Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Leave it to the Romans

QUESTION: My father has been trying to find out information about an old wooden armchair that he has that bears a label that reads “Hartwig &Kemper, Baltimore.” He could use some assistance on what it exactly is and the manufacturer. Could you possibly give us some information about this chair?

ANSWER: Your chair is what’s known as a Roman chair and dates from around 1870 to 1880. It’s done in the Victorian Neoclassical Revival style, a substyle of Renaissance Revival. But the origins of this chair go far back in time.

It’s ancient ancestor was the curule chair or sella curulis, from the Latin currus, meaning chariot. In the Roman Empire, only the highest government dignitaries, from the Emperor on down, were entitled to sit on it. It began as a folding campstool with curved legs. Ordinarily made of ivory, with or without arms, it became a seat of judgment. Subsequently it became a sign of office of all higher “curule” magistrates, or officials. According to Livy the curule seat, like the Roman toga, originated in Etruria.

Although often of luxurious construction, the curule chair was meant to be uncomfortable to sit on for long periods, since the Roman public expected their officials to carry out their duties in an efficient and timely manner. Also, its uncomfortability showed that the office held by the magistrate was only temporary, so he shouldn’t get too comfortable.

During the 15th century, both the Italians and the Spanish made chairs with cross-framed legs, joined by wooden stretchers that rested on the floor. A wooden back made the chair more rigid. Dealers in antiquities in the 19th-century called them "Savonarola Chairs." 

By the 1860s, the original curule chair form changed once again. Although some chair makers continued to use the cross-legged design, others modified it so that the legs splayed outward from a rectangular seat while the back had upright spindles and low-relief carving.

Hartwig & Kemper was a well-known furniture manufacturing company in Baltimore, with an office and salesroom at 316-318 W. Pratt Street and a factory at 309-331 W. King Street. The company also had numerous warehouses in the city and stocked a wide variety of furniture, especially chairs and tables, most of which they made of golden oak. Their 1904-05 catalog featured over 300 different pieces of furniture, mostly chairs, settees, couches, and tables. But they were mostly known for their chairs, which they produced in every style and type imaginable.

Your chair, however, was an earlier model made of tiger oak, a variation of golden oak that was dark-stained to look like mahogany. It features the stylized heads of two lions, with their mouths wide open to facilitate lifting the chair, on the top of the back. Your chair is called an elbow chair, presumably because a person could rest their elbows on the arms.

Furniture manufacturers like Hartwig and Kemper interpreted the prevailing furniture styles following the Civil War in homely, machine-made versions as well as more luxurious models.

Victorian furniture offered a mix of styles, almost all revivals of former styles. The Renaissance Revival style, one of four major Victorian revival styles, included such substyles as neoclassic Roman and Greek Revival. The word Renaissance in this case covered just about everything. The result was a stylized mix of many ancient and classic styles.

The end of the Civil War saw an immense trade in relatively inexpensive furniture to meet the demand of the market. Steam-powered machines simplified the manufacture of inexpensive furniture for the mass market. Furniture produced had simple lines, relatively flat surfaces, and a minimum of detailed carving.

Although factories in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania produced the greatest amount of furniture of all types. All made stock-in-trade furniture for the mass market. Golden or “antique” oak was the wood of choice. Some furniture companies just made chairs—straight-back chairs, dining chairs, rocking chairs.

Equipment they used was efficient enough that one reviewer said they could almost throw whole trees into the hopper and grind out chairs ready for use. However, early machines didn’t do such a great job with the finishing work. Any chairs with even a little carving had to be hand finished, a job entrusted to craftsmen brought from Europe. Sometimes, factory owners would use women and children to cover chair seats for very low wages.

The buying public at the time seriously considered price as well as style and comfort. By the end of the 1860s, Hartwig and Kemper were turning out large quantities of furniture, especially chairs.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Deck the Halls Victorian Style

QUESTION: I see a lot of references to the nostalgia of an old-fashioned Victorian Christmas. Just how great were Christmas celebrations back then and what did they do?

ANSWER: While what you read and see on T.V. about how the Victorians celebrated Christmas is often exaggerated, many of the holiday traditions we still practice today began back then.
With luck,  there was snow. Twinkling, sparkling, clean, white, heart-warming old-fashioned snow. Nothing reminds us of an old-fashioned Christmas like snow. Just enough to coat the brick sidewalks, to dust the backs of the horses, to lightly stick to the long velvet gowns and the top hats, to put a glow around the Christmas tree lights. For this was the essence of a Victorian  Christmas. During most years, many northern locations had many more than a dusting.

During the Victorian era from 1837 to 1901, people celebrated  Christmas with special family gatherings, feasting, embellishing the home with decorations, and gift giving in increasing abundance. Victorians loved to decorate for the holidays. A giant fir tree, adorned with dried hydrangeas in shades of rose and pale green, lacy fans, white silk roses—a symbol of the Virgin Mary—German glass balls, and delicate handmade paper ornaments, held  together with lace garland, woven with ribbon and strung fresh cranberries, stood in the parlor. Many people believe that the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise tree, a fir hung with red apples and wafers, representing the host, which represented the Garden of Eden in a medieval miracle play about Adam and Eve performed on December 24.

Arrangements of fresh greens and holly, a pagan custom adapted by Christians, decorated Victorian homes. The color green came to symbolize the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ. Legend says that Jesus' crown of thorns was plaited from holly. It's said that, before the crucifixion, the berries of the holly were white, but afterward, they turned crimson, like drops of blood.

Greens hung from chandeliers. Pine roping, wrapped with  pearls and pink moire taffeta bows, draped the grand staircase.  Perhaps a small wooden tree covered with prisms stood on a marble-top  table. Another, covered in intricate origami birds, might have stood on a hall table. The crowning touch was a large welcoming wreath that hung on the vestibule door flanked by alabaster urns filled with gold tinged twisted willow and red poinsettias. But the most important part of the Victorian celebration was the family's creche, which featured carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child set in a miniature village, complete with meadows, fences, windmills and ponds. flanked by poinsettias. Many believe St. Francis of Assisi created the first creche using live animals in 1223.

Gift giving played an important role in Victorian celebrations. The lady of the house would smile as she peeled back the tissue covering a heavily embossed sterling silver dresser set or opened a box in which a pair of gold and amethyst earrings nestled. On the more practical side, she might have received a steel chatelaine, a chain which clipped to the waist and held keys, a pencil, and a button hook. For a special evening out, she might have been given  a dress cape of black silk velvet trimmed with jet beads and ostrich feathers.

Children often received books, considered appropriate for their educational or moral value. Or perhaps a doll's china tea service and sewing equipment for the girls, and miniature tools for the boys to help prepare them for adulthood. An extra special gift for the whole family might have been a stereopticon viewer with slides of exotic places.

Men weren't left out. To go walking, a man might receive a gold-tipped cane, or a brass bicycle lamp, reflecting the favorite pastimes of Victorian gentlemen. Or he might receive a fine ivory meerschaum pipe or a bowler hat by Stetson.

All of the above was fine and dandy for wealthy Victorians, but for the majority of people who worked long hours for subsistence wages—not unlike Bob Cratchet in Charles Dickens’ beloved story “A Christmas Carol”—life was a daily drudgery and Christmas, for many, was just another day of the year, albeit one they had off.   

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Keepsakes, Not Throwaways

QUESTION: Sometime ago I purchased a box of colorful decorative holiday cutouts and imprints. Many of the designs feature St. Nicholas and have a definite British Victorian look to them. What were these called and what were they used for? 

ANSWER: Believe it or not, the cutouts you purchased are known as scraps. While the word “scraps” has now come to mean parts that are left over, such as scraps of wood, fabric, and paper, back in the 19th century it meant something quite different.

The Victorians loved decoration—the more the better. They also were very romantic and loved sentimentality and keepsakes. This led to a phenomenon popularly known as scraps.

Also called die cuts or chromos, scraps were small, colorful, embossed paper images that were sold in sheets by stationers and booksellers and used in various decorative, entertainment, and educational applications. Their diverse subject matter included flowers, trees, fruits, birds, animals, pets, ladies and gents, children, historical people and events, angels, transportation themes, and occupational motifs.

People pasted them into albums and used them to make greeting cards and decorated boxes. They also pasted them on folding screens and pieces of furniture. Scraps served as extra learning materials to teach young children the alphabet, counting, natural history, and geography, as well as teaching tools for learning prayers and Bible stories and in the enjoyment of nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

The first scraps originated in German bakers' shops as decoration for biscuits and cakes and for fastening on wrapped sweets. The earliest ones were printed in uncut sheets in black and white, then hand colored. Scraps appeared in Britain in the 1850s and soon became popular as decorative additions to Christmas cards. They were also used to illustrate historical as well as events of the time.

By the mid-1800's, chromolithography had been invented. This made a wide variety of  colored scraps available to an ever-increasing market. But chromolithography required a lengthy process. Each color had to be applied separately and needed to dry before the next color could be applied. However, the process made up to 20 printed colors possible. Printers made Victorian and Edwardian scraps in sheets that contained small chromolithographs designed to be cut out in the same manner as the first penny postage stamps. After printing and before embossing, they coated the sheets with a gelatin and gum layer that resulted in a glossy appearance and helped the paper stretch without cracking the print. Steel cutters, powered by foot treadles, punched out excess paper and left clean, sharp edges. Thin paper sheets, imprinted with manufacturers’ trademarks and called "ladders," held the cut sheets together.

The elaborate use of stamping can often be seen in uncut scrap sheets. Optimum use of space, required minimal cutting and lead to the intricate and ingenious design of the cutting die.

Early in the 20th century, young ladies and children of the middle and upper classes began keeping scrapbooks that contained collections of commercially produced scraps. They organized them thematically with a single subject for the entire book or with several themes arranged by section. Sometimes, they added lines of poetry, personal notations, inscriptions by family and friends, and drawings.

Stationery stores sold scrapbooks with tooled leather covers, elaborately embossed bindings, engraved clasps, and brass locks. Some scrapbooks contained printed decorations on their pages, as well as centered oval, circular or square sections into which people could paste items. Other albums held printed pages with theme-setting embossed decoration-like flowers or birds. Many scraps keepers made their own albums by pasting scraps over catalog and magazine pages.

Scraps production continued through the 1920's, but changes in popular taste, the effects of World War I, and the economic limitations of the Great Depression all contributed to their decline. Over time, newspaper and magazine pictures supplanted scraps as the "cutouts" of choice.

Today, sheets of uncut Victorian scraps and single scraps of good design, color, and condition are prized by ephemera collectors. Die cuts by celebrated manufacturers like Raphael Tuck and Sons, which produced a series of scraps to commemorate Queen Victoria's 50th jubilee in 1887, are especially prized by collectors. Values vary from $5 for common scraps up to $50 for unusual and sought-after images.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Neither Royal nor Legal

QUESTION: I’m interested in buying a court cabinet which has lovely carvings and was bought as an antique, but the owner says it’s made of “pitch pine.” I've Googled this and have discovered it's a North American conifer. I've seen an almost identical cabinet advertised as being from the time of Henry II. It’s made from walnut and has slightly more detailed carvings, although the hardware looks identical. I wondered whether the pitch pine cabinet might be a later copy, perhaps still antique, but maybe a Victorian reproduction. The cabinets started out at the same price, but the pitch pine one has been discounted and is now about two-thirds the cost of the walnut one. Is the walnut one more valuable simply because of the quality of the timber?

ANSWER: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. So let’s take them one at a time. Before we start, it’s important to clarify just what a court cabinet is.

According to its antique definition, a court cabinet, more commonly referred to as a court cupboard, is an English sideboard that was fashionable from 1550 to 1675, that has three open tiers, the middle of which sometimes has a small closed cabinet with oblique sides. The word "court" is the French word for "short" and has nothing to do with the royal household.

People used these cupboards to display pewter and silver items. In Elizabethan and Jacobean households, the court cupboard was one of the three most important pieces of furniture—the others were the tester bed and the great chair. It usually sat on the dias, the highest area of the hall, which was the main room in a Tudor house. As with later sideboards, they also held cups and glasses, spoons (forks weren’t used back then), a sugar box, and containers for vinegar, oil, and mustard.

Besides holding items used in serving and eating meals, the court cupboard served as a display cabinet for the owner’s wealth. Back then there weren’t any banks or stock exchanges, so wealthy persons put their money into pewter, silver, and gold vessels. Not only did these plates and cups make their wealth usable and socially visible, they could be reconverted into coins should the need arise.

The two or three open shelves of the court cupboard were for the display of cups. Owners of these early cupboards often covered the shelves with a “cupboard cloth” to enhance the display of their valuable wares. The court cupboard showed off the prosperity and status of the owner of the house. It’s no wonder that they were such impressive and beautifully decorated pieces of furniture.

There were two forms of court cupboard—one in which the shelves were open, the other with one shelf, usually the upper, enclosed. Decorative arts professionals sometimes call the latter one a “standing livery cupboard,” believing that the owner used the enclosed portion to store and serve food and drink, also formerly known as "livery." The enclosed portion is usually set back a few inches from the front, and may be either straight-fronted or canted, in which case the central door is parallel to the front, and the two sides slant backwards. The early canted cupboards retain the carved supports in their front corners, later ones replace them with a turned drop-finial hanging from the top corners.

Cabinetmakers decorated the cupboard’s front and door with carved motifs and figures, but sometimes to make them extra luxurious, they inlaid them with light-colored holly wood and darker, almost black, bog oak in geometric, architectural or floral designs.

When the Pilgrims came to America in the first half of the 17th century, court cupboard were all the rage back home. After much struggling, they finally were able to sustain a colony on the shores of what’s today Cape Cod. But it wasn’t until a more robust colony came into being on the site of present-day Boston that people turned to local cabinetmakers for their furniture needs. This is where the pitch pine comes in.

Pitch pine can be found along the northeast coast of the United States from Maine to New Jersey, including all of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and inland across Pennsylvania to southern Ohio, and south through western Maryland, all of West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

New England cabinetmakers used better woods, such as walnut, for their more expensive pieces. Court cupboards appeared in both types of wood, often with exactly the same carvings. The difference was that they often painted the pine cupboards in red and black to make them look better than they were.

The two court cupboards in question, however, are not as old as you might think. Both are what’s known as Jacobean or Tudor Revival pieces, dating from the last quarter of the 19th century. They’re a prime example of the use of the same carving style and design that cabinetmakers employed in order to produce pieces at different prices. And while they look identical, the walnut one will appreciate in value more than the pine one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Nesting Mothers

QUESTION: My mother has a substantial collection of what I call “Nesting Mothers.” These are the little Russian nesting dolls that often appear at flea markets. One day, this collection will be mine, so I’d like to know more about them. When and where did they originate? Are they valuable? And are there different kinds?

ANSWER: Those are all good questions. First, the correct name for your mom’s Russian nesting dolls is Matryoshka dolls, also sometimes referred to as Matreshka dolls. And while they’re commonly associated with Russia, they didn’t originate there.

A professional artist and folk crafts painter named Sergei Malyutin, who worked on the Abramtsevo estate of Savva I. Mamontov, made the first sketches of a nesting doll based on one his wife brought home from a visit to Honshu, Japan, in the latter part of the 19th century. However, the Japanese say that it was a Russian monk who first brought the idea of making nesting dolls to Japan. Whatever the case, Russian craftsmen liked the idea, and Matryoshka dolls came into being.

The first dolls looked a bit different than the ones made today. Malyutin intended his doll to depict a round-faced peasant girl with beaming eyes. He dressed her in a sarafan—a floor-length traditional Russian peasant jumper dress held up by two straps—and gave her carefully styled slicked-down hair largely hidden under a colorful babushka or bandanna. He placed other figures, either male or female, each smaller then the one before, inside the largest doll, dressing them in kosovorotkas, or Russian blouses fastened on one side, shirts, poddyovkas, or men’s long-waisted coats, and aprons. He planned to have the smallest, innermost doll, traditionally a baby, turned from a single piece of wood. But it was Vasily Zvyozdochkin who made the first doll set in Moscow towards the end of 1890 and made the Matryoshka doll a reality.

Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, where they won a bronze medal. Soon after, craftsmen in several other Russian towns began making them and shipping them around the world.

So where did the name for these dolls come from? At the end of 19th century, Matrena was one of the popular female names in Russia. Derived from the Latin root matrena, it means, "mother," “respected lady," or "mother of the family." Placing one figure inside another was also a fitting symbol of fertility and perpetuation. People also refer to these dolls as "babushka dolls", "babushka" meaning "grandmother" or "elderly woman" and also the name of the bandana worn by peasant women at the time.

Matryoshka dolls aren’t easy to make. It requires a lot of skill. Many a craftsman has given up after trying to create one. In the beginning, those who did know how to fashion these dolls kept the process a secret. 

First it’s important to choose the proper type of wood. Because of its softness, lime wood is generally chosen, less often alder or birch. It’s important to cut the wood at the right time, when it’s neither too dry nor too dump. Only an expert can determine when it's just right. Each piece of wood goes through as many as 15 separate operations. The craftsman creates the smallest doll in the series—the one that cannot be taken apart—first.

Once the smallest doll has been made, the craftsman starts on the next figure into which that first doll will fit. He cuts a piece of wood to the necessary height and then cuts it in half to form a top and bottom section. He works on the bottom section of the doll first, removing the wood from the inside of both sections of the second doll so that the smaller doll will fit snugly inside. A skilled craftsman, by the way, doesn’t bother to make measurements but relies solely on experience. Afterwards, he repeats the process, making a slightly larger doll into which the previous two will fit.

When the craftsman finishes each doll, he covers it with starchy glue that fills in any hollow areas in its surface. Then he polishes the dolls to a smooth finish to enable the painter to spread the paint evenly. After fashioning and finishing the wooden dolls, the craftsman hands it on to a painter who then gives the dolls their inimitable style.

The number of dolls held one inside the other varies from 2 to 60. There’s no limit to the size of these dolls. Some made today are quite large and hold many others within.

Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme which may vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders. Originally, doll makers used themes drawn from tradition or fairy tale characters, in keeping with the craft tradition, but since the 20th century, they have embraced a larger range, including flowers, churches, icons, folk tales, family themes, religious subjects, and even Soviet and American political leaders.

The craft of making Matryoshka dolls gradually spread from Moscow to other cities and towns, including Semenov, Polkhovskiy Maidan, Vyatka, and Tver'. Each locality developed its own style and form of decoration.

As with other crafts, the Russian Government under Communism strictly controlled doll making and selling. But political changes at the end of the 1980s gave artisans new possibilities and freedoms. They could now make their dolls without fear.

A painter named Sikorsky was one of the first whose dolls became popular with the public. His dolls bring the highest prices, with individual sets costing as much as $3,000. His access stimulated other artists, and since then, Matryoshka doll making has been on the rise. 

For more information on Matryroshka dolls, go to Nesting Dolls.