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.


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