The Making of Old Furniture

Why, in this information age where everything from our household appliances to the family car has a computer chip in it, is there such a strong appeal for antiques? Is it more than the style of the furniture, the color, or patina of the wood? Although the furniture we now collect was made in a different age, it’s more than just the historical fact of the furniture we find appealing.

When we look at an antique we are drawn to it because it is an honest reflection of work and of the person who made it. In the 18th and early 19th century there was a collective sense of quality in craftsmanship. 200 years ago, there was no Madison Avenue saying this is “ Job One ”. Every object in a person’s life was hand made . The pieces were made to last several generations by the craftsmen who lived and worked then.

This began with the craftsman and the training he received. A cabinetmaker started his apprenticeship at age 12 to 14 with a master. For the next 7 years the apprentice was trained, clothed, fed, and housed by the master. All the training was oral. There weren’t any books on how to dovetail or do the other complex joinery and finishing. As a result, each apprentice was sworn to secrecy about what was known as the “ art and mystery ” of the craft. This was done to guard the trade secrets of each shop.

If the apprentice left the shop and ran away, the master would put an advertisement in a newspaper giving the boys name, age, and clothing he was wearing. This is because the master had an investment in training the apprentice. There was also the legal side of it because the apprentice was legally indentured to the master.  On the other hand, when the apprenticeship was completed the young man often received a set of tools and  a new suit of clothes. He could then seek employment in other shops as a journeyman and receive a days pay for a days work.

In time, if a journeyman could save enough capital to build or rent a shop, attract clients, possibly hire a carver or turner, and take on apprentices he was then referred to as a master.

It was only in the more rural areas that one shop did everything such as carving, turning, and inlay. Labor was very specialized at this time. In London during the mid 18th century it took 21 different branches of gunsmiths to produce one pistol ( The Gentlemans Magazine, London, February 1747 ). Cabinetmaking was no different  In the urban area the different branches of the craft set up shops near each other. In Philadelphia an order for a pie crust tea table may have been placed with a cabinet shop. The cabinetmaker had the turning done at turners shop. Then the cabinetmaker dovetailed the legs and post together and it was sent out to the carvers shop to carve the feet, legs, post, and top. When this was done it was back to the cabinet shop to assemble and finish. There are exceptions to this. Duncan Phyfe employed cabinetmakers, carvers, turners, gilders, upholsterers, and inlay makers all in one shop.

The different crafts were organized into companies. This was the same as the guilds found in England and Europe. The carpenters, turners, carvers, cabinetmakers, and others formed these companies to regulate business and set prices. Some of these price books still survive such as “ The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of  Prices, and Design of Cabinet Work “ 1788 and “ The Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia 1786 Rule Book “. These price books were the secrets of the trade. When a member died his next of kin had to return the members copy back to the Company. In 1817 Thomas Jefferson tried to obtain a copy of the Carpenters Rule Book (1786) and was refused.

Knoxville wasn’t much different than the larger urban areas. In 1801, Thomas Hope and four other house carpenters set prices among themselves. These prices were penciled in the margin of what has been called Hope’s journal. The book was in fact a copy of “ The Builders Golden Rule “ by William  Pain, London, 1782. Although Hope has been referred to as an architect, cabinetmaker, and carpenter, all of the prices he wrote into this book margins are for house work, such as the cost of clapboard, doors, windows, stairs, and framing.

Just as Thomas Hope had a copy of William Pain’s book, Anthony Hay, cabinetmaker in Williamsburg Va., owned a first edition of Thomas Chippendale’s “ Director ” 1754. Pattern books were the design sources for the latest fashion used by the crafts. This could be the rococo, Chinese, neo-classical, or Grecian styles that had come into vogue. A cabinetmaker or carpenter could have the most recent one from England in six weeks, which was the time it took to cross the Atlantic by ship.

Today when an antique comes into the shop, I may remove the drawers or take the top off. I’ll run my hand over the surface and feel the shallow scallops left by the jack plane. My eye may see the nicks left by the dovetail saw. It’s almost like the craftsman that made it and I are having a conversation about this piece of furniture. Hundreds of years after making the piece, that cabinetmaker is still sharing part of his life and work with us.


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