HANDLES, FEET, STUFFS, ETC.
IN the manufacture of furniture at one time or another nearly every variety of wood has been used, if not for the body of the frame, then for its enrichment, and every quarter of the globe has been laid under contribution. The island of Borneo yielded Amboyna wood, with its beautiful mottlings and curlings, and a very splendid cabinet was made of it for the ill-fated Marie Antoinette by the famous cabinet-maker of her day, Riesener. Ceylon, held by the Dutch as a colony from the middle of the seventeenth century until nearly the nineteenth, produced splendid ebony which was used for Whole pieces of furniture as well as for decoration. The French term ébéniste, or worker in ebony, was given to the French makers of fine work.
To what abundant usage oak, walnut, and mahogany was put we know. Rosewood, too, was another of the choicer materials. Satinwood, with its brilliant colour; tulip-wood, more showy still; kingwood, dark and rich; zebra wood, with its black and white effect, as well as leopard and partridge woods, — were all in use before 1800. There were, besides, cherry, yew, pear, walnut, cedar, fir, olive, beech, sycamore, cypress, chestnut for timber work, poplar, acacia, with lime-wood and boxwood for carving.
Figure 98. Kitchen of Whipple House, Ipswich, Mass.
For furniture which was to be painted and gilded common deal was used. In America hickory (nut-wood, as it was called), was very popular among the native workers, and all the other woods were gradually imported, except those used for inlaying, an art never much practiced by American cabinet makers.
After the first leather coverings of cured bull-hide there followed Spanish or Cordova leather, Turkey-work, cane, rush, tapestry, brocade, woollen plush, etc., as styles altered from time to time and luxury increased. In an earlier chapter mention has been made of stuffs that were in use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for bed and window curtains. draperies and upholstery. Besides all the varieties of English goods, large importations came from East India of such unfamiliar materials, as bejurapants baits, gorgorans, mulmuls, jainwars, sallampores, and many others.
Miss Singleton in her "Furniture of Our Forefathers," gives a list of eighty different stuffs, seer-suckers being the only familiar name among them. Presumably some of these were imported here, and Boston merchants before 1725 advertised linceys and flowered serges, bangalls, shalloons, Persians and fustian, kersey, silk crêpes, cherry derry and grass. Worsted, or hair plush, plain or striped haircloth, damask, furniture dimities, moreen, harrateen and tammy were all to be bought in the larger cities. Nor were these goods y any means cheap. Harrateen cost about four dollars a yard in the middle of the eighteenth century, and a set of curtains of this same material was valued at $210. Other goods were in Proportion; some bedsteads without beds coming as high as $100. But, once acquired, these household goods were valuable assets and passed from one generation to another, often mentioned with great particularity by will.
There are various small details Which are of assistance in determining the approximate period of a piece of furniture, and none of greater value than the handles. The different styles of these, particularly of brass, are quite definite. The earliest of them is the drop handle, shown in Figure 99, and also on the old oak chest depicted in Figure 5. The escutcheons were similar, and the material of the drops on some chests of drawers was iron, but brass was more commonly seen, and Was either hollow or solid.
After the drop handles followed bail handles of a primitive type, the handles being fastened in with wires. These handles also were of brass and were sometimes engraved. The shape of these handles and escutcheons is known as willow, and appears later in a much more ornate form. See Figures 56, 57 and 59. By this time the handles were fastened by screw and nut. By the latter half of the eighteenth century there Were in addition to the elaborate Willow brasses (see Figure 64), oval ones of various styles. This shape Was much affected by Hepplewhite on his sideboards, and by Sheraton in his earlier style (see Figures 35 and 38).
There was a handle starting from two small plates, either round or oval, frequently seen on swell-front bureaus and desks of 1780 and thereabouts. One is shown in Figure 99. Beginning at the top of the page the various handles in use in the eighteenth century are shown in the order of their appearance.
Figure 99. Handles, Escutcheons, etc.
There was also a round handle with a ring lying close within it (Figure 37); and when the Empire style was in favour a rosette with a ring was used on sideboards, bureaus, writing-tables, etc. See Figures 42 and 60. The rosette with a ring was not the only Empire style, but there were round knob handles of brass (Figure 37), glass (Figure 38), and brass with medallions of china or enamel. The glass ones, either transparent or opalescent, were held in great esteem, though they are extremely ugly on pieces of dark furniture on which they were usually mounted. In many cases they have been removed, and wooden knobs substituted; yet if one desires an Empire piece to look as it did when made, it will be necessary to hunt out, if possible, a set of these knobs to put on it. This is not so difficult a matter as might be imagined; for even if the handles come from divers places they will generally match, as there was small variety in the patterns used.
There was a great demand for these opal glass rosettes. Very large ones held back the window curtains, smaller ones were used to support the mirrors, besides those on the furniture. About this same time (1820) those fine handles which are so eagerly sought for to-day made their appearance. They were china or enamel set in brass, and the patterns on the china were often portraits of famous men like Washington, Franklin, Clinton, and Jefferson. When mounted on a piece of furniture like a small worktable, which had only two drawers, the four patriots named would make a set. There were also fancy heads, and sometimes tiny figures, but these were not so popular.
Brass was put to many other uses, ornamental as well as useful, and wine-coolers of heavy mahogany were set off with bands of it, and smaller articles, like pipkins, were either made or bound with it. Narrow thread-like bands of brass were used for purposes of inlay and in the lyre-back chairs the strings were brass, as well as the accompanying ornaments. Brass has always been a valuable commodity in English manufactures, and in the reign of Henry VIII. Parliament passed an act prohibiting, under severe penalties, the export of brass, which prohibition was not withdrawn till as recently as 1799. In 1721 over thirty thousand persons Were employed in brass-founding in Birmingham, England, and the business has grown until it has become the industrial feature of that city.
The handles of both French and Dutch furniture were extremely ornate, consisting of scrolls and leaves, many of them of great beauty and delicacy, particularly when made of water-gilt or of etched brass.
For the benefit of local cabinet-makers brass handles, escutcheons, and false keyholes were imported and on sale in America. By 1770 many cabinet-makers were manufacturing very handsome furniture of mahogany, cedar, or cherry, requiring handsome brasses to go with them. A cabinet-maker of Newburyport, R. I., had in his shop at the time of his death in 1773 much furniture completed and some still unfinished. He also had several thousand feet of costly timber, sixty brass handles valued at more than one pound, desk brasses, fifty-four escutcheons, and old brasses, locks, and screws as well. For bookcase and cabinet doors he had panes of glass, most of it in sheets measuring 5x7 inches, which was the size commonly used in windows at that time. Although glass had been made in this country for a long time we find "Bristol crown window-glass" advertised for sale in 1771 in sizes as large as 9 X 12 inches.
Besides these brasses of English manufacture, we find another merchant advertising "three dozen Dutch rings and escutcheons at three shillings a dozen." Handles came at various prices, fifteen, twelve, and eight shillings a dozen, according to pattern and finish. The escutcheons were at proportionate prices, eleven and eight shillings a dozen, but locks came high, a fine-ward desk-lock bringing a guinea.
On much furniture, particularly that enriched with inlay, ivory escutcheons were used, and sometimes those of holly or other wood used in the inlay were set in. These were in use during the last years of the eighteenth century, and can be found in connection with various styles of handles.
At the "Smith's Fly" were many metal-workers who sold ironware and goods for cabinet-makers. At the sign of the "Cross Daggers," Thomas Brown, as early as 1745, had many metal furnishings on hand. There were latches and bolts for doors and locks for chests, drawers, and cabinets. He had polished brass handles, locks, escutcheons, and handsome brass locks for parlours. Ring-drops, tea-chest furniture, knobs and knockers for street doors, curtain-rings and chafing-dishes were advertised in 1750, and casters and handles and escutcheons of the newest fashion were to be found in 1751, with brass chair nails.
A few years later double and single spring chest-locks could be bought, and these were sold y the same merchant who imported‑
— "choice India and Japan gilded Tea Tables, square Dressing ditto, of which sort none were ever seen in America before."
The rate to be charged for putting on these brasses was set down in "The Journeymen's Cabinet and Chair-makers Philadelphia Book of Prices," 1795, mentioned before. Common castors cost 2 1/2d each, and 1d extra for letting in the plate; a set of sockets "when the legs are tapered, to fit in, per set," is 2d. Iron or brass rollers were 8 1/2d per pair. Fitting on a box lock was 1s 4d, while a patent lock came extra and cost 2s. Lifting handles could be put on for 1s 4d per pair. Letting in an escutcheon was 2 1/2d for each one, and letting in plates for rods in the tops of sideboards were 8d for each plate. Ivory escutcheons cost 10d each, and those of holly just half that.
If a person, chose to have his furniture made on the premises it was an easy matter, for many cabinetmakers worked in this way, and the furniture could be built to suit exactly the prospective owner's taste and the place it was to occupy. None of the furniture made in America and little that was imported here, had the superb handles and escutcheons which were put on French and Dutch pieces. These mounts were executed and designed by artists, and made a decidedly beautiful addition to the furniture.
Another distinctive feature of old furniture is the foot, which in many cases points to period and country as well as if the piece was dated. After the turned chairs with their heavy lines and clumsy construction, the furniture which was gradually finding its way from Spain and Holland seemed very beautiful. The Flemish foot, so called, turns outward, and is found on very early chairs enriched with carving and having cane, rush, or turkey-work seats, This style belongs to the last quarter of the seventeenth century. (For illustrations see Figure 100.)
Chairs of this same period also came from Spain and Portugal, being covered with the splendid leather of Cordova, which has now a world-wide reputation. The wood-work of the frames was handsome enough to correspond with the leather. These frames were carved, and the foot turned out like the Flemish, but it was of quite a different shape and fluted (see Figure 100).
This Spanish foot retained its popularity a long time, appearing on many varieties of chairs almost as late as 1750. It was associated with cane, rush, leather, and stuff bottoms, was seen on arm and side chairs with slatted backs, and backs of cane and leather. Sometimes on the "roundabout chairs," as those having a square seat set with one angle pointed forward were called (see Figure 57), only the front foot was in Spanish style, the others being turned knobs which accorded with the turned legs and rails. Even on some of the so-called Queen Anne chairs with spoon backs, a modified form of Spanish foot was to be found, but this eventually gave way to the familiar ball-and-claw cabriole leg, or the regular Dutch foot (see Figure 11). It is curious that the cabriole leg with ball-and-claw foot was seen on pieces of furniture like both the high and low chests of drawers before it was used on chairs (see Figure 57), and the earliest of these Queen Anne chairs had the bandy leg with the plain Dutch foot. This foot is used with the solid splat and the spoon-shaped back with rounded ends to the top.
Chippendale, in his earliest work, began to use the models then in vogue, and, with the bandy leg which was found only on the two front legs of chairs, used also a modified Dutch foot. Very soon he used instead the ball-and-claw foot, with or without the underbrace, and with the more ornamental foot the splat became pierced and carved and very ornate and rich. The later straight legged Chippendale chair (see Chapter III) came into favour, with or without underbraces, and late in the eighteenth century the other great cabinet-makers came along, each with his distinctive styles and characteristics. The first of these is Hepplewhite, who never achieved the success of Chippendale, who preceded him, nor of Sheraton, who succeeded him, yet whose work is often very beautiful. He did not, of course confine himself to any one style of foot or leg, yet on many of his chairs, tables, and sideboards he used what is called the "spade foot." This was varied in many ways, but the most common form is shown in Figure 100.
Both Hepplewhite and Sheraton, as well as the other makers of the eighteenth century, used a variety of shapes of feet, for bureaus, desks, bookcases, and other pieces which were in no way distinctive. Each maker used the bracket foot as suited him best, adding curves to suit his fancy or the exigencies of the case, or inlay or even carving. A plain bracket foot is shown in Figure 100. The French foot (Fig. 100) is more ornate and slender, and comes on chests of drawers, bureaus, etc. Inlay is very often used for its decoration, and it adds a graceful line to the piece it is used on, which is always of choice wood inlaid or painted.
Figure 100. Feet
The tapering fluted foot which we associate with Sheraton is also shown in Figure 100. Under his treatment it was nearly always decorated, either inlaid or carved, or sometimes both. Although we are most familiar with Sheraton style furniture in mahogany, he made much other furniture besides, as the following description of drawing-room chairs shows:
"These drawing-room chairs are finished in white and gold, or the ornaments may be japanned, but the French finish them in mahogany with gilt mouldings. The figures in the tablets above the front rails are on French printed silk or satin, sewed onto the stuffing with borders round them. The seat and back are of the same kind, as is the ornamented tablet at the top of the chair. The top rail is pannelled, a small gold bead mitred round, and the printed silk pasted on. Chairs of this kind have an effect which far exceeds any conception we can have of them from an uncoloured engraving, or even a coloured one."
This does not seem like the furniture we know as "Sheraton", yet in his books are many similar descriptions. After Sheraton gave up manufacturing furniture, and wrote only books of descriptions and patterns, France had passed through the throes of the Revolution, when the old régime was swept away. Napoleon had been proclaimed First Consul, and then, in 1802, confirmed for life, and took under his charge even such minor details as furniture and dress. The styles arranged to suit his whim found an echo in England. The English Empire, both at its best and worse estate, could boast of nothing better than a feeble imitation of the antique, while the French Empire was at least an expression of the conquests and successes of one man.
Thomas Hope was perhaps the best exponent of this style in England, and he industriously mingled emblems of the gods and goddesses, Phrygian caps and Roman fasces, Greek amphoræ, and fabulous animals on the furniture which he designed. In Figure 100 is shown one side of a chair designed by him, as also an Empire pillar-and-claw leg, as rendered by American cabinet-makers. Less ornate and ambitious, the American treatment of this period is preferable, for the chief use to which they put brass and bronze, the too-abundant use of which was so characteristic of this style, was to tip columns or pillars, and, to some extent, the feet of tables.
The best old furniture which is to be found in the United States is of this period, which was succeeded by what may be denominated the black-walnut age, the chief characteristic of which was abundant coarse carving. Our cabinet-makers were very successful in their treatment of mahogany, both solid and veneered. The latter work has never been excelled, and shows its perfection by the good condition in which much of this furniture, seventy and eighty years old, is found to-day.
The smaller affairs of life which go to make up the sum of necessaries were woefully wanting in the households of pioneers who battled with the American wilderness. The importance of the iron pot, weighing thirty or forty pounds, which descended by will through three or four generations, has already been pointed out. Pewter and brass ware were equally esteemed, and pewter, while by no means expensive, was not so plentiful but that many people managed with a small supply. Pewter spoons bent and broke, and a substitute, at least in the Connecticut Valley, was a small clam-shell set in a cleft stick. However much pewter was owned, whenever the Revolutionary heroes called for bullets, what there was was cheerfully run into those missiles of war, and there were many "bees" held all through the Colonies where bullets were run, and wooden trenchers were whittled out by the young lads to take the place of the sacrificed pewter. This wooden ware later was smoothed down by the women of the household with broken glass, and polished with sand made of powdered limestone.
Some of these wooden articles, made of maple, poplar or apple-wood, have descended to show with what simple appliances our ancestors were content. How simple were their pleasures the records of the time show. In fact, anything so enlivening as a hanging was looked upon as sport for a holiday. The first State's prison was opened in 1797 at the foot of Tenth Street, New York city. It was in use for thirty years, till the structure at Sing Sing superseded it. Grant Thorburn, referring to a man who was reprieved through the efforts of the Society of Friends, writes as follows:
"One day I went up to the park to see a man hung. After gazing two hours at the gallows, the sheriff announced a reprieve. I must own I was disappointed."
Though amusements and pleasures were few, even such as came along could not well be enjoyed if the weather were stormy, and in Washington's diary the entry for November 29, 1789, is, "Being very snowy, not a single person appeared at the Levee." Clothes could not be risked; they were too valuable to be subjected to bad weather. Romans, amens, casserillias, and ribdilures were high-sounding but perishable. Even while luxury was considered, health was neglected in many ways, such valuable adjuncts as tooth-brushes not being in use until about 1782.
Many advertisements appear in the papers of men who combined several vocations, dentistry being one of them, and in 1789 General Washington, after much pain during the summer, went into the hands of John Greenwood, dentist, of 56 William Street, New York, who made him a set of "sea-horse teeth". This had been a very trying summer, and one newspaper has it that "raw rum has been found exceeding pernicious in this extreme," and something lighter, like a "Bishop" or "Lawn sleeves" was recommended, and study of a book published in England called "Oxford Night-caps" was suggested as furnishing recipes for various healthful beverages though it was added that the rum had better be omitted, "as it is very intoxicating, and therefore pernicious."
The President's guests could choose from among Madeira, claret, champagne, sherry, arrack, spirits, brandy, cordials, porter, beer, and cider, yet, with it all, unseemly intoxication seems to have been the exception.
Domestic discipline in New York was enforced on servants, whether bound or free, by means of an official who was stationed at the calaboose on the common, and who, for a fee of one shilling, gave a thorough whipping.
Education was fostered and colleges throve. By 1760 the records state that the "King's College (Columbia) buildings were so far completed that the officers and students began to lodge and mess therein."
This was in accordance with the terms of the charter, which further provided that the students were to wear caps and gowns and to be within the gates at a certain hour. The plan of education, like our belongings, was copied from England, and our college was, in the most material parts, to be like Queen's College, Oxford. The tuition fee when General Washington entered his step-son, John Parke Custis, there, was five pounds per annum, with room-rent four pounds, and board at the rate of eleven shillings weekly.
The late Andrew P. Peabody, writing of college life at Harvard in 1820, says:
"Coal, just then coming into use, had hardly found its way into college. The student's rooms, several of the recitation-rooms as well were heated by open fires. Friction matches, which according to Faraday were the most useful invention in our age, were not yet."
He says that the feather-bed was a valuable asset (this article had held its own for centuries), but that ten dollars would have covered the other contents of a student's room. It had no carpet, and a pine bedstead, a washstand, table and desk, and three or four chairs were all it contained, besides a cannon-ball to be heated on extra-cold nights, and rolled down stairs on warm ones, "at such time as might most nearly bisect a proctor's night's sleep."
Our maternal great-great-grandmothers must have had little leisure to spare from the duties that occupied their time. Yet many of them had still-rooms where they not only compounded the medicaments whereby many a family was raised from infancy, but where they made extracts and essences as well. They made, too, from the flowers and herbs that grew in their gardens, pomander-balls, which were used instead of vinaigrettes, the outer case being of silver or gold, and often as large as an orange.
Those whose stock of trinkets did not boast one of these metal cases used the rind of an orange, the inside being carefully extracted, and a sponge with vinegar and spices being inserted in its place. Rose-balls made of leaves beaten to pulp, mixed with sweet spices, and rolled into a ball, soon became hard, resembling the rosaries made in the south of France. When held in the hand they became very fragrant from its warmth. Simpler than any of these was a rosy apple stuck full of cloves and giving out a fragrance years after the apple had lost all appearance or consistency of being a fruit, and awakening in the mind an image of her who made it in some quiet garden long ago. Like an antique spice-ball, all this old furniture that we have passed in review has an aroma of its own compounded by the hand that built it, the person that owned it, and the scenes that it has lived through.
Many a sober old chair could discourse of experiences ranging from grave to gay, from lively to severe, and every one of these antiques, whether a treasured heirloom or a reclaimed derelict, has a charm that is not easily excelled.