You are currently browsing the archive for the Furniture category.


An English [William IV] carved and burled walnut teapoy, circa 1840, octagonal hinged top opening to fitted interior with lidded tea compartments, mixing bowl not present, reeded vasiform pedestal, tripod cabriole legs.

While fads have come and gone over the years, many furniture forms have remained the same: nightstands, chests of drawers, wardrobes, but every now and then there is a form so specialized and so linked to the era in which it was used that it is now virtually alien in the modern age. The teapoy is one such form.

Teapoys came into being in the Georgian era, in the last half of the 1700s, as a tiny portable stand meant to hold an individual cup and saucer, acting almost like the modern folding tray or TV table. With a small circular or octagonal top on a central column with three feet, the table is thought to have drawn its name from “ti-n,” the Hindu word for three, and “pae,” the Persian word for foot, with “ti-n” quickly being transformed into “tea” because tea was what the form was used exclusively for. (The name is now commonly teapoy, but tepoy was also used historically.) Early versions were rather basic and plain in materials, but walnut, satinwood, and, of course, mahogany soon became the woods of choice. The style of the form also evolved, with both the legs and the column slimming down, but the top was traditionally octagonal.

After the Revolutionary War as the economy settled down, tea prices began to drop and tea became much more popular and widely available. In a short period of time, the modest boxes and cannisters that had held tea were too small for the volume of tea being purchased and tea caddies became popular. Tea was still considered precious though and kept under lock and key, because not only could it be stolen but it could also be “diluted” with “smouch,” a term that meant any filler or additives added to tea by crooked merchants – not unlike the way a modern drug dealer might stretch a product with the addition of baking soda or other household powders. Smouch, typically dried leaves from various trees, was most readily detected when added to unblended teas, so unblended tea became costly and, of course, a status symbol. The lady of the house would blend tea in front of the guests, thereby assuring them of the quality of the tea they would be consuming and thereby requiring bigger and bigger tea caddies, which were too bulky to carry in with the tea things on a tray.

Thus, enter the teapoy, which offered a fashionable, efficient way to keep the tea caddy close at hand for blending tea. But because the first teapoys were small stands with no applied, raised trim around the edges, tea caddies were perched on them rather precariously. By 1810, tea caddies and teapoys had united in one form, a true Regency teapoy, a small, elegant, readily portable piece of furniture, a tea caddy on a baluster/pillar base, that could remain at hand at all times. They were only in the finest homes and they would evolve in every possible direction of ornamentation – different shapes, veneers, expensive woods, painted scenes on the interior lids, ormolu mounts and more. (The one pictured above, from the William IV era, shows how they would change.)

Since this time, teapoy has begun to be misapplied to other forms, particularly candlestands and small side tables, sometimes even sewing stands. True early teapoys had octagonal tops, with only a few known circular exceptions. They also lacked the raised rim found on many tables of comparable size. Later teapoys are more easily identified by their compartments, obviously intended for tea. Today, their values can vary widely. Some of the more decorative examples have sarcophagus tops or other stepped designs that make them unsuitable for use as side tables, thus affecting their functionality and collectability, but fine examples can still fetch several thousand dollars.

Brown painted carved wooden spoon rack, possibly Bergen County, New Jersey, 1767, with chip carved heart on the arched crest above nine floral medallions and two slotted tiers for eight spoons flanking an indistinctly inscribed label, incised "1767" on the reverseOne of the side effects of my work is that I often manage to create work for other people, which is the case with this particular discussion – Frisian carving. We will be unraveling our usage of these terms over the coming months, but for now… The Frisians are an ethnic group with Germanic roots, who live today along the coastal regions of the Netherlands and Germany. The spelling confusion between Friesian and Frisian is not helped by the fact that they live around Friesland in the Netherlands and Frisia in Germany (which technically was Frisia in Denmark until the 1860s, but there’s already enough going on here and the various Frisian communities are still rather divided after centuries of being shuffled around among various European confederacies and countries). We will opt for Frisian, as the people this is most associated with in American decorative arts were typically Pennsylvania Germans.

Frisian carving in decorative arts refers to lightly carved decoration on furniture and small decorative objects. The designs are often rife with traditional Germanic symbolism – stags and hunt scenes, lilies, unicorns – as well geometric elements, with a draftsman-like precision to their layout – circles, triangles, and particularly pinwheels or fylfots. The carving is very easily distinguished from the dark wood, heavy-handed opulence of Black Forest carving; it is very clearly delineated but also done with a light hand and is also commonly known as chip carving.

It can be difficult to make firm attributions to Frisian/chip-carved objects, as it was done in both Europe and America. Within America there are several subgroups of the work (for instance, a group of spoon racks that are connected to New Jersey – one is pictured above), but the motifs and the wood choices are the best clues for making attributions. (It is worth noting however that because of extensive trade, as is often the case, mahogany is more difficult to attribute specifically.)

Frisian carving is also difficult to pin down in terms of value. There are many factors at work – from the usual suspects like the condition to the form (it was done on such a wide array of objects, from mirrors to beds to stands to spoon racks) to the age (older is almost always better but Frisian carving continued into the 20th-century when it becomes, technically, less Frisian and more chip-carving and when it is even connected with the objects identified as “tramp art”) to, quite simply, the quality. Small, newer pieces might only fetch a few hundred dollars, but larger and/or older works can easily bring thousands, even ten thousand, at auction.

Furniture: A carved schrank, Zoar, Tuscarawas County, Ohio, mid 19th century, cherry, walnut, and poplar. One-piece [wardrobe],with [molded cornice], canted and carved pilasters, paneled door, and diamond panels below the door. Interior with carved hooks and a shelf.In the 1810s, a group of German religious separatists left Wurttemberg in what is now southwestern Germany, after years of persecution and oppression which included imprisonment and property seizures by the Lutheran Church, with whom they found themselves at odds, the separatists, under the leadership of Joseph Bimeler, decided to flee to the United States.

One can only imagine how uncertain things were for them, a group of nearly 200 native Germans, when they arrived in Philadelphia as immigrants in dire financial straits, but they quickly found “Friends” in the Society of Friends, Philadelphia’s large Quaker population and after gaining some stability, the separatists decided to relocate to eastern Ohio, where they purchased 5,500 acres in Tuscarawas County. They would name their community Zoar from the biblical story of Lot, who fled to Zoar from Sodom in Genesis, and they would become known as Zoarites.

The first few years of the settlement were very rough, so in the spring of 1819, the residents formalized what had essentially become a commune (not their initial intent) by creating the Society of Separatists of Zoar and turning all property over to the Society. Like many early communes and utopian communities, they were very democratic and women were permitted to sign, to hold office and to vote.

Zoarites would eventually be self-reliant and prosperous. In addition to the community’s agricultural production, they would also operate mills and foundries, manufacture textiles and wagons, and run a variety of stores, supplying the community’s needs and selling any surplus goods. They would also build a portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which would bring profits from the canal boats they owned as well as from the increased traffic in the vicinity of Zoar.

By the second half of the 19th century, communal spirit in Zoar began to decline and in 1898, the community voted to dissolve the society and divide up the property. Zoar, however, continues to exist as a village and today several of the society’s original buildings have been restored and gathered into an historic site for visitors.

A number of artifacts of the early settlement still survive, primarily furniture, but other items like coverlets and earthenware pottery occasionally turn up as well. (Furniture pieces are frequently seen with diamond panels, fairly typical of Midwestern Germanic furniture, but especially so of Zoar furniture.) Although their popularity is rather regional, Zoar-related objects are quite sought after. Provenance often makes firm attributions, but as there were a number of Germanic separatist communities throughout the Midwest, particularly in Ohio and Indiana, all heavily influenced and deeply rooted in Germanic craft traditions, further scholarship is necessary to draw clearer distinctions between the communities’ wares.

Furniture: Chest; Sala (John), Red & Black Paint, Floral Stenciling, Scrolled Backsplash, 6 Drawers, Turned Legs.One of the challenges with studying furniture is compiling a large enough body of work to draw conclusions and make comparisons, so it is little wonder that when a group of interesting, connected objects is identified, academic and financial interest are both often intense. Such is the case with the furniture known as “Soap Hollow.”

Soap Hollow, a hollow in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, allegedly so named because of the brown soft soap manufactured there, was also home to a group of Mennonite cabinetmakers who worked throughout the 19th century, roughly from 1830 to 1890, with a significant uptick around 1850 in the number of pieces extant. There was a core group of at least eight men who constructed the furniture, using similar forms and configurations, construction and decoration techniques.

The decoration is what tends to grab the eye, as the majority of Soap Hollow pieces were decorated with vibrant paint and embellished with stenciling, often in dramatic color combinations like dark red and black. Stencils ranged from the more ordinary floral and geometric motifs to rarer (and thus more desirable) eagles, horses, hearts, and bowls or baskets of fruit. There are also stencil patterns that still survive, but with designs that have not yet been found on Soap Hollow pieces. Stenciling was often done in gilt and the initials of the owner and the date were also often stenciled on the pieces. In the last decade or so of production, some of the pieces began to have decoupage-style decoration, often in the form of flowers under layers of clear varnish. A variety of forms, from boxes and cradles to beds and cupboards, are known to have been produced in Soap Hollow, but the most common forms are the blanket chest and the chest of drawers.

Part of what makes Soap Hollow furniture so intriguing to study is that there were other people outside the community making furniture in the same Germanic tradition (particularly in regards to the paint choices and the stenciling), many of whom moved on throughout the Midwest (taking their stencils with them, of course), settling in other heavily Germanic areas throughout Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, even onto the plains of Kansas. The internet has allowed researchers to make huge inroads with study, identifying other groups of related furniture, conducting and sharing genealogy research, and comparing images to make connections.

With so many objects available, Soap Hollow material has accumulated quite a following in the marketplace. Small pieces such as hanging boxes or sewing caddies can often be had for several hundred dollars, but the most desirable Soap Hollow pieces are those that are classic forms for the region (typically blanket chests and chest of drawers), that are marked with the traditional stenciled maker’s mark, and that have bright, clean paint with exuberant decoration. These pieces routinely bring several thousand dollars and have been known to fetch more than $25,000, with a few outliers bringing several times that amount.

A Tennessee Sheraton tiger maple bedstead, highly figured maple with poplar secondary, head and footboards with pitched pediments and finely turned posts; together with a walnut and cherry trundle bedWhen many people see trundle beds, they think of Little House in the Big Woods. They may also think of impoverished people, frontier living, too many people and not enough room. In reality, trundle beds have been around far longer and have a very different tradition in history.

But first, to define them: trundle beds (also sometimes called truckle beds) derive their name from little wheels or casters that allowed them to be “trundled” out of the way. (The word has its roots in an Old English word, trendan, which means to revolve.) They’re simply smaller, lower beds that can be pushed or “trundled” under the larger, main bed, leaving space free during the day or during longer periods when an additional bed isn’t required.

While as mentioned some of the strongest associations tend to be with the 19th century and frontier life, a transition they may have gradually made during their use in America, but in Europe, trundle beds were actually in use as early as the 1600s and were actually in use in more prosperous homes, where they were occupied by servants. For example, Samuel Pepys, he of the exhaustive diaries, occasionally mentions that their servant slept in their room on a trundle bed. The European tradition of a trundle bed is rooted in the homes of those wealthy enough to have personal servants – maids and valets – who slept at hand during the night, in case the fire needed fed, the chamber pot needed emptied, etc. Trundle beds were tucked away and easily hidden in the heavy drapes and bed curtains on the beds of the prosperous.

They were occasionally used that way in wealthy homes in America too, and it isn’t hard to imagine an invalid or a woman late in pregnancy desiring to have a servant close at hand during the night, but they also quickly found use in smaller homes. There they were typically rope beds with corn or straw mattresses and for a time, they enjoyed a warm sort of nostalgia, a sense of home and a close and loving family, but as families began to prosper and the middle class emerged, houses grew larger, trundle beds were required less frequently, and a stigma even began to attach to them in some ways.

As for their value at auction, well, beds of any sort can be a hard sell. You have to be particularly committed to making accommodations for old rails – replacement rails and a platform, mattress overhanging the sides of the frame, etc., and that’s only truer for beds that are so low to the ground. However, when they are paired with another bed of strong value, when they are part of a prestigious collection, and/or when they have old paint with a good, pleasing color, then they can still bring several hundred dollars at auction.

« Older entries