Antique American Furniture, By Region - Part 2

Another set of holidays have arrived, and with it, opportunity anew to investigate your relatives' furniture!

If you haven't already, or even if you have, it may be fruitful to read Part 1 of this blog.

In addition to Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite was a prolific 18th century designer and cabinetmaker, and may have been long-forgotten by time had his widow not published his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide two years after his death. Hepplewhite greatly influenced the first half of the Federal Era; its hallmarks were square tapered legs, curved aprons, and inlaid marquetry veneers.

As an effect of the Revolutionary War, smaller port cities like Baltimore, Providence, and Salem, rose in prominence and wealth, and soon became notable in their Federal style furniture making. Baltimore, in particular, became a center for high-level Federal design. The new occupation of "ébéniste" arose, a type of artisan that specialized in providing inlay to nearby cabinetmakers. Thomas Barrett, a leading inlay supplier in Baltimore, had clients in nearly 150 local cabinetmakers; for 1800, his accounting lists 76 yards of banding and 1,316 inlay shells - these valued at 7 to 25 cents each (for reference, journeyman cabinet makers made an average of $1 per day). Each city had their own ébéniste and thus, each city came to have their own distinctive inlay styles.  

The business changed after the war. Journeyman cabinet makers were more likely to be employed by larger and busier shops than by family businesses. Many cabinetmakers made the leap to become merchants, buying and selling lower quality examples while employing journeymen to craft finer pieces in their shops. The exclusive use of native woods was no longer sustainable so the use of veneers became extremely common, which also allowed shops to have less waste.

Each city also employed a "book of prices", a retail guide that accounted for the time required to build each piece (for example, a four-drawer chest with veneered drawer fronts typically took about 8 days), the wages of the average local journeyman, materials, and other overhead. The journeymen in many cities created "societies" (basically labor unions), striking when employers did not respect their wishes and refusing to work with craftsmen that did not join the society. One notable win guaranteed the journeymen $1 per day, for an 11-hour day and 6-day work week, but stipulated that their employer provide the candles.

So this Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Eid, when you've opened all the gifts and are, hopefully, pleasantly full, take notice of that sideboard, with its flawless bellflower inlay and gently curving bowfront. Maybe you'll better appreciate that Martha Washington chair that is just comfortable enough. Hopefully you'll once again take stock of the people around you, more than the things, and be grateful for another year.


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Interested in reading our previous blogs? Click here!

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