Many people collect and use furniture of all kinds, from the earliest antiques to modern design of the twentieth century. Most furniture that interests us, and that we sell, is more than one hundred fifty years old or more. Some examples are more than two hundred fifty years old
Not many things in our lives are still useful and usable, let alone charming and sometimes beautiful, after two hundred years. That simple fact is one of the reasons many of us enjoy period furniture in particular; it is the domestic equivalent of great classic cars or Paris designer clothing, made entirely by hand, and with natural materials we can never find again.
Understandably, older pieces show signs of use- stains, scars, damage that was repaired years ago, old paint, missing paint, and restored paint, pieces replaced, and sometimes unrestored damage. Some of the items we sell were made as early as 1700 or 1725. Many were made after that but before the Industrial Revolution. Others were made after the Industrial Revolution, produced in small factories using early machines that were beginning to appear in the 1820s and 1830s. Used initially alongside hand methods and tools, the first circular saws appeared, machine made nails would gradually replace wooden pegs and hand made nails produced by a blacksmith; and machine made screws came to replace their hand cut predecessors. Only a few pieces that we offer were made entirely with machine methods or after electricity became available in major cities in the late 1800s.
Anyone who has ever tried to make a bookshelf with boards from a lumberyard can really appreciate how hard even simple forms can be. The fact that the most elegant 18th and 19th century furniture was made by hand, and that those designs are still reproduced today, speaks to one of the highest achievements of an apprenticeship system going back to the Middle Ages. Combined with the fabulous design skills of the people like Chippendale, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and of their French and European counterparts, those traditions are the sources of early American furniture design and construction techniques.
And much of what is known as “country” or “primitive” furniture shows how inspiring the designs were then too. Country craftsman and carpenters of the time would have seen examples or drawings of the latest trendy look from London, Paris, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and did their best to capture the spirit.
Today many people treasure the crafts furniture and sculpture made by modern wood workers and artists, and sold in specialty shops and art galleries throughout the Pacific Northwest. For much the same reason, because older antique furniture was made entirely by hand, from cutting down the trees to slicing and planing the boards, all the way through cutting or turning individual pieces and assembling them, we want to keep as much of the original as possible.
We cannot control was done or what happened to antique pieces before we acquired them, but we try to assure that they are sound. Most have held up to a century or more of wear and should give many more years of good service, a testament to the soundness of the construction techniques.
However some pieces are fragile, and we try to indicate that in our descriptions. A small fragile chair might be best used as a hall decoration rather than a TV lounger. We also try our best to determine if any major parts of a piece have been replaced and to indicate that in our descriptions as well.
Since we value originality, we want to know if a piece is mostly original, a nice but highly repaired piece, or possibly one simply made up out of beautiful old wood from huge old growth trees of the kind that have long since disappeared- mahogany from Honduras, walnut from Virginia or Pennsylvania, now extinct American chestnut or southern white pine.
Over the years there have been vigorous debates among museum curators, collectors, and scholars about whether and how to restore antique furniture. Today the prevalent view in the United States is probably that, unless a piece is to be placed in a museum, repair and restoration of period antiques (as opposed to old or collectable furniture) should be the minimum necessary to make the piece useful and attractive. For a museum, a piece might simply be cleaned and then left for viewing entirely as it is, preserved in controlled conditions of light, temperature, and humidity. Alternatively, it might be painstakingly restored to resemble its original condition, using only techniques and materials that duplicate the ones available at the time it was made. However, most people do not own museum pieces, and they want to be able to live with their antique furniture in some practical way- to use, admire, and enjoy it daily.
Still, even if a piece of furniture is not a museum piece, and is for home use, irreversible steps should be avoided if at all possible. Therefore, in most cases, broken parts must be replaced or repaired; upholstery and internal structure parts must be in good condition or replaced. Sometimes, later paint is removed to reveal an original finish. Lacquer and varnish are sometimes refreshed or replaced. Sometimes, old, original paint is long gone from a piece and we simply leave the natural wood color, mellowed with age.
Of course, it is possible to bleach and sand wood surfaces and otherwise eliminate stains, blemishes, and signs of normal wear; but usually that comes at the expense of character and patina- that look and color of old wood that really cannot be duplicated artificially with a new finish.
Except in very rare cases, we choose to leave the signs of age and use, rather than sacrifice the look and feel that give these pieces their distinctive character and distinguish them from simply being used furniture or remanufactured furniture.
The signs of age and color in old wood, and even the stains and bruises, are a reminder of the hand skills that went into making beautiful and useful objects that have survived many generations. We do not have as much in our modern daily lives that may already have been old in 1895. And unlike some kinds of antiques and collectables, we can actually use our antique furniture every day alongside our modern furnishings. -Mark Epstein
Epstein is a Washington DC based antique dealer specializing in 19th
century furniture, prints, and related artifacts. He maintains a space
in Centralia Square Antique Mall.