Learning about Furniture: History v. Archeology Part II

There are few “smoking gun” historical documents dating from the 18th century. Moxon’s “Mechanicks Exercises” was written in the late 17th century. Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” was written in the early 19th century. The only source I know of dating from the 18th century is Roubo’s “L’Art du Mensuier”.

These texts are both enlightening and frustrating. Moxon for example instructs his readers as to where to purchase good hand saws (Fosters Lane, London), but failed to clarify whether backed saws existed in his time. Roubo discusses saw filling but doesn’t specifically describe fleam, the feature of a saw tooth that improves its efficiency in cutting across the grain.

These specific sources get a lot of attention on the internet and in the woodworking press, but there are other sources just as worthy of our attention. Period documents such as period newspapers, estate inventories, account books, and court records are all helpful.

Finding these sorts of documents isn’t easy (which is undoubtedly why we don’t hear more about them). I find them referenced in academic books of the sort you may find in the bookshop in Winterthur. These sorts of books, often written by Winterthur curators, typically include bibliographies that will lead to the original sources. Winterthur has an excellent library, which is open to the public. If you don’t live near Winterthur or can’t visit, inter-library loans are possible.

Even vague inventory entries such as “24 Turkey work’d chaires” provide us with important information. “Turkey work’d” pertains to the upholstery used on the seat. The value listed may indicate these were what we call dining chairs as opposed to fully upholstered “elbow” chairs. The number of chairs is also interesting, giving us a sense for their use decoratively as well as a feel for the work of period chairmakers.

Period images are another worth while resource.

A plate from Thomas Chippendale’s 1754 “The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director” can be useful source of information about period furniture. It even includes some specific dimensions of furniture. But these illustrations are far from project plans. Moreover, plates such as this one may have been intended to show how different design elements can be mixed and matched. Note the different carvings on each chair’s back, knees, and feet.

Paintings can be a helpful source of information about period furniture. Here we see very restrained versions of Chippendale’s chairs above. The context in which they are depicted give us a sense for the use of the objects. In this instance, these “dining” sort of chairs seem to be in use as “occasional” chairs for what appears to be an art lesson.

Most big art museums have websites including a sampling of their collections. The image above came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The use of non-period sources (earlier or later)can be helpful or extremely misleading. The 18th century saw great changes in the woodworking “state of the art”. While English workers tended to be quite conservative and traditional, tools, products, and markets changed throughout the century. Understanding specifically what non-period data applies to the 18th c and what does not is very tricky. Such things are debated in curatorial circles. We’ve even had our own debates about it!

I don’t want to put you off non-period sources. They are essential in our understanding of period furniture. Like any source, me, an historical source, or even an archeological source like a piece of furniture, we have to question what we learn and try to fit it like a jig-saw puzzle piece. Some pieces just won’t fit. My advice is not to force them.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to choose between an archeological approach and an historical one or suggest that one is better than the other. But to be honest, I’m not convinced that folks who lack access to the archeology are getting the full picture. Likewise, if one’s access to original artifacts is limited, historical study can fill in to some extent. But the lack of real specificity in the historical record makes hanging one’s hat on any document really tricky. Bottom line: Those of you who travel to woodworking classes might benefit from using some of your woodworking education budget visiting museums or period homes.

I think I have one more thing to say on this subject before I put it to bed.