As Glen Huey and I work on the drawings for our forthcoming book on early furniture from the American South, we keep having a similar conversation. We spent some time at both the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and Old Salem Village in Winston-Salem, N.C. We shared time (and good Southern food) with guys who’ve been living with and recreating this furniture for years. We’re doing the drawings back here in Cincinnati, working from photographs and notes. The conversation we keep repeating goes something like this:
What does that look like to you?
Why do you think the guy who made this went to that much trouble?
Especially when he did this the easy way on the other part of the piece.
Would you have done it that way?
Probably not, but the way this guy did it has done just fine for 200 years.
I once heard Roy Underhill say “we did a lot better when we gave up trying to improve the 18th century.” Like a lot of woodworkers, I’m also a history geek. It’s tempting to adapt details to fit the way I would make it, or the way I was taught to make it, but that’s not what this book is about. It’s a record of how cabinetmakers in Early America really did things. When the book is published, I expect to receive a letter or two from someone telling me that it’s just plain wrong to nail on a drawer bottom from below. It may be against the rules, but we have several examples of that method working for a couple of centuries.
Here is a link to our first blog post about this project, including a slide show of pieces we considered for inclusion.