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Building a Reference Library – The Specifics

by Fred Taylor (01/25/11).

Here are some of the books to help you find a specific piece of furniture.

Previous editions of this column (view Part One: The Basics and Part Two: The Period) have dealt with building the collection for an antique furniture library. Those editions dealt with general books on the subject and with books for different periods in history. Now it is time to get down to brass tacks and talk about some books that deal with a specific type of furniture or furniture from a specific manufacturer of region.

Probably the broadest category in this discussion is the ubiquitous “oak” furniture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Books about oak abound and a new one comes out almost every year from some source. Here are only a few that have proven useful over the years.

Encyclopedia of American Oak Furniture,” by Robert and Harriett Swedberg, Krause, 2000. ISBN:0-87341-877-8. Written by the prolific Swedberg’s this is a follow up of their earlier oak book. Organized by function by room of the house, this tour shows, in 1,300 photos, mostly early 20th century items in situ as found and gives the asking price IN THAT LOCATION. Les than $30.

Focusing on slightly earlier oak is Nancy Schiffer’s “The Best of Golden Oak Furniture: With Details and Prices,” Schiffer Books, ISBN: 0-7643-1147-6. This one has 232 color photos in 160 pages and is an excellent reference on higher end oak furniture. Less than $30.

Wicker furniture is a case all by itself without too much literature on the subject but two good ones are “Fine Wicker Furniture: 1870 – 1930,” by Tim Scott and “Antique Wicker: From the Heywood-Wakefield Catalog,” both from Schiffer Books and in the $25 range. Scott’s book gives an overall approach to the subject, including care and restoration tips and features more than 300 photos. The Heywood-Wakefield book presents the company’s catalog from the 1920s when Heywood was the premier manufacturer of commercial and residential wicker and shows 925 examples of the genre.

Furniture from specific manufacturers is frequently hard to track down since most companies do not publish historical records. One of the best books about a specific company once again deals with Heywood-Wakefield but it is not a catalog reprint. “Heywood-Wakefield Modern Furniture – Identification and Value Guide,” by Steve Rouland and Roger Rouland, Collector Books (1995), was written by two experts in the field. This well-written guide covers the history of the company, sorting out the many mergers and acquisitions and then concentrates on Heywood’s most famous line, the “modern” productions from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. If it’s an H-W modern piece, it is pictured in this book and identified by model number and years of production.

One the most comprehensive books about any single manufacturer was written by John Tarrant Kenney, founder of the modern Hitchcock Chair Company, and is simply called “The Hitchcock Chair.” A fishing vacation in the 1940s began a lifelong obsession with Lambert Hitchcock and his early 19th-century chair factory for Kenney. He eventually formed a company and began reproducing the old chairs, as well as modern designs based on old decorative schemes. He sorts out the myriad of confusion surrounding Hitchcock furniture and explains the backward “N” signature found on many Hitchcock pieces. The book was written in 1971 and copies can be hard to come by and are pricey but it is worth the effort.

Sometimes a piece of furniture is better known for who sold it than who made it. Such is the case with Sears. Sears, Roebuck and Co. actually made very few, if any, of the articles they sold but the brand name of “Sears” was attached to most of them. A representative sample of Sears products, including furniture can be seen in the reprint of the catalog in “1902 Edition of the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue,” with an introduction by Cleveland Amory, published by Bounty Books of New York. This book can often be found in major bookstore clearance racks. Another famous distributor of the early 20th century was the Larkin Soap Co. But Larkin actually had a furniture factory in Buffalo and produced much of the furniture it awarded as prizes for the accumulation of premiums earned with purchases of its primary product, soap. Portions of the Larkin catalog from 1901 to 1922 can be seen in “Larkin Oak,” by Marcy and Walt Ayers, 1984. Copies are available from Echo Publishing in Summerdale, Pa.

And sometimes the region or city of origin is more important than either the maker or the distributor. One of the best books in this category is published by the Public Museum of Grand Rapids in the form of “Grand Rapids Furniture – The Story of America’s Furniture City,” by Christopher Carron, curator of the museum. This is original material reflecting exhaustive research into the Grand Rapids furniture industry and providing the history of hundreds of companies in the area. The book is available from the Museum in the $30 range. In the same category is Sharon Darling’s comprehensive “Chicago Furniture – Art, Craft & Industry, 1833-1983,” published by the Chicago Historical Society in 1984, ISBN: 0-393-01818-0. This one can be hard to find and may have to be ordered but contains valuable information about such companies as S. Karpen, Pullman and Tobey.

Two additional major works are recent entries into this field and deserve mention. From Colonial Williamsburg is “Southern Furniture 1680-1830,” a colorful and scholarly work about the origins of and influences on early Southern American furniture by Ron Hurst and Jonathan Prown of the Williamsburg staff, published in 1997. It is available from Amazon in the $50 range. Then there is the granddaddy of them all; the three-volume, 1,388-page epic by the late John Bivins, Jr. and Bradford L. Rauschenberg, “The Furniture of Charleston, 1680-1820.” This reading, while chock full of details and information on the subject matter never seen before, is as heavy as its price, $325. It is available from The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, NC.

Finally, sometimes you just want to know a little bit about a particular cabinetmaker. Whether you need to know details about the obscure John T. Dolan of New York, 1805-1815 or the not so obscure Gustav Stickley, open up “American Cabinetmakers – Marked American Furniture 1640-1940,” by William Ketchum, Crown Publishers, around $45.

Fred Taylor is an 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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