Monday, August 30, 2010

A Question of Time

QUESTION: I have inherited a very plain tall clock made in Philadelphia. How can I tell how old it is?

ANSWER: To tell the age of a tall-case clock, or grandfather clock as it’s more commonly known, you need to first look at the dial. The early ones at first showed 24-30 hours. Owners wound them at the end of that time by pulling the driving cord down.

In the earliest clocks—those dating from the 17th to early 18th centuries—the hour circle appears in a silvered ring with a doubled circle appearing within the numeral circle.

Many old clocks have only an hour hand. Some have both an hour and a minute hand. Even though clockmakers had used minute hands since 1670, most clocks, except the most expensive ones, didn’t have them. Early tall-case clockmakers gave their hands a fine finish and often made them the most decorative part of the clock. The hour hand was often the most elaborate and the second hand, if the clock had one, was sometimes long and graceful. Later, when clockmakers introduced white dials, the hour and minute hands became even more ornate and some even had a smaller second hand.

Originally, tall-case clockmakers made their dials of metal with a matt center circle. By the mid-17th century, they added ornamentation around the edge of this matted center, engraving birds or leaves to form a border showing the days of the month. They brightly burnished this date ring as well as the rings surrounding the winding holes. Silvered dials, containing no separate circle for the hours and minutes, appeared in 1750. Instead of a matted center circle, these dials featured an engraved overall pattern in the center circle. Many early tall-case clocks also had a small separate dial showing the days of the week.

Dials remained square until the beginning of the 18th century, at which time clockmakers introduced the arched dial. Dutch clockmakers found good use for this extra space, filling it with decorative figures and animated devices such as a see-saw or a shipping rolling at sea. They also added a moon dial, thereafter common on many tall-case clocks, which displayed the phases of the moon under the dial’s arch. English clockmakers, mostly in Yorkshire, went one step further, creating a globular rotating moon dial.

Clockmakers usually only made the works of tall-case clocks. They subcontracted the making of the cases to coffin makers, who used this as supplemental income when business was slow. During the second half of the 17th century, casemakers employed walnut to build mostly plain cases. The Dutch introduced marquetry to the fronts of the clock cases, using woods of different colors and grains.  Mahogany didn’t come into general use for tall-case clocks until about 1716. At first, casemakers imported it from Spain, then after that supply ran out, from Brazil.

Before 1730, the doors of most tall-case clocks were rectangular, but around that time casemakers included an arch in them to match the arched dials. The earliest clocks didn’t open with a door. Instead, the entire hood–the top part of the clock–slid backwards revealing the works.

For more information, read “Grandfather Time” and also visit the Web site for Bowers Watch and Clock Repair and read about the works of tall-case clocks in their clock section.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bed in a Box

QUESTION:  My grandmother had a “bed in a box” that we used to sleep on as children when we would come to visit. My brother has it currently, but I amin the process of trying to get it home. We believe it is between 100-200 lbs and I think it is walnut. It is a 3x3 foot cube 23 inches deep and it is just a cot that rolls into a two-doored cabinet. I have always loved it, and it’s one of the few things I wanted when my grandma passed. I was wondering if you have any information for me because I can't find anything about it.

To save space, furniture makers over the 125 years or so have come up with some ingenious devices. The “bed in a box” the person mentions above is just one of the unique ways that city dwellers found to get more people into a room. When immigrants began arriving in greater numbers in the latter part of the 19th century, whole families often had to live in one room–eating, relaxing, and sleeping in the same space.

The first person to become aware of this problem was Sarah Goode, the owner of a furniture store in Chicago. She invented a folding cabinet bed that when not in use looked like a desk standing against the wall and became the first African American woman to receive a U.S. patent for her invention on July 14, 1885.

Since city apartment dwellers often had little space for beds, Goode and others created variations on what we now call the “hideaway” bed. Goode’s design was far more elaborate than a bed-in-a-box. Her folding bed unit had hinged sections that were easily raised or lowered by an adult.

Cabinet beds, like sofa beds, are another innovation along the same lines. Essentially, when the cabinet folds down, it changes shape revealing a bed. You'll also notice that the design of the furniture is similar to that found in early Sears catalogs. Many of these pieces were manufactured in Indiana. Another variation was the rolling trundle bed. This large rectangular box rolled under high late 18th and early 19th-century beds for storage during the day. At night, an adult or child would pull on a rope and drag the bed out for sleeping.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Spoonful of Grace

QUESTION: We ran across a chair in an antique shop and the dealer referred to it as a "spoon chair". It was wooden with a high narrow back, no arms and a fairly wide seat. Can you give us any information on this type of chair?

ANSWER: Everyone knows that spooning is when you lay close to your partner in bed as if to cradle him or her in the “spoon” shape of your body. But in antiques “spoon” refers to the backs of certain chairs that vaguely resemble the shape of the bowl of a spoon. The chair asked about by the couple above wasn’t really a spoon-back chair at all, but one that was made to be used as both a chair and a step stool to reach things up on a shelf. The person standing on it would have held onto the back to steady the chair. Stylized reproductions of many of these types of chairs appeared in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the shape of chairs changed at the end of the 17th century with the appearance of S-shaped legs, the backs for the most part remained straight and box-like.

By the middle of the 18th century, during the reign of Queen Anne of England, chair makers introduced the Cabriole leg which meant that chairs no longer needed stretches for support. This allowed chair makers the freedom to construct gracefully curved backs.

The 19th century brought further design and construction improvements, including the balloon-like shaped back which eventually evolved into what became known as a spoon-back. This became possible because of innovations in chair construction and the ease of cutting the pieces with special mechanical saws. Designers of Rococo and Renaissance Revival chairs used the curved spoon-back design to soften the look of their chairs.