By Charles Bender
Access to information provides the modern woodworker with greater variety, and it challenges their skills more than their 18th-century counterparts. When we consider how fashion-conscious both producers and consumers were in the 1700s, it’s truly amazing to think how quickly the word spread of stylistic changes such as cyma-curved backsplats in chairs, cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet.
Over the course of a few decades, furniture construction methods and aesthetics shifted between simple, unadorned pieces to richly carved and decorated pieces – then back again. Even with all this tumult in the furniture fashion world, period cabinetmakers were limited by regional taste and tradition.
While they may have known about ball-and-claw feet, per se, they may not have understood the regional variations that took place between areas such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Fashion changed from the rigid Jacobean to the more curvilinear William & Mary style and, eventually, to the dainty, feminine style of Queen Anne. Throughout the Colonies, cabriole legs were all the rage. Pad feet ran rampant – everywhere except in Philadelphia and its surrounding environs.
A great influx of Irish cabinetmakers and carvers brought with them a foot design that would dominate the Philadelphia Queen Anne style: the trifid foot. Pad feet were made in the region but no other foot design caught the ever fashion-conscious consumer’s eye like the trifid foot. An outgrowth of the pad foot, a trifid foot is elegant yet simple – which played well with local Quaker sensibilities.
Carvers divided a pad foot into three distinct toes creating a more “naturalistic” looking foot – so much so that trifid feet are also called “drake” feet (after the male duck). The style sense was shifting from the rigid toward the rococo. Having furniture with more “realistic” carving adorning it was quickly becoming the height of fashion. Trifid feet filled that need in the greater Philadelphia area unlike any other. The simple fact is that even though trifid feet were extremely popular in Philadelphia and England, they just never really caught on much elsewhere else in the Colonies.
Trifid feet are as varied as the consumers who coveted them. They can be clubbish or delicate and elegantly carved. They can have well-defined toes or be far more abstract. They can be cuffed, stockinged or plain. I’m sure that if cabinetmakers throughout the Colonies had the same access to the variety of trifid feet we have today, the feet would have been far more popular in many areas of the country.
From One, Many
In the 1720s and ’30s the cabriole leg was rapidly becoming the height of fashion. Furniture to this point had been primarily the playground of the joiner and turner. As the cabriole leg came into vogue, the turners kept their hand in furniture making by creating pad feet. And while there are a few variations on that theme, for the most part, one pad foot looks much like any other.
Blog: Read Charles Bender’s blog, “Parings: A Woodworker’s Journal.”
TV: Subscribe to Charles Bender’s online TV show, “No B.S. Woodworking.”
Class: Take a class with Charles Bender at Acanthus Workshop.
In our store: “Cabriole Legs Simplified,” a DVD by Charles Bender.
In our store: “Carve a Ball & Claw Foot,” a DVD by Charles Bender.
From the August 2012 issue #198
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