Centuries-old furniture a study in contrasts and continuity in craft
Some of the furniture display at the Flynt Center exhibit.
Original and repro paint at other location Recorder/Paul Franz
Chest detail Recorder/Paul Franz
A dowry chest with the initials "HW" carved into the center panel, believed to be about 400 years old, is part of the “Into the Woods: Crafting Early American Furniture” exhibit is on display in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life at Historic Deerfield.
dove tail detail, not trimmed to provide drawer stop Recorder/Paul Franz
The components of a foot lathe and spindle.
Mortise and tennon tools Recorder/Paul Franz
Around 400 years ago — maybe more, maybe less — an area woman’s parents went to the local joiner and commissioned a large chest on legs, with two drawers below the upper compartment and her initials, HW, carved in relief on the center panel.
Once completed, it followed her in her marriage as a dowry, an expensive status symbol she would eventually have passed down to a daughter. Initially, it may have stood in her parents house while the young couple worked to leave home, a tangible piece of their future household. Then again, who knows? It’s old, the joiner who made it, the parents who bought it, the daughter who got it and any children who may have lived to inherit it died several lifetimes ago.
The chest’s history is purely conjectural. What was someone counting when they scratched 315 tally marks into the underside of the open lid with the point of a sharp instrument? Days? Bodies?
Historic Deerfield furniture curator Joshua Lane points out a scorch mark, also on the underside of the lid, beneath which he concludes someone once left a candle a little too long.
Whatever the history of its existence, the chest wound up in Historic Deerfield’s furniture collection, where it is valued for the evidence of its creation more than the details of the ensuing centuries.
“It fits into the collection as a rare survival from the 17th century and it’s important because it hasn’t been refinished, so it’s a historical document,” Lane said.
No well-meaning owner replaced the broken knobs, sanded and varnished the surface, repainted the floral designs or otherwise meddled with its original state.
Other museums and scholars around the country treat it as a touchstone for this reason, Lane said.
While the object’s history after completion is unknown, it is itself a document of the weeks it spent in a 17th-century furniture shop. While the composition of the pigments used or the degree of decoration might be of arcane academic interest to furniture scholars, it also offers an interesting study in contrast and continuity.
Chest full of details
Most of this particular chest was fashioned from green oak, no longer a common choice.
Oak is a hardwood and difficult to work with hand tools when dry, but splits easily with the grain. Boards would have been split from raw logs with a froe and mallet, then leveled and smoothed with hand planes.
The froe is a long, thick, wedged blade controlled with a perpendicular handle and hammered into the end of a log until a shingle splits away. Hand planes from the period are essentially the same as those found in any hardware store today. The blades were shipped from England and fitted into wooden blocks in the colonies, with the blade held in place by a wooden wedge, levers or screws.
Working with green wood is not common today, making it easy for professionals like Lane to spot fakes: splitting wood with the grain exposes smooth patches in the oak perpendicular to the fine grooves of the oak grain. Lane said these “ray flecks” are not visible when sawed, and the wet oak also yields crisper edges where designs are chiseled into the surface.
Softer wood like the yellow pine used for the broad board that forms the lid of the chest was cut in water-powered sawmills.
Oak and pine were used because oak is tough and durable, pine is easy to work and both were easily obtainable in the Connecticut River Valley.
Once smoothed, the boards were joined. Pine for the lid, the floors of the chest and drawers and the back, oak for the visible outer surfaces and the weight-bearing sides of the two drawers.
Wood contracts as it dries, expands when it gains moisture. Oak is fairly stable in this sense, Lane said. The green wood does not shrink significantly after it is built into furniture, and the disjointing effect of shrinkage is less of an issue because the pieces dry together.
Nevertheless, the joining makes allowances for shrinkage.
Iron nails tack the pine back and floors to the frame, but the frame is held together by all-wood drawbored mortise and tenon joints. The horizontal front and side boards are capped with pierced tongues.
The joiner cut pierced tongues into either end of each horizontal front and side slat. These tenons fit into corresponding grooves or mortises chiseled into the vertical legs. Both the mortise and tenon were pierced to accommodate a wooden peg. Holes were bored with a hand crank fitted with a spoon-tipped bit, rather than the modern spiral style. A trick not apparent from the outside, the holes in the mortise were set slightly further along than those in the tenon. The result, Lane said, was that the tapered peg hammered into the mortise, through the tenon and out the other side of the mortise would suck the tenon as far as possible into the joint, leaving no wiggle room. The resulting deformation of the green oak peg also ensured that it wouldn’t leave the hole, and nothing remained but to saw away the protruding ends of the peg. Stray tooth marks show that this final step was undertaken with less care on the portions of the chest not readily visible, or the joiner didn’t see a reason to smooth away the slip. Cutting corners is universal.
Mortise and tenon joints were used only at the intersections of the frame pieces. The plain side panels and the three front panels, decorated with a hand-chiseled flower design Lane identifies as a tulip motif sit in grooves in the surrounding boards like panes of glass in a window. These straight grooves were cut with a special plane fitted with a sort of adjustable outrigger that held the plane to a straight path along the edge of the board.
The joiner cut similar grooves near the base of the drawer fronts to accept the chamfered edge of the floorboards. Preventing gaps from developing as the wood expanded and contracted with changes in humidity, the seasons and age, the boards were cut to a sharp point along one edge and a corresponding V groove along the other.
The nearly identical floral designs cut into the right and left front panels were carved free-hand, the entire design cobbled together with a series of gouges of different arcs.
The result is a flower and leaves mirrored along a vertical center axis as if cut from a folded pattern. A pattern would not, however, have been used, Lane said, because eyeballing the design was quicker for these craftsmen.
The negative space in these designs was stippled with blows from a many-pointed chisel for a textured background to the smooth surface of the raised flower.
The same technique was used for the center panel, in this case decorated with the initials HW in a setting of stylized blossoms.
Often, in similar pieces, this center panel was decorated with a circular design furniture experts refer to as a sunflower, although Lane said these had yet to be introduced, and this gave rise to the name sunflower chest for this particular style of furniture. Historic Deerfield’s is one of 40 known examples, Lane said, possibly all made by the same craftsman or shop, possibly not.
Beyond the characteristic panels, the chest is decorated with turned columns, oval protrusions and applied and integral molding. The applied moldings were planed in strips with a series of concave and convex hand planes, then mitred to fit the particular piece. The integral moldings were scraped into the surface with a single blade specially shaped to that design.
Turnings were more complicated. Modern lathes spin wood continuously with a powerful electric motor. Before the advent of the electric motor or other compact power sources, lathes were powered by a single wooden leaf spring. The wood was held like a corncob on an axis parallel to the floor, with a cord wrapped once around the wood and passing vertically up to the end of the spring and down to a pedal on the floor. The turner used the leverage of the pedal to flex the spring, then released the pedal, allowing the spring to spin the wood like a sideways top, albeit a captive one. The basic idea is the same as the bow drills used to start fires and drill stone as far back in time as the construction of the pyramids.
The identical pairs of vertically halved columns were achieved by gluing a thin strip of waste wood between two pieces of sugar maple before turning. The finished piece would then have been dropped into a pot of boiling water, dissolving the glue.
Animal hide glue was the adhesive of choice, shipped from England in dry sheets and reconstituted in hot water. The same glue then held the finished turnings to the surface of the chest, with a few iron tacks for insurance.
The drawers were grooved the length of their sides to accommodate wooden rails hidden inside the chest, and the lid was hinged with two sets of interlocking iron cotter pins. The broken hasp of a lock remains under the leading edge of the lid, but the lock itself is gone. Imported from the Old World, the lock would have been a very expensive touch at the time, Lane said. The chest likely held textiles, Lane said, and he isn’t sure what might have justified the extravagance of a lock. The lock, like the chest itself, is likely for show as much as use.
Aesthetically speaking, things went downhill from here.
As a restoration in the nearby Wright House shows, a piece of furniture could be skillfully constructed and carved with intricate decorations, then painted in a color scheme one would likely think to find in a 1970s airport lounge. Burnt orange and bright blue were well within the 1700s palette, all applied against a backdrop of unstained hardwood.
The exact color scheme of HW’s dowry chest is uncertain. Lane said he hasn’t had it pigment analyzed, but he points to an almost imperceptible tint on the molding tacked and glued into place around the front panels. To Lane’s eye, these were once red and striped at the extremities, in imitation of pricey Caribbean snake wood.
The turned accents were also painted. Fashioned from native sugar maple, these were painted black in imitation of the expensive and unobtainable ebony.
Wood choices were limited at the time, Lane said. There was virtually no mahogany available in the Connecticut River Valley, although it would soon become the wood of choice here as elsewhere as trade expanded into the North American market.
A long-term installation in the Flynt Center, the exhibit showcases the tools and techniques of historic furniture work with beautiful examples of Connecticut River Valley craftsmanship and tools of the trade from colonial times into the 1800s. A complementary exhibit in the Wright house holds more examples from Historic Deerfield’s collection. Some pieces are accompanied by specially commissioned replicas showing the furniture in its component pieces or painted in its original state.
While much of the craftsmanship is remarkable, the exhibit is also filled with proof that the more things change the more they stay the same.
It is tempting to picture the past as a golden time when men were real men, women were real women and craftsmen happily went blind carving meticulous detail into boards lovingly hand-hewn from a tree felled by singing lumberjacks, all aloof to such tawdry concerns as material gain.
This was, of course, never the case. Furniture-making was a business undertaken by people with families to feed and while handcrafting furniture is now largely the realm of hobbyists with power tools, there are parallels to be found throughout the exhibits.
Veneers of rare wood over common varieties were every bit as common as they are today, and it turns out the practice of painting odd dark swirls onto wood isn’t a modern affectation but a centuries-old one, intended to mimic the grain in higher-quality furniture built from exotic wood in England and other trading centers.
Inlaid medallions of rare wood and decorative ribbons of veneer were both purchased pre-made by the furniture maker and beauty was every bit as much in the eye of the beholder then as it is now. So if you build your own furniture there’s no reason to be ashamed of using a jigsaw or a router, or ordering the tricky bits from a catalog. Turns out purists are on the wrong side of reality.
The exhibit “Into the Woods: Crafting Early American Furniture,” is on display in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, with “Furniture Masterworks: Tradition and Innovation in Western Massachusetts” down the street in the Wright House. Both are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and are included in the price of admission to Historic Deerfield. For more information, visit www.historic-deerfield.org.