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The People Who Inspired the Names of Antique Furniture Pieces

by Fred Taylor (07/14/09).

In our modern culture, which embraces a slipshod approach to the English language, we have a habit of taking proper names and turning them into generic, non-capitalized descriptive words for an entire class of objects or products. The one that comes immediately to mind is “Kleenex.” That is a proprietary brand name of facial tissue belonging to a major corporation known as Kimberly-Clark (both of whom, no doubt, at one time were real people.) But in a pinch, when you need a product like this, do you question whether it is Kleenex brand or do you just need a kleenex—with a small k? Also, most of us who have a few smiles lines around our eyes are just as likely to say we need some “clorox” with a small c when we mean household bleach, never mind the proper brand name on the label.

The same kind of loose language approach has developed in the language of antique furniture. We have come to use proper names to describe a class or type of furniture and the use of these names have become so commonplace that sometimes the real people behind the generic names no longer exist. But I’m not talking about generally descriptive names that denote a large class or style of furniture, like Georgian or even George III. The Louis XV and Victorian labels fall in that same category. Even Chippendale and Eastlake fit here, but all these terms relate to a particular period or stylistic element.

I am referring to that select group of people for whom a very specific form of furniture has been named and the appellation has become so useful as to be generic. When you use the term no further explanation is necessary. Here are some examples of some generic uses of the names of real people.

Murphy Bed: In today’s market, almost any folding bed is called a “Murphy bed.” It is the Kleenex of beds. However, most folding beds are not Murphy beds at all. Murphy patented his first bed in 1900. Folding cabinet beds were very popular in the last quarter of the 19th century, well before Murphy was old enough to invent things.

This is a folding cabinet bed, not a Murphy bed.

This is a folding cabinet bed, not a Murphy bed.

Gov. Winthrop Desk: The story goes that the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, real man named John Winthrop, had a desk like this. Winthrop was born in England in 1588 and died in the Colony in 1649. This was at least 50 years before the drop front desk appeared in England and about 100 years before Thomas Chippendale gave it the famous form that commonly bears the governor’s name. In other words, Gov. Winthrop did not have a desk like this. So who is responsible for the name given to the form of the drop front desk? The Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston has that honor. The company introduced a new model of the desk in 1924 and called it the “Gov. Winthrop,” a clever play on words that has polluted the trade vocabulary for more than 80 years.

The real name for this form is not “Gov. Winthrop.” It is called a bookcase/secretary.

The real name for this form is not “Gov. Winthrop.” It is called a bookcase/secretary.

Breuer (not Brewer) Chair: This is the ubiquitous, bent chrome chair with separate seat and back, usually caned in modern pressed cane or “Viennese weaving,” as Marcel Breuer, the designer called it. Breuer was born in Hungary in 1902 and became an important part of the German Bauhaus school of design in the 1920s, where he helped shift the focus from “Arts & Crafts” to “Arts & Technology.” After stops in Paris and London, Breuer came to America in 1937, where his architectural skill was in the forefront for many years. The most reproduced of his works is the bent chrome chair, design #B32, but his most famous chair is the “Wassily” chair, #B3.

Beau Brummel: This a common name given to a form of dressing table made popular in late 18th century France when men paid as much or more attention to their dress and make up as women did. The form was actually known as a “poudreuse” meaning “powder” in French, or, in French slang, “duster of the man,” referring to the generous use of face powder in make up. It was a very rare example of the combination of an attached mirror and wooden case in the 18th century. Fixed mirrors were not usually a part of the dressing table until the early 19th century. The popularization of the poudreuse predated the heyday of the celebrated English dandy, George Bryan Brummel, 1778-1840, by several decades, but his name became associated with the form merely because of his notoriety.

This is a French poudreuse, commonly called a “Beau Brummel.”

This is a French poudreuse, commonly called a “Beau Brummel.”

Pembroke Table: The true origin of this form of drop leaf table is rather vague, but most people conveniently attribute it to the Countess of Pembroke, who reportedly ordered the first one in the 1750s or 1760s. Who actually designed it is up for further discussion, but Thomas Sheraton was so impressed he called it the universal table and Chippendale introduced one of the first designs with a drawer in 1766. It has been continuously produced for over 250 years and no matter what the style it is always called a “Pembroke.”

Sutherland Table: This last example is a variation of the Pembroke table. It has a flat middle section so narrow as to be unusable as a table until one or both of its deep drop leaves are opened. It was introduced in 1850, almost exactly100 years after the Pembroke form came to light and, interestingly enough, this form of table was named after Harriet Sutherland, who just coincidentally happened to be the Duchess of Pembroke at the time.

A Sutherland table with a very narrow top is also sometimes called a “tuckaway” table.

A Sutherland table with a very narrow top is also sometimes called a “tuckaway” table.

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Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address.

For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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3 Responses to “The People Who Inspired the Names of Antique Furniture Pieces”

  1. Beth says:

    I’m trying to find out what to call my husband’s antique chest, which has 2 large drawers below, and a 2-door cabinet with 3 shelves above. A friend with something similar says she was told it was a “Lincoln press”. I can’t find this term anywhere else. Any ideas? I can send a picture.

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Beth – What you describe is called a “chifforette.” The term “chifforette” is based on the French word “chiffonier” used as a name for a chest of drawers. It actually means “rags.” A side by side combination chest and closet is called a “chifferobe”, a combination of chiffonier and wardrobe. A combination with the doors above the drawers is called a”chifforette” and was very popular beginning in the Depression era of the 1930s and continues to be popular today. You can see chifforettes on pages 77, 87 and 91 of “Furniture of the Depression Era” by Swedberg, Collector Books. The book defines a chifforette as ” A bedroom unit with one or two drawers at the base and two doors above. Behind the doors are sliding trays for storing personal possessions.”

      Here is part of bedroom set where the cabinet is incorrectly called a chifforobe. It is a chifforette.
      http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/1528224

      Best Regards,

      Fred Taylor
      Worthologist
      http://www.furnituredetective.com
      info@furnituredetective.com

  2. bob klein says:

    Beth,
    I believe your friend, although very well meaning has confused her terminology. What she is trying to say is either ‘linen press’ or jackson press’. Neither is likely to be accurate for what you describe. I will guess that the item you refer to is the height of an average chest of drawers although the configuration and form is a bit different?? Can yyst a picture here? Without a picture it would be near impossible to accurately and confidently answer your question. What it souldn like is what was referred to in teh 1920s as a gentlemans chest but again and with respect, without a picture no one can be sure.

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