Among collectors in America there is an ever-increasing interest in
“things American.” One of the most attractive fields in which one’s
hobby may browse is that of old furniture. Nearly every one appreciates
the early furniture of good design and cares to know something of its
history. America, both in colonial times and in the period following the
Declaration of Independence, produced pieces of many sorts. Some of it
was excellent, most of it was good, and a little of it was wholly of an
indifferent quality. As table-makers the early American craftsmen
exhibited much skill, and such examples of their work as are to be met
with cannot fail to attract the attention of the alert collector who,
having a house of his own, knows that by some mysterious providence, no
matter how small that house may be, there will always seem to be room in
it and need in it for “just one more table,” if the table is a “find”
and of interest as an American antique of genuine authenticity.
With tables, as well as with other pieces of furniture, the early
American craftsmen who produced the finer examples did not allow
themselves any decided departure from European models that were
sufficiently numerous with the American furniture-makers by the close of
the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth.
Naturally, much furniture from England came into the colonies throughout
the period of settlement and development, followed by many pieces of
French design and manufacture.
If we turn now to English reflections in American work we shall find
comparisons of decided interest. There is often little or nothing to
distinguish early American pieces from their English prototypes.
However, there was no “slacking,” in quality of material, workmanship,
of finish in American furniture. The colonial cabinet-makers were
thorough and conscientious, although not always “artistic,” perhaps.
Certainly these craftsmen had at their command the finest woods–maple,
pine, walnut, birch, chestnut, and the ships brought in quantities of
mahogany. Extant examples of this early craftsmanship show at once the
intrinsic merit of stanch construction and virile line that makes them
so much sought by collectors. Their sincerity of design, while not
always accompanied by the refinements of striking grace, compels our
attention and respect.
Previous to 1776 we must expect American native furniture to run
parallel in style (with natural lagging tendencies, of course) to the
English periods with which they were contemporary. In earliest colonial
times, times when voyages were few and far between, large shipments of
furniture were not to be considered. As the wealth of the individual
colonists increased, luxuries came to hold a place in trade which they
could not have held at an earlier day in the New World. With the advent,
too, of colonial officials, fat of purse, sent over by the mother
country, came articles to enhance as well as to continue their comfort.
One could be more contented with an easy-chair than without, and little
by little the rude bench furniture of the Pilgrims was locally developed
(reverting to English patterns) into a more attractive and acceptable
sort of furniture, or was augmented by importations. At the same time
this increased demand for cabinet-making invited English craftsmen to
seek their fortunes in the New World, and before long a very respectable
home industry, both in the North and in the South, was making its
Fortunately New England thrift (or perhaps it was conservatism) has
preserved to us many pieces of this early American furniture, some of it
dating back to the time of King James II. These New England Jacobean
pieces follow simple lines in general, with here and there a piece of
ornate type. In the reign of William and Mary and that of Anne a rapidly
increasing number of English craftsmen migrated to the American
Colonies, where they helped to perpetuate the styles of this period. It
is not at all uncommon to meet with very fine examples of the Queen Anne
period which were contemporaneously produced by American craftsmen; in
fact, some of the New England cabinet-makers became so proficient that
the products of their shops rivaled the output of British makers both in
staunchness of construction and accuracy of contour. The
well-proportioned cabriole legs of many pieces of this description
extant–the generic term for furniture with a “knee,” derived from the
French _cabriole_ (goat-leap)–are as well designed as any of the
examples then being produced in the mother country by the skilled
English cabinet-makers. Naturally, the local colonial production of
Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton styles was supported by the
affluence to which the colonies attained. During the troubles of the
Revolution the importation of mahogany by the colonies was diverted by
Great Britain. Substitutes, for the time–and this began to mark a
decline, with fluctuations in the materials used–had to be found, such
as that of the sweetgum tree, _Liquidambar Styraciflua_, which in
appearance and general character is very similar to mahogany, its
distinguishing features being a slightly lighter color and grain.
The Dutch influence seems less to have entered the traditions of
American furniture than that of England or of France. A fair amount of
furniture was imported by the Dutch of New Amsterdam from Holland, and
numerous authentic pieces of this Dutch furniture have come down to us;
such, for instance, as the gate-leg table which is preserved in the
Manor House at Croton-on-Hudson. But local cabinet-makers soon came to
blend features of the English styles with those of the Dutch designers
and finally purely English styles superseded the others.
Still another local division of colonial furniture was that introduced
by those settlers known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. This type of “Dutch”
must not be confounded with the Dutch of New Amsterdam. Coming to
Pennsylvania, these immigrants brought with them their gaily painted
peasant furniture, and in the early days of the colony they produced
much of that sort for their own use. Hence their furniture cannot be
said to have been a product designed for the market. Examples of it did
not stray far from the locality of their production, save in those
instances where the settlers emigrated to other parts of the country.
Even then it appears to have exerted little or no influence outside
Pennsylvania territory. Stiff, conventional flowers and fruits, birds,
and decorative bands characterize the decorations. Pieces of this sort
are still to be found in central and southeastern Pennsylvania, although
the majority of such decorated wood antiques extant consist of bridal
chests and small boxes.
In the North much of the early furniture, especially tables, was made of
maple, pine and birch. Walnut, of course, was a great favorite,
particularly with the earlier cabinet-makers of Pennsylvania, where
superb slabs of beautiful black walnut were milled from the wonderful
old trees, that so soon disappeared through this demand.
We must not be surprised to find so little early furniture of the South,
for, despite the wealth and culture of Virginia, the Carolinas, and
Maryland in colonial times, these Southern colonists were equally
fashionable, and discarded the old for the new before the dawn of the
nineteenth century, earlier than did the Northerners. A search of the
southern states will scarcely yield one piece of Jacobean design. A hunt
for original William-and-Mary will be equally fruitless. But in the
style of Queen Anne, many excellent pieces will be found.
No story of American furniture, no matter how brief, can be written
without mentioning the name of Duncan Phyfe, the New York cabinet-maker
whose artistic products justly won him the sobriquet of “The American
The period between 1795 and 1830 was marked by a persistent disinterest
in all “things English,” and an ardent admiration for all “things
French,” and this prejudice showed itself in the furniture. American
cabinet-makers adapted these French designs according to their lights,
and the result was not always unsuccessful. At the very end of its
influence the work sank to a low level of artistic merit. Before that
time it had known the apex of artistic line in the works of Phyfe, and
if we are to judge American Empire, it were better to use the high
standards set by his famous productions.
The tables of this period were usually made with square ends, the
dining-tables being of the extension type having drop leaves and other
leaves which could be inserted on pedestal tables. At this time centre-tables came into
vogue. These were ordinarily circular in shape and usually rested on
ornate pedestals rising from a plinth supported by winged claw feet.
Some of these tables were rectangular and some had double tops that
folded out or could be turned up against the wall. The “sofa tables” of
Phyfe’s design were oblong and had narrow drop leaves at both sides, the
ends supported by the _Lyre_ motif.
One afternoon of a day late in autumn we were having tea in Camberwell.
The home of our English friends was a house redolent with memories. The
Brownings, Carlyle, and many others had in days gone by gathered beneath
the hospitable roof. It was one of those houses whose exterior gave hint
of an interesting history. Not all interesting houses do that. This one
particularly did, so much so that it lent much of its fascination (or
appeared to lend it) to its neighbors.
Perhaps we were in the mood for thinking so, for had we not dropped in
to a tea at another wonderful house a few steps away but the day before?
And what a house that had been! What a host!
I think all the treasures of the earth must have been gathered there to
commemorate the yesterdays of beautiful things, of interesting
personalities. There was the actual chair in which George Eliot sat when
writing “Romola”; I had sat in it drinking tea! A plate of delectable
biscuits was at my right–on Carlyle’s table! If I had been
ill-mannered enough to devour all the biscuits, I am sure that plate
would have revealed itself as equally delectable Sèvres; I guess as much
from its edge. What an afternoon that had been! Charles Lamb’s bookcase!
The Persian lacquered mirror that had belonged to Rossetti!
“And did you know,” said my companion, “that our host is the original of
Walter Pater’s ‘Marius the Epicurean,’ his best friend?” It was then
that I gasped forth something about a Mahomet in Mecca. “You must
remember,” said the other indulgently, “that you are in London.”
And here we stood, this other afternoon, on the threshold of another
“Tea and antiquity seem to go amazingly well together,” said our host of
this second day, “but our friend Marius has probably shown you that.
Still, his hobbies are many. Ours are few. If we have not ridden in
every nook and corner of the world, we have ridden furiously in one
With curiosity piqued we followed to the library. “Arthur!” warned our
hostess, as the master of the house paused before the glass-encased
shelves to the right of a tapestry-hung doorway.
“No,” he laughed, “I’m not going to–yet! You see, every book on those
shelves has to do with tea, old tea, new tea, good tea, poor tea.
Everything any one has ever known and printed about tea is there. You
will find the first edition of Pepys’s Diary, in which that
indefatigable chronicler remarks ‘I did send for a cup of tee (a Chinese
drink), of which I never had drunk before.’ Then there is the rare first
edition of Philippe Sylvestre Dufour’s ‘Manner of Making Coffee, Tea and
Chocolate,’ a quaint little volume printed in 1685, and just there”–our
host pointed through the glass–“is Simon Paulli’s ‘Commentarius’ of
“Arthur,” laughed our hostess, “remember the fate of Carleton and Lord
North in forcing tea down the throat of America, while Britannia wept!”
“I meant to go straight ahead!” our host replied with affected meekness,
holding back the tapestry to admit us into the very sanctum of this
entertaining collector’s worshiping.
The large room, despite its generous dimensions, was cozy. Although
filled almost to overflowing with rare bits of china, prints, brasses,
pewter–in fact, with a wealth of objects that would delight the heart
of any collector–there was order in it all. One did not tumble over a
Turkey-red tea-cozy or mistake it for a hassock. Nor did one have to
compress elbow to side to keep from precipitating precious tea-cups to
the floor underfoot. In this instance a remarkable collection of
antiques and curios furnished a whole room.
“I cannot vie with Marius in offering you the throne of George Eliot,”
said our host, “but here is a very comfortable arrangement once occupied
by Queen Anne.”
“Yes,” commented our hostess; “Arthur went threadbare to have it,
because Alexander Pope happened to have written:
Here, thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take,–and sometimes tea.
In fact, I once arrived just in time to prevent him from buying Leigh
Hunt’s spectacles just because–what was it Leigh Hunt said of tea,
Arthur? I never can remember.”
“‘Oh, heavens! to sip that most exquisite cup of delight was bliss
almost too great for earth; a thousand years of rapture all concentrated
into the space of a minute, as if the joy of all the world had been
skimmed for my peculiar drinking, I should rather say imbibing, for to
have swallowed that legend like an ordinary beverage without tasting
every drop would have been a sacrilege.’”
“No wonder you were keen for the spectacles!” I cried.
“But I’ve never heard of Leigh Hunt’s spectacles! I don’t believe he
ever wore them. You have to make allowance for the attitude my better
half holds toward tea!”
“No, my dear,” our hostess replied sweetly, “you know I love these
things as much as you do.” It was true.
Now, while we did not talk tea throughout all our little visit, we did
eagerly examine the old tea-furniture. There was Delft, pottery, and
porcelain of all sorts, marvelous tea-caddies, a collection of prints
and caricatures of the Boston Tea Party.
“There were other tea-parties over there in America,” our host
explained; “you neglect them terribly! There was the ‘Tea-party’ of
Philadelphia in 1773, the ‘Tea-party’ of Edenton in 1774 and the same
year the ‘Tea-parties’ of Cumberland County and of Greenwich, New
Jersey. I have them all in the library!”
We saw the books before coming away. Not the least interesting was
Chippendale’s “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers’ Director,” issued in
London in 1762, with its designs for tea-tables and tea-chests, and the
Hepplewhite book of 1787. Dr. Samuel Johnson was rated a prodigious
tea-drinker in his day, “beyond all precedent.” We did not compete with
his record, nor yet with that of Bishop Burnet, who thought nothing of
sixteen cups of a morning, but we did not find our tea taste stinted,
that delightful afternoon at Camberwell.
Venus her myrtle, Phœbus has her Bays
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
We found Waller’s lines coming to mind many times afterward, when we had
come to discover them in a dusty tome of 1662 which we found for a penny
in a book-stall and added it to tea-ana! And what response to the memory
of Camberwell adventures was evoked when, home again in our own country,
we chanced upon Thomas’s “Massachusetts Spy” and read therein that
touching farewell to tea!
Farewell, the teaboard with its equipage
Of cups and saucers, cream bucket and sugar tongs,
The pretty tea-chest also lately stored
With Hyson, Congo and best Double Fine.
We began then with enthusiasm to read up on tea. It behooved us to begin
with the “tea-party” episodes our host in Camberwell had hinted at as
neglected by our histories. For one thing, there were the autographs to
be sought of many of the revolutionary participants. We found a book on
the subject, long since out of print, and many a hint was contained
therein. This was “Tea Leaves” by Francis S. Drake, “Being a collection
of letters and documents relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American
Colonies in the year 1773, by the East India Tea Company.” There we
found many portraits, facsimile signatures, etc. It is a book worth
looking for. Our copy cost us but two dollars. On a fly-leaf some
one–not the poet himself, alas!–had copied these lines of Oliver
Wendell Holmes’s “A Ballad of the Boston Tea Party”:
No! never such a draught was poured
Since Hebe served with nectar
The bright Olympians and their lord
Her over-kind protector;
Since Father Noah squeezed the grape
And took to such behaving,
As would have shamed our grandsire ape,
Before the days of shaving;
No, ne’er was mingled such a draught,
In palace, hall or arbor
As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed
That night in Boston Harbor!
And how completely the old rancor of it is gone in these days when our
hearts beat in unison with the hearts of our British cousins! How
different are our tea-parties to-day, American and Britisher, brother
When we began collecting tea things, we did not get _everything_ we
wanted! One of the tantalizing treasures beyond our reach was the
poetical effusion of Mr. Nahum Tate, who lived from 1652 to 1715 and
celebrated the beginning of the eighteenth century with “Panacea, a poem
upon tea, with a discourse on its Sov’rain virtues; and directions in
the use of it for health.” A greedy Mæcenas outbid us at the book
auction where we thought only ourselves had discovered or could possibly
wish to acquire it! With Dr. John Coakley Lettson’s “The Natural History
of the Tea-Tree,” printed in London in 1799, we were more fortunate.
Likewise Mr. T. Short’s “A Dissertation upon Tea, Explaining Its Nature
and Properties, Showing from Philosophical Principles, the Various
Effects It Has on Different Constitutions; Also a Discourse on Sage and
Water,” produced in 1730, was ours for the expenditure of ten shillings,
a rare piece of fortune coming to our door through the good graces of a
Birmingham book-seller’s catalogue. I fancy good Queen Anne set the pace
to second place for sage and water! We are still on the lookout for the
“Treatise on the Inherent Qualities of the Tea-Herb,” by “A Gentleman
of Cambridge,” whose scholarly effusion came from a London press in
In the course of our adventures at home we found that tea-collectors
were more numerous than we should have dreamed them to be, perhaps
because the subject embraced collecting in almost every
field–furniture, old silver, china and pottery, pewter, brasses, books,
prints, and what not; to say nothing of collectors of Oriental tea
things, as, for instance, the lady who has seven hundred and thirty-two
interesting Japanese tea-pots, the equally interesting lady who has a
collection consisting of as fine as possible a tea-cup of every sort of
porcelain and ware of which tea-cups have been fabricated since the
memorable days following the presentation of two pounds of tea to King
Charles II by the East India Company. Another collector has gotten
together a great number of fine Japanese color-prints, the subjects of
which have to do with the tea ceremony, and yet another gentleman “goes
in” for the Cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) pottery of Japan. Probably the most
interesting collection of tea-caddies in America is that owned by Mr.
Frederick H. Howell of New York. Tea-caddies offer to the collector an
entertaining hobby, for although they are by no means common, they are
still to be “discovered” in many of those nooks that long since have,
perhaps, given up other collectable things. I remember once dwelling
with enthusiasm on the pleasures of collecting tea things.
“I have a little hobby along that line myself,” remarked one of the
“Don’t you have to be careful?” was the question the man next to him
could not refrain from putting.
But perhaps our friends are not always as sympathetic with the
collector’s pursuits or as courteously attentive, and there is always a
time to stop before one becomes a bore!