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The Press Back – The Art of Chair Decoration without Carving

by Fred Taylor (04/19/10).

The “face chair” movement was a prime beneficiary of the press back technology, which allowed for the quick and inexpensive production of a chair with what looked like hand-carved decorations.

The “face chair” movement was a prime beneficiary of the press back technology, which allowed for the quick and inexpensive production of a chair with what looked like hand-carved decorations.

The carving of 17th-century “Sunflower” chests explains a lot about the ins and outs of New England Colonial carving of the time. They highlight the real world priorities of the period and the fact that decorating an otherwise perfectly fine plain chest was a luxury that few could afford to buy or had the time to produce. But since the Sunflower chests all had certain constants—such as panel size, stile design and trim dimensions—it was actually possible for the turner and the joiner and the carver to stockpile basic elements of the chests for use when the demand arose.

While that is not exactly production line work, it is the beginning of an industrial mindset whose roots reached into deeper and firmer ground as the next two centuries rolled by in Colonial/Federal America. The urge to decorate plain surfaces appears to be a universal human trait that appeals to the “art” in all of us no matter how deeply buried.

The replication of effort in difficult tasks in the cabinetmaker’s shop is what allowed large true sets of chairs to be turned out in the 18th century and by the early 19th century, entrepreneurs like Lambert Hitchcock really did produce furniture in an assembly line manner, with each worker performing the same task repetitively on endless lines of chairs. Even the decorations were “by the numbers,” with stencils producing the same cornucopia thousands of times on the crest rails of thousands of chairs.

By the mid 1800s, J. H. Belter had nearly a hundred German woodworkers and carvers in his factory located next to his rooming house in Manhattan, while the Meeks brothers had a new factory close by and even had an outlet in New Orleans. But even with all the labor and all those tools and factories, it was still relatively expensive and time consuming for Belter to turn out a parlor set in “Rosalie Without the Grapes” or for Meeks to order up a five-piece “Stanton Hall” set. But the desire for decoration was still there, and as long as somebody could afford it . . .

By the turn of the 20th century, things had changed both in society and in the factory. Despite some ups and downs, the decades after Civil War were prosperous and America’s population was growing both in numbers and in wealth. And those wealthier citizens were willing to pay for a little decoration in their lives—within reason.

The mail-order catalog phenomenon was in full swing and was the primary furniture distributor of the period, and price was the key. How could Sears or Larkin produce decorative furniture to compete with the intricate carvings of the mid-century? No one wanted to a) pay that much or b) wait that long.

They didn’t have to. In the very late 1800s along came a process that could produce elaborate designs on chair parts for a cost of next to nothing. It even had a lot of people thinking it was hand carved. The process? The steel die stamp. A design with sharp edges was etched into a metal plate. That plate was mounted on a roller and under great pressure was passed over a waiting chair crest rail that had been precut to shape and steam-bent to match the curve on the roller. The result was a perfect impression of the etching that was literally pressed into the wood, giving the effect of a three dimensional carving. Thus began the great era of the “press back” chair in American furniture.

In the simplest case, a rather shallow design was pressed into the waiting crest and, without further ado, was mounted to a chair ready to be finished. That allowed a mail order house like Sears to offer a dining chair in 1902 for 63¢ that had “handsome carving” on the back. Other chairs were enthusiastically—and erroneously—described as having “rich hand carving,” “beautifully turned and carved back,” or simply a “richly carved back.” Maybe the catalog writers didn’t know about “the process.”

Here a few examples of press back chairs, along with a few that are combinations of pressing and hand-chasing, and a few that are not press backs but are from the same period:

The Cheap press back has a shallow pattern that required single pass of the die.

The Cheap press back has a shallow pattern that required single pass of the die.

Cheap: This chair has a shallow pattern that required single pass of the die on the birch crest. This was simply a decorative touch and made no real effort to look hand carved. This would have been a very inexpensive chair at the time.

The Larkin press back a little more depth and texture but still a fairly simple look.

The Larkin press back a little more depth and texture but still a fairly simple look.

Larkin: A design with a little more depth and texture but still a fairly simple look is shown in this Larkin chair that was sold in 1908 for 25¢ and one Larkin certificate or in a set of four for five certificates with no cash.

The Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. press back.

The Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. press back.

HW: The Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. offered this chair around 1900 that showed a good deep design with stiles topped by Victorian era “honey dipper” finials.

Face: Of course the “face chair” movement was a prime beneficiary of the press back technology. Mythological creatures could now be instantly transferred to chair backs without all that tedious carving (see above).

The “creature feature” worked its way into the press back theme book.

The “creature feature” worked its way into the press back theme book.

Dragons: Of course, the other main movement of the period, the “creature feature” worked its way into the press back theme book. These two dragons are about to mix it up.

These traditional winged griffins that have been pressed into service.

These traditional winged griffins that have been pressed into service.

Griffins: The two figures on this back are traditional winged griffins that have been pressed into service.

This Mission style chair was first pressed, then followed by hand chasing that removed background material.

This Mission style chair was first pressed, then followed by hand chasing that removed background material.

Hand chased: The Holy Land scene on an otherwise severely plain Mission style chair was first pressed, then followed by hand chasing that removed background material and left visible tool marks to enhance the notion of hand carving.

This windmill scene may have been pressed, but the main work was indeed hand carved.

This windmill scene may have been pressed, but the main work was indeed hand carved.

Windmill: The outline of these happy cloggers may have been pressed, but the main work was indeed hand carved.

The bottle nose dolphins on this chair are true carvings, although one could assume they were pressed..

The bottle nose dolphins on this chair are true carvings, although one could assume they were pressed..

Not pressed: At first glance this may appear to be a press back candidate, but the bottle nose dolphins are true carvings applied over the quarter sawn veneer on the crest.

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

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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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15 Responses to “The Press Back – The Art of Chair Decoration without Carving”

  1. Hello, Mr. Taylor.

    Thank you for this interesting article. I wanted to say that the technique looks a little like a pressed wood method that I read about in a Charles Dickens article called Odd Pictures. (Look for ‘Charles Dickens’ on my web page in the 19th C. section.)

    At the same time, another technique that Dickens wrote about under that same title was pyrography, and two of the pictures shown in your “Press Back” article look as though they could be burnt wood. The fifth image of the dragons (with the date 07/07/2007) and the seventh image of the Holy Land both look as though they have burnt outlines. Is that the case?

    Also, there were lots of Flemish Art (pyrography) stamped boxes, postcards, etc., done at the turn of the century, and I have yet to see on eBay or anywhere a single metal dye left from that era. Do you know where there are any? Or at least where I should look for them? I would love to see some to see how the process was done.

    Thank you very much.

    Kahtleen M.
    Curator, E-Museum of Pyrographic Art

  2. Nick Ryan says:

    Hi Fred, this must be the same method used for the ‘carving’ on the top of gingerbread clocks by Seth Thomas etc.

    Kind regards, Nick

  3. Kristen Cart says:

    Is there anything special about a rocking chair decorated with the image of the USS Maine? I have seen other memorabilia with this image and I wonder how common it is–I have never seen another pressed back chair like it.

    Kristen

  4. Millie Golden says:

    Fred, another great article. I have started saving your articles to a file so that I can refer back to them. You are a wealth of information! Thank you for sharing with all of us.

  5. J Henderson says:

    Hello. I have a set of 6 chairs which are IDENTICAL to the first photo in this article, with the “face chair” image in them. Is anyone interested in taking them off my hands? Of the 6 chairs, 2 have the original wicker caned seat intact. There is a break in the caning of the other chairs. Thank you.

    • L Sorensen says:

      Interested in your six chairs with the “face chair” image on them. Just wondering where you are located and how much you would want for them?

    • P. Hughes says:

      I just happened on this article of the face chair and the picture and you said you have six of them, I also have six of them in excellent condition all cain perfect, I inerrited them when my family passed, was wondering if you could tell me about this face , what it is,its terribly ugly, but this is the only time I have ever seen another of the ones like I have , and where or who could I talk with to find out their worth?

  6. Michael says:

    Very interesting article.
    Do you know of any pictures of the machines that actually performed this process?

  7. Paul Janulewicz says:

    I refinished a rocking chair 25 years ago with the same image on it. There was no bottom in the seat and I spent several hours carefully removing paint. I wasnt sure if it was caining or leather bottom. I would love to see a picture of the caining so I can complete this restoration to original as possible.
    A couple of years ago I purchased a simular rocking chair from a antique store. The one I had is a sewing chair and the one I purchased is a parlor chair.

    Here is the history I was told on these chairs.
    They are press back rockers from the late 1800′s to early 1900′s.
    From what I was told the image is called “The Man of The North Winds”

    You might find it interesting to look up the fables of The North Wind and The Sun. They are very interesting and fit the image of these chairs.

    I am interested in more of these chairs to add to my collection.

  8. Jenni says:

    Thanks so much for this interesting and informative article! I just bought a rocker from a garage sale that I thought was probably from the early 1900s, but I wasn’t very sure. I knew the “carving” was too perfect to be hand-worked, but it was also obvious by the solid wood seat and other details that it wasn’t from the mid-20th century or beyond. I stumbled upon your Web page while typing in random search terms such as “dragon faces” and “not hand carved” :) I’ll be coming back to read more often. Thanks again for the article and helping me solve my “mystery”

  9. Pam Warden says:

    Hi
    I have an very old chair with a face. It is a man with vines and leaves around him and underneath his face it says, Columbus. If you can tell me anything about it that would be great.
    Thank you,
    Pam

    • Pam Warden says:

      To add to my post above, I see now that there is a sign up fee. I don’t wish to join here, or have the 7 day trial. Please ignore my post about the chair then.
      Thank you,
      Pam

  10. Fred Taylor says:

    Pam – That style chair is usually alled a “face chair.” Figures in the back of a chair were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. There were many German woodworkers in America at the time and some of the figures came from Black Forest mythology. Others came from Greek and Roman mythology. Some of the gargoyles and grotesques were from Gothic legends of the Middle Ages.

    Your chair could also be some sort of Christopher Columbus commemorative. Without a photo it’s hard to tell.

    Fred Taylor

  11. Sherry says:

    Hi, I have one of the Dragon chairs that was given to my husband from his Great Grandmother… Do you have anymore info on this chair? Where was it made? What’s the apx. date if was made?

    Thanks so much.

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