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Furniture Devolved: Pieces that have Out-Lived their Usefulness

by Fred Taylor (02/14/11).

A little more than five years ago I wrote about certain types of furniture forms that had evolved in response to social needs rather than physical comfort considerations or stylistic demands. Included in that list of new ideas from various periods were the tea caddy or teapoy that were built in response to England’s 17th- and 18th-century obsession with tea; the tall tea tables that accompanied that little quirk of character; early 20th-century smoking stands that catered to the American obsession with tobacco, and the Priscilla, the dainty little sewing cabinet that helped occupy the hands of the Depression-era while mending or making clothing.

Now it’s time to recall at least a partial list of those things that at one time were an important part of our collective lives (or those of our ancestors anyway) but have now receded from common use due to changing social standards, including the teapoy and the smoking stand. Most are probably familiar but one or two may not be.

The tea caddy, which began in the early 18th century as simple wooden boxes expanded in ornamentation and complexity over the next nearly 200 years, eventually evolved into the teapoy—a self-contained, decorated stand with a closed compartment that became the standard for storing and serving tea in the early 19th century. Teapoys often reflected the highest art of the craftsman of the day and employed exotic materials like rosewood for an even more dramatic effect. While teapoys are no doubt still in use today in some parts of the world, they are not quite as important as they once were.

Another missing part from that period of history is the fire screen. These (usually) rectangular screens were mounted on a pole with a height adjustment to suit the consumer. The purpose was to shield the face from the direct heat of the open fireplace, often the only source of heat and light in older homes. But why the need to shield the face? Face make up of the period, for both men and women, was made primarily of wax and the direct heat form the fire would literally make the makeup melt. We don’t normally use the open hearth as the primary source of heat today and our makeup is not made primarily of wax. Thus, the exit of the fire screen.

Here are some other quaint pieces of former usefulness that are now MIA:

A smoker.

Smoker: Smoking stands were developed prior to World War I as the one-stop spot for the smoker of the house, with all necessary accessories, including cigar scissors, humidor and removable ashtray in one handy stand positioned by the favorite chair. The heyday of the “smoker” was during the Great Depression era of the 1930s, when manufacturers turned to “novelty” furniture items in an effort to produce a product that was affordable to the average family. Like teapoys before them, all of the manufacturing ledgerdemain of the period was brought to bear on this small product including printed finishes, fake veneer, exotic (or seemingly exotic) woods and creative decorations that sought to give the humble smoker some “value.” While the genre lasted well into the 1950s, by the 1970s the “smoker” was a relic of the past for everyday use.

A Gossip Bench.

Gossip Bench: One of the forms devised in response to modern technology was the “gossip bench.” By the 1910s, the telephone was busily insinuating itself into the American household but there was no place to put the heavy, bulky and—frankly—less-than-attractive black candlestick telephone of the period. The combination telephone/telephone book shelf and seating provided another one stop solution just like the smoker. Manufacturers like Cushman of Vermont used the opportunity to create one of a kind pieces like the “Betumal” (“beat ’em all”) model that had a hinged stool that folded under the table when not in use. Other, more conventional manufacturers merely incorporated current styles, primarily Colonial Revival, into the concept to produce traditional looking seating with a telephone space. As the telephone became lighter and more attractive in the 1960s the need for the separate space dwindled and the form disappeared.

A Priscilla.

Priscilla: Another 20th-century non-survivor is the “Priscilla,” a utilitarian sewing stand that appeared in the early 1920s, apparently named for the treadle type sewing machine of the period and its accompanying magazine “Modern Priscilla.” It was originally offered as a low-cost replacement of the more elaborate Martha Washington sewing cabinets of the period and eventually became an art form to itself in the 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, the lightweight little box with the hinged lid was gone. (Swedberg photo)

A Larkin Cabinet.

Larkin Cabinet: Music was an important part of the late-Victorian household and females, especially, were strongly encouraged to play an instrument at home for the family’s entertainment, although only men preformed in public. Pump organs of the period were readily available and moderately priced—as little as $22 in the 1902 Sears catalog—so many homes were musically enabled. But what to do with those pesky sheets of music that blew around the room on a breezy day? Put them in a sheet music cabinet, of course. Sheet music cabinets were a common sight in most parlors around the turn of the 20th century but we seldom see them today because the emphasis has shifted from home music accomplishment to home music as entertainment, and we don’t get it from sheet music. This sheet music cabinet was given as a premium by Larkin around 1917.

A Parlor Pig.

Parlor Pig: One of my favorite forms of extinct animals, other than certain types of dinosaurs and the Neanderthal race, is the parlor pig. You may not know it by that name but the form is probably familiar. It is a footrest from the second half of the nineteenth century using a large diameter circular post as the footrest, supported on four stubby legs, giving it the appearance of a pig. This type footrest was supposed to be good for the relief of gout symptoms, a disease of the kidney that often manifests itself as inflammation in the heels of its victims. The heel pain made it difficult to use a standard footrest with the heel propped up. The parlor pig—or gout stool—allowed the patient to rest his heel on the other side of the pig, placing the weight of the back of the ankle or lower leg.

A Wig Stand.

Wig Stand: In the 18th century, a proper gentleman had to be seen in public in a proper wig. This combination wash stand and wig stand was the perfect tool to help the modern gentleman start his day. This stand, circa 1765, can be seen in the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida.

A Candlebox.

Candlebox: Also in the 18th century, candles were a main source of light. They were hand-made and care had to be taken in their storage. This well-built box was the ideal storage place for not yet needed candles.

A Dumbwaiter.

Dumbwaiter: While we may call this a three-tier table, the original use was as a dumbwaiter. A dumbwaiter was used in 18th-entury dining rooms. It sat next to the hostess and contained extra “usefuls” like silverware and napkins. It also often contained sweets and desserts. Today, it is found used mostly as a display table in the living room.

A Roller Organ.

Roller Organ: This little device, called the roller organ, was the precursor of the MP3 player and the iPod. It was a portable, inexpensive, personal music player from the turn of the 20th century that derived it music from “cobs” that activated sound mechanisms much like the larger music boxes of the day. Sears even sold its own brand name roller organ for $3.25 and hundreds of extra tunes were available on cobs for 18¢ each.

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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2 Responses to “Furniture Devolved: Pieces that have Out-Lived their Usefulness”

  1. Barbara says:

    I use an old locking sheet music cabinet to store my collection of antique handmade marbles and wooden game boards. The previous owner used it to store a large number of old maps.

  2. S.B. Miller says:

    You forgot an important piece that definitely outlived its usefulness: the night stand found in every bedroom for many decades, with the pitcher and washbowl on top and a compartment for the thundermug below. That piece of furniture was necessary for anyone who needed to ‘use the facilities’ in the middle of the night and didn’t want to have to light a candle and find his/her way to the outhouse. Even when indoor plumbing became fairly common, in houses with only one bathroom–especially multi-story ones–most bedrooms had such a stand. My grandparents had a house built in the 20′s–in the mountains east of San Diego–and the only bathroom was only accessible through one of the bedrooms. At the half landing, the ‘maid’s room’ still had a stand complete with thunder mug, pitcher and washbowl, as late as the early 1950′s.

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