Hepplewhite; for although he was one of several cabinet-makers who worked together, his is the best-known name, and his was probably the most original genius. His chairs bear no resemblance to those of Chippendale, and are lighter and more graceful; but because of the attention he paid to those qualifications, strength of construction and durability were neglected. His chair-backs have no support beside the posts which extend up from the back legs, and upon these the shield or heart-shaped back rests in such a manner that it could endure but little strain.
Hepplewhite’s sideboards were admirable in form and decoration, and it is from them and his chairs that his name is familiar in this country. His swell or serpentine front bureaus were copied in great numbers here.
His specialty was the inlaying or painting with which his furniture was enriched. Satinwood had been introduced from India shortly before this, and tables, chairs, sideboards, and bureaus were inlaid with this wood upon mahogany, while small pieces were veneered entirely with it. The same artists who assisted the Adam brothers painted medallions, wreaths of flowers or arabesque work upon Hepplewhite’s satinwood furniture. Not much of this painted furniture came to this country, but the fashion was followed by our ancestresses, who were
taught, among other accomplishments, to paint flowers and figures upon light wood furniture, tables and screens being the pieces usually chosen for decoration.
Thomas Sheraton published in 1791 and 1793, “The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book”; in 1803, his “Cabinet Dictionary”; in 1804, “Designs for Household Furniture,” and “The Cabinet- Maker, Upholsterer, and General Artist’s Encyclopedia,” which was left unfinished in 1807.
“The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” is largely taken up with drawings and remarks upon perspective, which are hopelessly unintelligible. His instructions for making the pieces designed are most minute, and it is probably due to this circumstantial care that Sheraton’s furniture, light as it looks, has lasted in good condition for a hundred years or more.
Sheraton’s chairs differ from Hepplewhite’s, which they resemble in many respects, in the construction of the backs, which are usually square, with the back legs extending to the top rail, and the lower rail joining the posts a few inches above the seat. The backs were ornamented with carving, inlaying, painting, gilding, and brass. The lyre was a favorite design, and it appears in his chair-backs and in the supports for tables, often with the strings made of brass wire.
Sheraton’s sideboards are similar to those of Shearer and Hepplewhite, but are constructed with more attention to the utilitarian side, with sundry
conveniences, and with the fluted legs which Sheraton generally uses. His designs show sideboards also with ornamental brass rails at the back, holding candelabra.
His desks and writing-tables are carefully and minutely described, so that the manifold combinations and contrivances can be accurately made. Sheraton’s later furniture was heavy and generally ugly, following the Empire fashions, and his fame rests upon the designs in his first book. He was the last of the great English cabinet-makers, although he had many followers in England and in America.
After the early years of the nineteenth century, the fashionable furniture was in the heavy, clumsy styles which were introduced with the Empire, until the period of ugly black walnut furniture which is familiar to us all.
While there have always been a few who collected antique furniture, the general taste for collecting began with the interest kindled by the Centennial Exposition in 1876. Not many years ago the collector of old furniture and china was jeered at, and one who would, even twenty years since, buy an old “high-boy” rather than a new black walnut chiffonier, was looked upon as “queer.” All that is now changed. The chiffonier is banished for the high-boy, when the belated collector can secure one, and the influence of antique furniture may be seen in the immense quantity of new furniture modelled after the antique designs, but not made, alas, with the care and thought for durability which were bestowed upon furniture by the old cabinet-makers.
Heaton says: “It appears to require about a century for the wheel of fashion to make one complete revolution. What our great-grandfathers bought and valued (1750-1790); what our grandfathers despised and neglected (1790-1820); what our fathers utterly forgot (1820-1850), we value, restore, and copy!”