Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Longing for the Past

QUESTION: I’m looking for information about a chair that belongs to my sister. What can you tell me about it and who might be the maker?

ANSWER: Your sister’s chair belongs to the Colonial Revival furniture style, the longest-lasting continuous style movement in American history. Ushered in by the Centennial Exposition in 1876 which spawned an awakening of interest in what American furniture had looked like 100 years before. The publicity and preparations for the Exposition, as well as the financial difficulties of 1873, prompted Americans to look fondly back to the early history and events of the nation and long for the perceived security and comfort of those earlier times.

Ironically, there were no antiques or reproductions on display at the Centennial Exposition other than one small exhibit featuring a Colonial kitchen and few personal items belonging to George Washington including his favorite elm chair which was a reproduction.

Those who could afford it wanted to surround themselves with articles from America’s Colonial Period while at the same time attaching an enhanced importance to its history, integrity, and value. But there were many more Victorians wanting Colonial antiques than there were real ones on the market. In 1877, Clarence Cook, an interior designer of the time, published a book entitled, The House Beautiful, in which he stated that if people couldn’t obtain real antiques for their homes, fine reproductions would do just as well.

This revival of interest in Colonial American furniture coincided with the advent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a return to basic craftsmanship and honesty in construction techniques espoused by William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Elbert Hubbard.

Colonial Revival depends not so much on the actual style reproduced as on the interpretation of the style and the combination of stylistic elements. The original cabinetmakers and furniture companies that made Colonial Revival pieces catered mostly to the carriage trade, the upper crust, many of whom had real antiques in their homes. Most historians believe that furniture makers began copying Colonial pieces soon after the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. But, in fact, some began long before that as the Colonial Period came to a close with the deaths of the last surviving founding fathers.        

Smith Ely, a New York cabinetmaker working from 1827 to 1832, made what’s believed to be the first Colonial Revival piece—a cane-backed chair. As the 19th century progressed, a number of companies such as Sypher & Company of New York and Potthast Brothers of Baltimore produced authentic reproductions of 18th-century items, often handmade rather than made on an assembly line.

Then along came Hollis Baker, son of Siebe Baker, the Dutch immigrant who founded the firm of Cook and Baker in 1893 in Holland, near Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1925, Hollis Baker was the president of the company, now called Baker & Company. With a keen interest in handcrafted 18th-century furniture, Baker realized that whoever could solve the problem of combining the quality of handcrafted furniture with the practicalities of mass production would be successful.

Recognizing an opportunity, Baker & Company introduced a line of American reproduction furniture in 1922, a Duncan Phyfe suite in 1923, and furniture based on Pilgrim styling in 1926. In 1927, the company again changed its name to Baker Furniture Factories, specializing in high-quality, faithfully executed reproductions. A line of Georgian mahogany furniture called the “Old World Collection” appeared in 1931, and the following year the company opened the Manor House in New York City to produce top-of-the-line, handmade reproductions, faithful down to the dovetailing, hardware, and finishing.

Later in the 19th century, Ernest Hagen specialized in Duncan Phyfe federal furniture. He and a partner opened a shop in New York to make copies of pieces for clients who wanted the look but not the expense of real antiques.  Museum curators in the decorative arts credit him with reviving Phyfe’s reputation in the 19th century.

Nathan Margolis established a cabinetmaker’s shop in Hartford, Connecticut that lasted for 91 years.  A Lithuanian immigrant, he started his business in 1893 and became well known for his faithful copies of furniture originally made by Eliphalet Chapin, an 18th-century Connecticut cabinetmaker. His son Harold took eventually took over the business, continuing it until 1984.

Margolis not only reproduced old pieces but also adapted them to modern uses. In the 1950s, he produced the double dresser, a style known in Colonial days as the chest on chest, by doubling the width and lowering the height of the traditional Connecticut chest of drawers.

Wallace Nutting, a great proponent of preserving America’s Colonial past, had Windsor chairs made in the Colonial Revival style. During the 1920s and 1930s, he hired cabinetmakers to turn out reproductions which he marketed through catalogs. These chairs contained elements borrowed from a variety of styles. Nutting’s cabinetmakers also used woods that would have never been used for the originals, plus their shellac finish was historically inaccurate. Consumers loved them and soon other furniture manufacturers started making them.

The Dodge Furniture Company of Manchester and J. Sanger Atwill of Lynn, both in Massachusetts, Edwin Simons of Hartford, Connecticut., and Jesse W. Bair of Hamover, Pennsylvania. were some of the other makers of Colonial Revival pieces.

Then of course came the factory induced mutations designed by engineers of the 1920s through the 1950s that have given the term "Colonial Revival" such a bad name. These cheap knock-offs, called “period” pieces, began appearing in thousands of American homes. Bedroom and dining room sets became the most popular ensembles purchased by many a post-war bride and groom.

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