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Furniture Specific: Renaissance Revival

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Friday, 08 May 2015 11:00


This settee is typical of seating of the Victorian period – stiff, uncomfortable and loaded with architectural add-ons. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – When young Victoria became queen of England in 1837 after the death of her uncle, William IV, the furniture world was energized by new possibilities. English furniture styling was stale, suffering from the lingering effects of the Regency of the Prince of Wales (George IV) and the benign neglect of William IV. American furniture was struggling with late Empire and Classicism and looking for the next thing to come along.

The next great thing, as it turned out, was a previously great thing – or two or three. For inspiration, designers, as they usually do, looked to the past as they have so many times before and came up with an entire series of historical revivals that carried furniture making into the 20th century. With the exception of Charles Locke Eastlake's designs, virtually all furniture produced during America's greatest period of expansion in the mid- to late 19th century, whether by hand or in the factory, was a revival of one sort or another.

The first in the series of 19th century revivals was Gothic. The Middle Ages was obviously such a fun time that it naturally needed a encore. In fact, Gothic Revival actually had two incarnations in the 19th century, the first time around in 1830s England and 1840s America and then again in the 1880s as an aesthetic offshoot of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. The first revival was more ornamental than substantive. Contemporary neoclassical styles were adorned with Gothic appointments such as the pointed arch, quatrefoils, trefoils and tracery. Gothic elements such as the rose window were reintroduced into architectural designs and subsequently found their way into chair backs and cabinet doors. The late century version was in fact much more of a true revival of Gothic techniques and style than was the earlier version and some of the work done in the 1880s and 1890s can be difficult to distinguish from the period pieces.

The second in the series of revivals was the Rococo, which also showed up in America in the 1840s. The resurrection of the elaborate Rococo stylings of the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV was clearly more vigorous than the original 18th century versions, with deeper carvings and a larger scale. The innovation apparent in this revival can be seen in the original works of John Henry Belter, Alexander Roux and the Meeks brothers. The technique of lamination, originating in the Black Forest of Germany and perfected by Belter, allowed the lavish decoration and embellishments that would have made the French kings proud. The revival also encouraged the production of furniture "en suite," that is, matching sets of furniture, in particular, parlor suites or sets, to be used in specific rooms. Rococo Revival was widely produced throughout America for more than 30 years but its elaborate decoration ultimately was its downfall because it could not be produced by machinery efficiently and left behind by the technological revolution of the latter part of the century.

Its successor, the last in the line of revivals, was the Renaissance Revival, an architectural form that easily made the transition from the custom, one of a kind shops in New York and Philadelphia to the factories of the Midwest.

Gigantic bed sets were typical of the Renaissance Revival period. They were made to fit the grand scale of the New York and Pittsburgh hotels that catered to the rich oil and industrial barons of the Gilded Age. (Flomaton Auction image)





Introduced in the early 1850s as a counter balance to the flowery Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival borrowed elements from just about every furniture period since the 1400s. The impetus for the revival originated in the French court of Napoleon III and initially tried to recreate the furniture of the 1400s and 1500s but the form soon took on a life of its own. But what exactly were they trying to revive? What was so wonderful about the Renaissance that it needed to be repeated and whose renaissance were they thinking about?

There were actually several periods of what could be called a renaissance or cultural reawakening but it is generally acknowledged in the West that what is considered to be THE Renaissance began in Italy in the early 14th century and crept throughout Europe over the next three centuries. In the early 1300s some of the greater cities of Italy came under the control of one family, the Visconti family. Soon other alliances under various single family's rule took shape and as a result, a great deal of wealth was concentrated in the courts of the ruling families. This extreme wealth allowed the support of the arts and humanism that came to be known as the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, the primary focus of study was theology – during the Renaissance the focus turned to the study of humankind, both physically and intellectually. The previous model for the study of humanity had been the Greeks and after them the Romans so the 14th century turned back to the first century for inspiration.

Since Italy had been the heart of the Roman Empire, there was a certain kinship with the classical past. Historical evidence of the Roman period was everywhere. The palaces of the ruling Italian families were storehouses of new furniture, influenced by Greek and Roman tradition. In addition to classical architectural elements such as columns and pediments, the new furniture was often covered in carvings depicting ancient mythological and historical themes. But in western and northern Europe, when the Romans left, so did the influence. Those parts of Europe continued under the Gothic influence until late in the Renaissance. Francis I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, brought Italian artisans to France to remodel Fontainebleau and ended up with very Italian-like motifs and furnishings with columns, carved human heads and scrolls. His successor, Henry II, continued the style, refining the scale and modifying the traditional cabinet by placing a smaller cabinet on top, resulting in the precursor of the chest on chest, the chest on stand and the drop-front writing desk.

Henry VIII carried the torch in England, importing his own Italian artisans who blended English tradition with Italian Renaissance and produced English Renaissance furniture leading to the development of the first "draw" table in Elizabethan times. This table opened in the middle to accept additional leaves for expansion of the table.

So why was Napoleon III trying to resurrect a 300-year-old style based on first century architecture? As the nephew of Napoleon I, he, along with all of the Bonaparte family, was exiled from France in 1816. At age 8 he fled to Italy and circulated there and in Germany and Switzerland until his first attempted coup in 1836 and the second in 1840, both failures. He returned to France after the Revolution in 1848, was elected to the Assembly of the Second Republic and then was elected president the same year. He eventually concentrated all power in himself and proclaimed himself emperor in 1852. His interest in the revival of the French and Italian Renaissance was his bid to forever link his name to the classical past.

His revival of the style was greeted warmly in America. As the straight-line alternative to Rococo it was fresh and rich looking without being frivolous. It was a welcome change and a new challenge for the brilliant cabinetmakers of the day like John Jelliff, who worked in Newark, N.J., from 1836 to 1860, and Thomas Brooks who worked in New York, from 1841 to 1876. Even one of the great Rococo masters, Alexander Roux in Manhattan, was a player in the Renaissance market. Coming into the business at the beginning of the era was Gustave Herter, also in Manhattan, who opened his shop in 1851, later to be joined by his brother Christian to form the firm of Herter Brothers, one of the great names in Renaissance cabinetmaking. And Daniel Pabst was making his mark, working in Philadelphia from 1854 until his retirement in 1882. George Hunzinger and the firm of Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus, all of Manhattan, rounded out the top of the list of the masters of the period working in the new style. Hunzinger was known for his eclectic use of twists and curves, as seen in this rocking chair (Fred Taylor)





The furniture that these masters built was an eclectic mix of 14th century Renaissance, Neoclassical and 16th century French derivation and was based essentially on the rectangle form with myriad embellishments. Precious metals and semiprecious stones were used as decoration as was porcelain and bronze. Deep gold lined incising and elegant ebonizing were regular features but the decoration, no matter how elaborate, was always anchored by the requisite architectural elements of the column and the pediment, combined with the overall generally massive scale that spoke of the classic periods.= But as elaborate and painstakingly detailed as these masterpieces appeared to be, they still were based on geometric forms with turned, cutout or incised decorative elements that could be mass-produced on a machine and installed in layers to get the deep, complicated look.

Before 1870 virtually all fine Renaissance Revival furniture was made in the East by these and other cabinetmakers on a one by one, custom-order basis. But the Midwest was the next stop and it was growing in importance. Such high-end cabinetmakers as Mitchell and Rammelsberg opened their shop in Cincinnati in 1846 and continued until Rammelsberg's death in 1863, but they were the early Midwest exception. Most shops and small factories in the area were producing inexpensive goods for the growing mass market and quality was sometimes an afterthought.

Another exception was William S.Wooton of Indianapolis, manufacturer of the famous patent desk bearing the same name and produced overwhelmingly in the Renaissance Revival tradition. But the continuing advances in the third quarter of the 19th century in furniture making technology and machinery meant that high-end, high-quality production was inevitable in the Midwest and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 was the catalyst.

A few core companies in the Grand Rapids consortium had made the commitment to the application of the latest in technology by the 1870s, among them Berkey & Gay, Nelson Matter and Phoenix and the impact was palpable in Philadelphia. Renaissance Revival was the style of the Centennial Exposition and Grand Rapids was the star. The overpowering bedroom sets presented by Berkey & Gay and the others cemented the reputation of the Grand Rapids factories as THE manufacturers of bedroom sets or "chamber suites" as they were known.

By the 1880s most of the old-line cabinetmakers in the East had retired or died and for the last two decades of the 19th century, the factories of the Midwest had the middle and upper end of the Renaissance Revival market to themselves.

Toward the end of the period some of the big city cabinetmakers like the Herter Brothers and Alexander Roux veered off on a tangent called Neo Grec, a revival of antique Greek styles. (LiveAuctioneers.com)





The inevitable end came from two different directions, the desire to return to simplicity, the antithesis of Renaissance Revival, which embodied itself in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and the resurgence of interest in American heritage which presaged the coming, and long-running, Colonial Revival period.

An example of the transition, this chair is beginning to show some of the Eastlake influence in the shallow incised carvings. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Skinner)





Renaissance Revival furniture, while not the most favored by many of today's collectors because of its size and obvious statement, nevertheless played a pivotal role in American furniture history. While furnishing the houses of the newly wealthy industrial class, it provided the link to the first century that proved instrumental in the development of the country's industrial base in the 19th century, in preparation for the 20th.

More information about Renaissance Revival furniture and it makers can be found in American Furniture of the 19th Century, 1840-1880, by Eileen and Richard Dubrow, (Schiffer); Grand Rapids, The Story of America's Furniture City, by Christian Carron, (The Public Museum of Grand Rapids,) Collector's Encyclopedia of American Furniture, Volume I, by Robert and Harriet Swedberg, (Collector Books) and Marked American Furniture, 1640-1940, by William C. Ketchum Jr., (Crown).

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format.

His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.

Last Updated on Friday, 08 May 2015 11:21
 

Furniture Specific: Hers, His or Whose? Provenance

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Tuesday, 07 April 2015 10:09
A little research will show that this type label was used by Stickley Brothers before their ‘Quaint’ line of Arts & Crafts/Mission furniture appeared in 1902.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – For the last several months I have been talking about ways to evaluate the clues available to us in determining the age of an older or antique piece of furniture. But now it’s time to take a short break from all that technical stuff and discuss another way to tell how old that treasure is – old fashioned by – by word of mouth or hopefully by pen and ink. What I’m referring to of course is called the provenance of a piece – the history of where it’s been and who it belonged to.

You will often hear appraisers, learned and otherwise, talk about the “wonderful provenance” of a piece or perhaps indicate the increase in market value based on “such a magnificent provenance.” So who gives out provenances and how do we get one and are some better than others?

The easiest, most convenient nontechnical way to establish a provenance is to ask the owner, seller, dealer or family member in current possession of the piece. It is also absolutely the least reliable way of getting anything even close to the real story. Family history has a way of fudging around the edges and glossing over the dings that accumulate in every family tree and what is true of genealogy research is also true of provenance. Except that the generally accepted standard for what is reliable information in the genealogy field has been set by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who impose strict standards of proof requiring written confirmation of asserted facts by disinterested third parties such as governmental, religious, fraternal or other dependable sources. It’s unfortunate this level of standards has not been applied to antique furniture, and almost any old legend or tale will do until someone is willing to change the story based on actual evidence.

A common example of the family fable that becomes family history is often found attached to the newly inherited family piece now owned by the oldest great grandchild. Legend has it that the old night stand has to be over 100 years old, maybe even closer to two, because it belonged to Aunt Mabel, and Aunt Mabel died way back in ’34 when she was almost 103. Obviously the piece has to be really old. Except that in reality Mabel bought the table new from a mail-order catalog when she moved to the other nursing home back in ’28. So maybe it’s not quite as old as the family would like to have it be.

A quick check to use on family legends is the generational method. It provides a guideline for assigning age since many people get confused about the number of “greats” that actually should be attached to their ancestors. Your current age plus 25 years for each generation that presumably owned something is a good ballpark “guesstimator” for age. Something attributed to my great grandmother is alleged to be 100-plus years old. Since I am comfortably in my middle age, a piece owned by my great grandmother would be my age plus 25 years for my father plus 25 years for my grandfather plus 25 years for my great grandmother. That works out about right since my great grandmother was born in 1874. It may be off a few years but it most likely got the estimate in the right part of the right century. This method is just a kind of reality check, not meant to be accurate but to be reasonable.

Another quick reality check is to look at the society and furniture of the period from which the family piece supposedly originated. In my great grandmother’s case, a visit to a museum or library would tell me what the furnishings of the late 19th century would be like and what the expectations of the time were. Given those facts it would seem unlikely that my great grandmother, as a newlywed in a Southern state, would have owned a Depression-era china cabinet. It is possible she had one later in life but that wouldn’t make it 100-plus years old. So much for family legends.

What makes for a good provenance is, in the immortal words of Sgt. Joe Friday, “just the facts.” The ideal provenance would consist of an unbroken chain of evidence in hard copy from each succeeding period of ownership. It would start with an original maker’s bill of sale, with his or her name on it, made out to the original owner, with his or her name on it, with a description of the piece, what the original price was and the date and place of the transaction. This original piece of evidence would be supported in later years by documents from the probating of the will of the original owner listing the assets, including the piece of furniture, and the disposition of the assets – who ended up with the piece. If the piece were sold or donated there would be evidence of the transaction in the form of a receipt or an entry into an inventory log. Evidence like this can also sometimes be found in bills of lading when a family moves and household inventory is shipped somewhere. Insurance policies often list important household articles and contemporary social events news accounts will sometimes mention the “antique sofa in Mrs. J’s parlor.”

But such excellent evidence is rarely available to us in the real world. We have to make do with common sense, good detective work and some room for exploration. Many a piece that first appears to be anonymous can actually contain clues to its origin. For example, overlooked shipping tags, stapled or tacked to a rear surface, can locate the piece in a given time and place. Information about the shipper or recipient is often available through library or Internet searches. Arcane company logos and maker’s marks are listed in a variety of publications and there are furniture people out there doing research on the subject every day. Signatures and bequests are sometimes found scrawled on the under side or the back of a drawer and don’t forget to look inside the case with a flashlight.

A believable, documented provenance is a wonderful thing to have and it often enhances both the value and the interest of a piece. But don’t pay a premium for someone’s undocumented family history, no matter how alluring it may be because without the proof its just hearsay. But the lack of a provenance should not detract from a well-made, attractive piece of older furniture. Look as it as an opportunity to do the research and create the provenance.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format.

His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE
I found this piece of paper folded up in a drawer slide cavity in an old chest. I was able to trace the signature in the U.S. Census to a 29-year-old cabinetmaker in New York in 1860. The style fit the period and the paper was in a place that could only have been accessed by the maker so I can reasonably assume this is the signature of the originator of the cabinet.   Is this the signature on the bottom of this handmade drawer that of the maker, the owner or a kid scribbling? No doubt about who made the table with this mark.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 April 2015 10:56
 

Furniture Specific: Random thoughts

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:29

The lopers on this 19th century English desk have to be pulled out manually to support the drop front. Twentieth century American lopers work with a mechanical ‘operator’ to extend automatically when the desk is opened.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – I admit I do have really random thoughts on occasion as I suspect most of us do. However, since I spend a great deal of my waking hours, and some of my nonwaking hours as well, absorbed in the subject of antique furniture, quite a few of my random thoughts naturally center on that subject. And just to show the inquisitive mind I have, many of the random thoughts express themselves as questions.

Here are a few of my random thoughts. I offer few if any answers, just primarily questions. If you happen to randomly know the answer to one or more of these random thoughts please let me know.

I’ll start with one that I do have a hint on the answer. Why is part of the back of a chair called a stile? Turns out a stile is a section of an English fence that allows passage; not exactly a gate, just a place where the fence can be breached by means of a gap, narrow steps or a ladder. Some stiles even have a dog gate next to them that can be raised to allow the passage of your canine companion just in case the dog can’t climb the ladder. This definition can easily be imagined by looking at a ladder-back chair. Looks like a stile to me.

Why is the moveable or removable section of an extension dining table called a leaf? Logically it seems the part should be called a “leave.” After all you have to make a decision whether to leave the piece in or out and decide whether to leave it up or down. Leave seems to more impart the true nature of the element. Or is it the resemblance to leaves in a book?

Then there is the question of chairs. Why do they have four legs? Is it just because that seems to fit in well with most other life on Earth that is not bipedal? Why don’t chairs have three legs? Some early forms of seating had three legs and it certainly solves one problem. A three-legged chair will ways sit flat on an uneven surface, even if one leg is shorter or longer than the others. That would make many restaurant chairs I have occupied much more comfortable rather the “tilt-a-whirl” models you find in many eateries and waiting rooms. That goes for tables too.

And speaking of legs, why do some pedestal table bases have three legs? If the answer is stability then certainly chairs should have the same opportunity. And if that is true why do some pedestals have four legs like chairs? Why not five? When you get right down to it the U.S. government has already answered that question through OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Take a look at the bottom of your office chair. If you are sitting in a tilt/swivel standard office chair made in within the last two decades it will have five, count ’em, five legs instead of three or four. Why? It’s safer according to the OSHA bureaucrats who obviously have nothing better to do other than scoot office chairs around to see which one falls over first. According to OSHA “The chair should have a five-leg base with casters that allow easy movement along the floor.” Here’s the site for you to take a look at how OSHA sees your chair. http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/components_chair.html

Then there are some of those odd names found in furniture and furniture parts. One odd name for a part that I do understand is the name for the wooden peg driven through a mortise and tenon joint. According to John Bivens originally this peg was called a “tree nail” as opposed I suppose to an iron nail. English being what it is the phrase tree nail eventually became “trennel,” a colloquial contraction of the original name. However, I was informed years ago by a grizzled old antique furniture veteran that the name of that piece was a “true nail” because it kept the joint true. That name eventually became “trunnel.” Which, if either, is correct?

But the reason for some names escapes me. Like splat. Splat is the sound a cube of Jello makes when it hits the tile floor. Why is the backrest of a chair called a splat? And what about those wooden slides that you pull out to support the drop front of your secretary? They are quite handy and in common use. But why are they called “lopers”? It has nothing to do with a horse’s gait and is not the swivel used in rope making. It is however a surname that ranks 4152 in frequency in the United States. But what does it have to do with a drop-front desk?

Another puzzling word is “dentil.” I know it is derived from the Latin “dens,” a tooth, and is used to describe a block-like molding that is said to resemble teeth. In architecture it actually represents the pattern formed by the ends of rafters sticking out under a roofline. It was used in temples in Asia Minor, one of the earliest being the tomb of Darius in 500 B.C. Since it obviously refers to the shape of teeth why isn’t it spelled “dental” like everything else that has to do with teeth?

If you know the answers to any of these question or happen to have random thoughts of your own along the same lines please let me know.

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.




ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

The lopers on this 19th century English desk have to be pulled out manually to support the drop front. Twentieth century American lopers work with a mechanical ‘operator’ to extend automatically when the desk is opened.

The block-like molding on the top of this cabinet is called ‘dentil’ molding. Why isn’t it called ‘dental’ molding?

The moveable portions of this table have been let down. Someone made a decision to ‘leave’ them down.

After further consideration the owner of the table decided to ‘leave’ them up.

This stylized Queen Anne chair has a vase-shaped pierced splat. Why is it called splat?

The top portion of this chair can easily be imagined to be part of a fence system that can be crossed not at a gate but at a ‘stile.’

The pegs in this 18th century mortise and tenon joint are called ‘trennels’ by some. Others call them ‘trunnels.’ Which is correct?

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 14:10
 

Furniture Specific: Parts and pieces

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 02 February 2015 17:32
This turn-of-the-century oak dining chair has had the tall back removed. CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Sometimes you and I both run across a piece of furniture that has us stumped. I get a lot of mail from readers who send me photos of their furniture and ask me what the piece is, where it came from, who made it, what’s it made of, what’s it worth and other little details like that. Since I’m fortunate enough to devote a large amount of my time to research on the subject of older and antique furniture, I generally have an idea what a piece of furniture is called, how it is or was used and the general period from which it originated. Then with a few basic parameters established I am able to delve into further research on the details.

But sometimes I have to do a double take. On occasion it completely baffles me about what a piece may actually be, especially when my perception of it may be clouded by the misconception of the sender. While a kiss is always just a kiss, a chair is not always what it seems to be and cabinets are often well disguised.

Here are a few Trojan horses that have appeared in my mailbox recently. It must be the weather.

Fred – I would like to ask a question about a piece of furniture I have. I think it is an older file cabinet/dresser of some type? I was wondering if you had any info you could share on it. Price? Date? Maker? I am attaching a few pictures of the cabinet. Thanks a million, Josh H.”

The “file cabinet” is pretty much that. But it’s not quite that simple. What the reader had was actually a single pedestal from a double pedestal commercial desk that has been cut off. You can see the circular saw marks on the edge of the top. The rail on the side of the cabinet was the drawer guide for the center drawer in the original desk.

It was originally a part of a walnut desk made in the 1940s or so. It looks like this pedestal has three complete drawers. That means that the other missing pedestal probably had a file drawer that took up the last two drawer fronts. The pull-out section under the top is called a “dictation slide.” It was used by the secretary to support her note pad while she took shorthand notes from the executive behind the desk. Since it is only a part of a complete piece it has no formal value.

Here’s another …

“I would appreciate any information you can give me on a cabinet we purchased.

We have not changed anything but use it as a storage place for glasses, etc. Thanks. Sharon L.”

It appears that the reader has the shell of the king of desks, the Wooton (often misspelled as Wooten). It came in four ascending grades of quality and ornamentation, Ordinary, Standard, Extra and Superior. This one used to be the simplest, an Ordinary. William S. Wooton, the founder of Wooton Desk Co., made his patent desks in Indianapolis between 1874 and 1893 most often in the Renaissance Revival style. Complete intact examples of Wooton desks in good condition sell for several thousand dollars at auction. However, this one has been severely altered. The original cast bronze hinges have been replaced with piano hinges and all of the interior shelving and cubbyholes have been removed but the drop down writing surface is still in place. For some views of original Wootons just do a Google search on “Wooton desk.” There is a great deal of information about Wooton desks both online and in many books. One of the best in print is Styles of American Furniture 1860 - 1960 by Eileen and Richard Dubrow, published by Schiffer.

While it does make a terrific storage cabinet and the conversion may have saved the cabinet from total destruction or abandonment, the shell of the desk has no value as a Wooton desk in its current condition. As a storage cabinet it was worth whatever the reader paid for it.

Next …

“I recently was given a bedroom suite from Keystone Furniture of Williamsport, Pa. The only info I have been able to find in regard to age or value is that Keystone was founded just after the Civil War but I have found nothing specific about this set. The entire set includes headboard, footboard, two nightstands, armoire, dresser and mirror and a vanity chair. Thanks for any help and insight you may be able to provide about age and value of the set.

The form of the bed suggests an Art Deco period origin, late 1920s to mid 1930s but overall the set has traditional Colonial Revival styling from the Depression era. It is made of cherry veneer with gum as the structural secondary wood in the frame of the cabinets. At first I was confused that there was a vanity chair but there was no picture or mention of a vanity. Then I realized that the two bedside tables are the two pedestals of the vanity that have been cut apart. The original vanity was a three-mirror vanity with a tall mirror in the center and moveable batwing mirrors on the sides. The splashboards on the tables are another clue. They are shaped on one end but not on the other. The photos didn’t show the details but I suspect that if the “bedside tables” were studied closely enough I would be able to detect where the center panel joined them. The addition of the matching armoire is a very good plus for the set but the missing vanity would detract from the sale value.

And finally…

“I have two Stomps Burkhardt chairs but cannot find any information on them. They are slipper-type oak chairs with no backs. They have lions carved on the front legs. Can you tell me anything about them or their value. One looks like the veneer or wood is stripped off the seat. Would it pay to have it restored? I have attached a photo. Thank you, Diane.”

Stomps Burkhardt was formed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1890 when Gustave Stomps, a Prussian immigrant chair maker teamed up with one of his employees, Richard Burkhardt, a German cabinetmaker. Stomps died later that year and Burkhardt continued the business until his death early in the 20th century.

The chairs were probably made just before the turn of the century during the Golden Oak era of American furniture. Lions, winged griffins and other creatures were favorite elements of the period. The chairs originally were high-back dining chairs made of white oak. The bar across the back of the one pictured was placed there after the tall back was removed. You can tell it is a later addition because the bar is made of flat cut red oak rather than the quartercut white oak of the frame and legs. Quartercutting is a way of cutting the oak wood that produces the striking grain pattern in the chair. The seats are "molded" which means they are made of oak veneer plywood, a common use of that period. Since the chairs have already been significantly altered the only reason to reveneer the one seat is for looks.

Perhaps in some cases instead of “What is it?” the question should be “What WAS it?”

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE
This turn-of-the-century oak dining chair has had the tall back removed. The shell of a 19th century Wooton desk is being used for glass storage. This 'cabinet' was once the left pedestal of a double pedestal desk. The rail at the top of the pedestal supported the center drawer of the original desk. These 'bedside tables' are the pedestals from a Depression-era three-mirror vanity.
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 March 2015 13:28
 

Furniture Specific: More than a marriage

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 05 January 2015 17:18

At first glance this looks like a nice Queen Anne cabinet.

CRYSTAL RIVER, FLA. – A marriage can be a really good idea in some cases. With furniture, just as with people, sometimes the union of two unattached units can combine to create a new useful entity. In furniture the union can often be accomplished so seamlessly that it requires some real detective work to ferret out the existence of two or more separate units.

Such was the case with what at first glance appeared to be an 18th century Queen Anne bonnet-top chest on chest. The legs were OK, the hardware was good but probably not original. The fan carvings piqued my interest with slightly different radii and depth patterns but that was not enough to make me truly suspicious, merely alert.

 

Everything was fine until the drawers were opened. Then the cat was out of the bag. The drawer joinery in the top section was obviously done by a different hand from the one that did the bottom joinery. And the secondary woods appeared vastly different from oxidation. It was a case of the “the more you looked, the more you saw.”

 

The drawer joinery did not look consistent from top to bottom.

A closer look at the sides of the two sections revealed significantly different cuts of mahogany. Then top section had plum pudding and fiddle back side panels. The bottom section was fairly flat cut. It was an odd-looking combination in retrospect.

 

The side panels were two entirely different cuts of mahogany.

The back panels pretty well closed the deal. They were obviously from different pieces. Even the nailing pattern was different.

 

The back panels showed huge differences in oxidation and color.

Even so, the overall appearance of the piece was acceptable and most folks would have just said “What a nice cabinet.” It was case of a marriage gone good.

 

I recently read a story about “Ikea hacking” where people acquired inexpensive pieces at Ikea and used bits and pieces to create a completely new piece (http://ikeahackers.net). Interesting idea of what to do with Ikea stuff, but then I ran across an even more extreme application of the process.

My best friend Gail and I had the opportunity to spend some time in a large antique mall. Unfortunately I can’t just cruise a mall or a shop. I quickly fall into work mode and examine most pieces with a critical and skeptical eye. I strolled through one room that had an unusual looking piece. It looked almost like a late 19th century baker’s table but it didn’t have the possum belly drawer bottoms. It had a flat top with a splashboard above two short drawers over one long drawer, all supported on four turned legs. It was tagged as a “three-drawer burled walnut worktable, late 19th century” but at 29½ inches high that didn’t pass the smell test – the test where you don’t know exactly what is wrong but it just doesn’t smell right.

 

This kitchen work table just didn’t pass the smell test.

I am fan of Empire and Late Classicism furniture so the drawers immediately attracted my attention. They appeared to have crotch-cut mahogany veneer on them, not “burled” walnut, Empire style, with round wooden knobs – which turned out to be fake plastic knobs. Once again the drawers told the story. The drawers had handmade dovetail joinery front and back. The sides and single board drawer bottoms were hand planed poplar. The bottoms were attached in the back only with square headed mid 19th century cut nails and the fronts fit snugly into the mortise in the back of the drawer front. No doubt about it. These drawers came from a mid-century chest.

 

The drawer joinery in the worktable was handmade dovetails.

 

Drawer bottom.jpg – The drawer bottom was a single-board hand-planed piece of poplar.

A look at the sides revealed more crotch mahogany veneer that may have been grained and the back was a single panel of poplar. This was the top 12 inches or so, rails, stiles, sides and back of a mid-century chest.

 

The side of the worktable could have been crotch cut mahogany veneer or it could have been grained. It was too muddy to tell.

 

 The back also was a single-board, hand-planed piece of poplar.

 

The top turned out to be a single board from a walnut table. The splashboard was made from the same stock, perhaps a leaf or another top section that had been sacrificed. It was crudely done at best.

So now I have identified the parts from at least two incomplete pieces but it still had legs that didn’t come from a walnut table and certainly didn’t come from the chest. I couldn’t tell exactly where they came from, perhaps an étagère or other tall cabinet. They were made of nondescript secondary wood, factory turned and obviously chopped from a previously longer length. That’s parts of three pieces. Then there was the ogee-shape transition panel above the drawers below the top. It looked like it had mahogany veneer on the sides but in the front it was made of quartersawn white oak. Was this part of the original chest or was this part of yet another dislocated piece?

This was worse than any possible marriage. It was way out of bounds. It was beyond a simple marriage, it was past even a ménage a trois. This had to be a ménage a quarto or better if there is such a thing. This could totter on the edge of polygamy or even an orgy.

What it obviously wasn’t was an antique kitchen worktable. It was, in plain terms, a cobble. It was simply created as a one-of-a-kind piece out of stray parts. That’s worse than Ikea hacking! Or was it? Was the Empire chest headed for the dump or the burn pile? Maybe the walnut table was going to be scrapped for stock in a shop. Perhaps the legs had been destined for firewood. In any event at least parts of at least three older pieces of furniture have survived today as a result of someone’s ingenuity. Is it a priceless antique? Heck no. Could it, or at least its pieces, tell some stories? You bet.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 02 February 2015 17:32
 
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