The Sticky Question of the Universal Secondary Wood: Pure Gum
This 1940s Colonial Revival reproduction of a mahogany Hepplewhite chair is made entirely of gum.
Early 20th century furniture made in America developed its own unique style, loosely known as Colonial Revival. That “style” was characterized by the resurrection of themes and elements that remind us of those in use in Colonial times, primarily variations of forms found in England and on the Continent over the last three centuries. Those themes included the ponderous weight of Jacobean, the verticality of William and Mary, the graceful elegance of Queen Anne, the Rococo excesses of Chippendale and the self consciousness of Federal.
Colonial Revival assembled those themes and elements in ways that looked like a litter of puppies born to Spot and Blackie—a random mix. But it was just this randomness that created the uniquely American flavor of the furniture made in American factories in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
However, there was another element that was uniquely American about this genre of furniture: the wood from which it was made. At first glance you would probably be inclined to say that the most popular wood of the period was walnut, maybe even oak. Mahogany was certainly popular, and many exotic imports such as zebrawood, Australian walnut and Carpathian elm were also featured. But a close examination of most pieces from that era reveal that the beautiful, richly grained surfaces, the tops and drawer fronts were mostly made of veneers, often laid up in matching patterns.
So what was the rest of the typical cabinet—the veneer underlayment, the legs, rails, stiles and frame—made from? It sure looked like walnut or mahogany, having the same color and finish as the rest of the piece, but somehow it seemed to lack something once the wood itself could be seen through the often dark and opaque finishes.
It turns out that the wood most frequently used in American furniture in the first half of the 20th century was gum, also known as sweet gum, red gum, hazel pine, sap gum, satin walnut and copalm balsam. Its real name is liquidambar styraciflua and it grows to as much as 150 feet in height from Connecticut to central Florida, as far west as Missouri and as far north as southern Illinois. It is also lightly scattered in northern Mexico, Honduras and Belize.
The frame of this elaborately carved 1930s sofa is red gum stained to look like walnut.
According to a report entitled “Furniture Selection and Its Use,” issued in 1931 by the National Committee on Wood Utilization for the U.S. Department of Commerce, nearly three times as much gum was used in furniture production in 1928 as its nearest competitor—oak—450 million board feet to 169 million board feet. In comparison, only 51.5 million feet of walnut and 40 million feet of mahogany were used. The report further states that while the gum tree has been plentiful for centuries, it traditionally was not been harvested for domestic use because of its tendency to split and warp when cured. New lumber drying technology developed in the early years of the 20th century enabled forest products companies to avoid this problem and gum became a primary wood in furniture production in the 1920s. Its use tripled in the 25 years ending in 1928.
Gum has all of the desired traits of a secondary wood: no distinct grain pattern of its own, a plentiful supply—which keeps its price under control—a reasonable strength-to-weight ratio and moderate hardness, yet with good workability. In short, an ideal material for structural uses in furniture. Its natural color is slightly brown with hints of red making it ideally suited for coloring to match mahogany and walnut. Following the introduction of aniline dye in the furniture industry, it became possible to make telling the difference from walnut, mahogany, gum, poplar and birch very difficult.
The skirt, pedestal and legs of this “Duncan Phyfe mahogany” table are made of the universal secondary wood of the first half of the 20th century—red gum.
The furniture industry of the 1920s naturally had its own trade organizations. One of them was the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, based in Memphis, Tenn. It had several subsidiary “service bureaus,” and one of those was the “Gumwood Service bureau,” dedicated to the promotion of the use of gum in manufacturing. It was touted as “THE American furniture wood” by the bureau, which even published a promotional brochure entitled “Beautiful American Gumwood.” Major manufacturers of the period such as Imperial and Mersman proclaimed the use of “selected gum with walnut finish” in their advertisements of the day when describing the structural components of their products.
Gum became almost the universal wood in the early 1900s. It was used in some standard-grade rifle stocks by Winchester. It was used in the Victrola Orthophonic Credenza record player of the 1920s. The Edison Phonograph company introduced an all gum unit in 1919, the “B-19 Chalet,” stained to simulate mahogany without the cost of mahogany. Even musical instruments had some gum. The “jasper shell” is a cylinder used in snare drum manufacturing that was made in the Jasper, Ind. area. Originally, it consisted of two outer layers of maple, light in color and an inner core of dark gum.
The only part of this Depression era “walnut” dining room set that is walnut is the veneer on the table top and the chair splats. The rest of the set is pure gum.
The next time you get the opportunity to examine a “walnut” bedroom set from the 1930s or a “mahogany” dining set from the 1920s, take a good look at how much of it isn’t really the touted wood. Most of it is probably crafted from the ubiquitous gum tree.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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