Boarded Furniture from the Builder’s Point of View

The choice of building boarded or joined furniture wasn’t typically left to individual English craftsmen. The Trade Guilds to which English woodworkers belonged mandated what they were permitted to build (and sell). While we no longer have those restrictions, it can helpful to consider these very different furniture forms with the individual builders in mind. Here’s my crack at it:

Imagine yourself living as a full time woodworker. Your primary occupation is to construct houses. You assemble large timbers using massive dovetails and mortise and tenon joinery. But this is seasonal work at best. Lacking farm land, and with a wife anxious stop your complaining about the weather, you turn your efforts to making items for sale in the market in town. Now people come to you. But the market town’s organizers will not allow you sell any piece of movable furniture that includes dovetails or mortise and tenon joints. That sort of work is reserved for other men. What do you do? Without those essential joints, many items your customers desire simply aren’t possible. It’s ironic, that you, who specializes in fitting mortises and chopping dovetails that hold heavy rooves over people’s heads aren’t trusted to cut tiny versions of the same to support some aristocrat’s fat arse. Oh well. No worries. People have been building useful items without these joints for over 1000 years. The coffins and coffers, chests and desks in the town’s cathedral were all assembled long ago with iron fasteners. They’ve held up fine. The settees in the corner pub, now well worn were fastened together ages ago. Only concern is they are a bit old fashioned and heavy. But with the prodding of a good wife and several mouths to feed, all you need is a little ingenuity and maybe a sense of humor to build useful, unpretentious items for families not looking to congratulate themselves on their good fortune. Besides there are more families needing the basic necessities than drunken Lords looking to impress their back stabbing neighbors.

Trade Guilds never held much sway here in the American colonies. Some were formed, but I suspect few followed their rules carefully. But the place names of the original 13 colonies suggests that English settlers were traditionally minded at least. When I see what we call “American” furniture it can be surprising how English it looks. While guild pressures may have been lessened in the colonies, English colonists continued to follow the conventions and vernacular styles to which they were accustomed (with notable and much discussed exceptions). In this lies another interesting discussion of how furniture styles offer a clue to changing attitudes in the new world and the formation of a uniquely American character. See my next (slightly controversial) post “Southern Furniture: American Attitudes”

Adam

4 thoughts on “Boarded Furniture from the Builder’s Point of View

  1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

    Right. The 2nd papragraph describes what I imagine would be the life of a carpenter, living in the late 17th to early 18th century. The distinction between boarded and joined furniture probably stretches back 400 years at least. But in 1632(?) the issue was settled in a London court.

    I just wanted to qualify that the strict guild rules weren’t always followed by village craftsmen and american craftsmen.

    Adam

  2. Mark Maleski

    You wrote: “But the market town’s organizers will not allow you sell any piece of movable furniture that includes dovetails or mortise and tenon joints.” And also: “Trade Guilds never held much sway here in the American colonies.” These 2 statements seem inconsistent. Also, it seems logical that a housewright would’ve turned more towards the traditional work of joiners rather than cabinetmakers, if for no other reason than they would’ve understood the market better…no?

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