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Great Depression Legacy: Enduring Furniture & Terms Still in Use Today

by Fred Taylor (01/16/12).

This cocktail table even came with a glass serving tray. But because a cocktail was frowned upon by a portion of the society, it was renamed a “coffee” table, which was more socially acceptable. (Fred Taylor photo)

Most Americans alive today did not live through the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, and for that we can be glad—ask anyone who did live through it—it was a tragic and sad time. But, like most bad times, it did have a few bright spots and some of those are with us today.

The period not only left us with a legacy of factory-made family heirlooms—many of which are regarded as true antiques by some today—the era left us with new additions to the vocabulary, some of which expired during the War years and later, but some of them survive today with the rekindled interest in the furniture and forms of the period.

Lifestyle words like Prohibition, speakeasy, bath tub gin and flapper come to mind (late 1920s & early ’30s), as do governmentally generated ideas like the NRA (National Recovery Act), the WPA (Works Project Administration), the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the New Deal. And, of course, there were darker words like breadline, soup kitchen and the match girl that reflect the desperation of the times. Just as the previous examples, there is an entire furniture vocabulary related to Depression-era furniture that may come in handy somewhere down the line. Here are just a few:

This little sewing box was a mainstay in Depression households. (Fred Taylor photo)

Priscilla: This is a small, lightweight stand with a slanted top that lifts on both sides, used as a sewing cabinet. There is a handle above the lift-top for carrying the stand. This ubiquitous sewing stand was named after a very popular treadle sewing machine of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, the company published a sewing magazine called “Modern Priscilla” and makers of the sewing stand adopted the name.

Borax: The term “borax furniture” means the extremely cheaply made but showy furniture aimed at the bottom of the Depression market. It was usually made of gum or poplar wood, which was painted in a yellowish wash. Then the pattern of fancy veneer was actually printed onto the surface and router lines produced an “engraved” look on the printed surface.

This Art Modern bedroom set is veneered in the distinctly striped “Oriental walnut.” (Fred Taylor photo)

Oriental Walnut: Literature of the period frequently refers to the wood used in a piece as
“Oriental walnut,” an easily recognized geometrically striped wood that almost looks artificial in its uniformity and used extensively in Art Moderne furniture. However, the wood was neither oriental nor walnut. In fact, it grows only in the coastal region of Queensland Australia. The technical name is Endiandra palmerstonii and is not even in the wood family we commonly refer to as “walnut.”

Antimacassar: This term actually was in use before the Depression era but it became more common then, when new fabric for upholstery was too expensive. The term refers to the cover many meticulous homemakers put on the top back of upholstered furniture to protect the fabric. Men’s hair styles of the day ran to the “wet look,” which was achieved by the use of various scented oils. The original oil was supposedly imported from the Macassar district of the island of Celebes, but other oils—such castor oil—were often used in its place.

The vertically striped trim below the drawer is veneerite, printed paper glued to the surface. (Fred Taylor photo)

Veneerite: This is the predecessor of the notorious “photo finish” of the 1980s. Similar to the borax process, the imprint of fancy veneer is printed onto thin paper and the paper is then glued to the wood, producing the look of elaborate edge banding and inlay without the expense—not really a premium product but it was creative for the time and allowed a richer look for folks who couldn’t afford the real thing.

Coffee Table: This common phrase ordinarily doesn’t bring the Depression era to mind, but that’s where it originated. The 18th Amendment—Prohibition—prompted the form. During Prohibition, a great deal of America’s liquor was homemade and it had an abominable taste. Thus, the development of the highball—the mixture of alcohol with a pleasant-tasting drink to mask the flavor. This was the “cocktail.” When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, furniture manufacturers were quick to market a low profile “cocktail” table for the newly legalized drink. The backlash against the practice of publicly marketing what everyone wanted in private led to the manufacturers renaming their tables as socially acceptable “coffee” tables.

This stand with ashtray, cigarette or cigar holder and metal lined tobacco storage space was a common site in Depression era homes. (Fred Taylor photo)

Smoking Stand: Another vice of the period created a form that appears in almost every antique store and mall—the smoking stand with the accompanying ashtray, often equipped with a metal lined storage compartment for tobacco. Smoking stands had been popular since the turn of the century, but manufacturers during the Depression placed special emphasis on small specialty items, such as magazine racks and tea carts, to get people who couldn’t buy a complete dining room or bedroom set to at least buy something. The stand became an art form in itself and some are highly prized today, even if the original reason for their existence is in decline.

There are many more terms, phrases and forms from the Depression era that are important today and can be found in the following books, among others:

Furniture of the Depression Era,” by Harriett and Robert Swedberg, published by Collector Books.

Popular Furniture of the 1920s and 1930s,” from Schiffer Books.

American Manufactured Furniture,” by Don Fredgant, also published by Schiffer.

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 “Great Depression Legacy: Enduring Furniture & Terms Still in Use Today”

  1. Jean McCowsky says:

    Mr. Taylor, again you write a FANTASTIC article — sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. Thank you!

  2. Wow, that cocktail table is beautiful! Looks like it can serve as a coffee table as well.

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