Monday, March 21, 2016

Asleep in Luxury

QUESTION: My mother-in-law, who is 97, has just moved into a retirement home. Her Aunt Margaret was married to Charles Tuckett, the son of Charles Elias Tuckett, founder of Tuckett Tobacco and one time mayor of Hamilton, Ontario. Charles inherited the original Tuckett Estate and when he passed away Margaret was left owning it. Charles and Margaret had one child but the child died. When Margaret died her family inherited the estate. My mother-in-law inherited a lot of the furniture, but I haven’t found  much help regarding the manufacturer and value. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Your mother-in-law now owns two fine pieces of
furniture. Not only are they of massive scale, but the carving on them looks to be made by hand, something that wasn’t common in the late 19th century when most factories made manufactured most furniture.

These two pieces together make up a ‘bedchamber suite,” a more formal version of bedroom suite. Earlier suites consisted of just two pieces—a bed, commonly referred to as a “bedstead” and a dressing case, what most people call a dresser. Both came in all shapes and sizes and in one of seven different major revival styles. This suite is a fine example of the massive Renaissance Revival style, preferred by wealthy Americans. Later on, a second type of suite appeared, one with a bedstead, washstand, and bureau. These were smaller in scale—ideal for middle class homes and Victorian cottages—and less ornate and expensive than their bigger cousins. The concept of selling furniture “en suite” was novel in the 1880s and 1890s. Today, we this for granted.

Not only did the size show off the wealth of the suite’s owners, it also fit the enormous rooms with 12-foot high ceilings common in Victorian Italianate mansions of the time.

Suites with dressing cases from the Victorian period were more expensive than the bureau type, and more elegant as well. Sometimes their tall mirrors seemed to extend from floor to ceiling and had ornately carved frames that featured small bracket shelves for candle-holders or small lamps. Drawers varied in number and size. What people now describe as a well or step-down generally separated the parallel series of drawers. Cabinetmakers treated all three levels alike, topping them with either wood or marble. Some pieces had full-width drawers at the bottom of the well. Sometimes, the mid-section below the looking glass reached down to the floor, but this wasn’t common. To achieve individuality, customers could order their own mirror frame, and select from 16 different carved drawer pulls.

In the 19th century, the word "toilet" referred to personal grooming, thus a mirror became a  toilet or plate. An oval "plate" is now called a wishbone mirror, since the frame in which it is suspended is shaped roughly like a fowl's wishbone.

During the 1870s, people referred to the two small drawers that sit across from each other on the top of a bureau as decks. Today, they’ve become known as handkerchief boxes. Much less common were the petite boxes with hinged lift lids that sat on top of the dresser.

A projection front refers to the part of a dresser that hangs out over the base. A drawer or two may project or overhang the others. Slipper drawers had no handles and appeared to be the apron on a dresser. Not surprisingly, owners stored their slippers in them. Some dressers even had hidden compartments for jewelry.

This particular dressing case has all the features of the American Renaissance Revival style and then some. Not only does it have the small drawers, but also smaller cabinets with carved fronts with what look to be magnolia flowers. How magnolia flowers got to be on a piece of furniture made in Canada is a mystery. Burl walnut veneer decorates the fronts of the larger panels. And both the dresser case and the bedstead feature a large carved medallion with a dove of peace.

It’s believed that this bedchamber suite was originally in The Towers, an Italianate mansion built by George Elias in the 1870s, the second manion on his property. Today, renamed The Scottish Rite, it’s the home of a Masonic Lodge. When George Elias had The Towers built, he commissioned a local cabinetmaker, Joseph Hoodless, to not only create the mansion’s fine woodwork, but also some custom pieces of furniture, including this bedchamber suite. At the time, Hoodless had the reputation of being the finest furniture maker of his time. One of his bedchamber suites won gold metal at the Toronto Exhibition.

Because this is so customized a piece, value is hard to determine. Similar bedchamber suites have sold for upwards of $10,000 or more.

To learn more about Victorian Revival furniture, read "The Victorian Era---An Age of Revivals."

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