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Guilt by Mis-Association: Furniture with No Relationship to Famous Namesakes

by Fred Taylor (08/06/12).

The label from a Pullman couch. The company was named after the building where the founders met to plan the launch of their business and had nothing to do with the Pullman Rail Car Company.

I recently received a call from a lady inquiring about her pull-out sleeper couch. She was so excited because it said right on the couch that it came from a Pullman train car and she wanted me to help her date it. As it turned out, though, the actual label did not really say it came from a Pullman car, it just said “Pullman.” She assumed the rest. George Pullman was the man responsible for the most famous railroad passenger car in history, the Pullman Palace car. He started his company in 1867, making comfortable and even luxurious railroad cars with sleeping quarters and an unprecedented level of service after making a rather uncomfortable overnight trip by train. He eventually built a magnificent building, the Pullman building, in Chicago that housed a hotel and a restaurant named after his daughter, Florence.

In 1906 Jacob Schnadig (1876-1935) and his brother-in-law/partner Julius Kramer (1874-1932) acquired a small manufacturing business from a retail furniture dealer. They named their new venture the Pullman Couch Co. in honor of the building where they had lunch and planned the new company. It had nothing to do with George Pullman or the Pullman Palace Car Co. It was just a coincidence. But they worked it for all it worth. They even made a pull-out couch/bed they called the “Pullman Sleeper,” the name most people of the time used for the Pullman rail cars. But the two companies were unrelated. It was just a case of guilt by association.

The original bookcase/secretary desk in 1924 that carried the name “Gov. Winthrop” looked like this 1940s bookcase/secretary.

This is not a Gov. Winthrop desk. It is a Depression-era secretary.

Another case of innocent, sort of, mis-association is the case of the slant-front desk. Slant-front desks are commonly referred to as a “Governor Winthrop” desk. Popular tradition holds that the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had such a desk. Winthrop was born in England in 1588 and died in the Colony in 1649. This was at least 50 years before the drop-front desk appeared in England and about 100 years before Thomas Chippendale gave it the famous form that commonly bears the Governor’s name. In other words, Gov. Winthrop did not have a desk like this. So who is responsible for the name given to the form of the drop front bookcase secretary? The Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston has that honor. They introduced a new model of the desk in 1924 and called it the “Gov. Winthrop,” a clever play on words that has polluted the trade vocabulary for more than 80 years. The Gov. Winthrop desk touted by the Winthrop Furniture Co was a tall bookcase/secretary, not just a simple slant-front desk.

A totally innocent but still inappropriate use of an association is the so-called Martha Washington sewing cabinet. The cabinets that are called Martha Washington today generally have two or more drawers in the center, flanked by half round compartments on each side of the cabinet that are covered by a shaped lid that usually works on concealed hinges.

This type cabinet is commonly called a Martha Washington sewing cabinet. Her original sewing cabinet had an open space in the middle with no drawers. This is a Depression era reproduction of a table made in 1815. Martha Washington died in 1802.

Martha’s original sewing cabinet was a small work table, open below or shielded by a drop cloth, with two compartments for material on each end. They were made in America from the 1780s to the mid-1800s. The current version with three drawers and two flat top lids—which incorporated the newly developed Soss-type invisible hinge—over the material compartments, showed up in the 1920s as part of the “novelty” furniture movement. This was aimed at producing smaller, inexpensive articles like tea carts, magazine racks and smoking stands that people could afford to buy during the Depression era when they could not afford large dining room sets or bedroom sets. Good quality examples of the 20th century version of the Martha Washington sewing stand made of solid mahogany and in good condition sell in the $200 range at auction but they still have or had nothing to do with Martha Washington.

Another piece of furniture with a historical attachment is the “Lincoln” rocker. The original Lincoln rocker was large-scale Rococo Revival walnut rocking chair that was in his box the night Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. The chair originally belonged to Henry Clay Ford who had the chair in his home. He took it to the theater so Lincoln would be comfortable. After the assassination the chair was taken by Secretary of War Edward Stanton and given to the Smithsonian in 1866. Mrs. Ford petitioned for the return of her personal family property and received the chair 12 years later. She then sold it at auction where it was purchased by an agent of Henry Ford (no relation) for his museum, where the chair resides today.

This is a very good modern reproduction of a Lincoln rocker.

Since the mid-1860s almost any large, fancy rocker from the period has been called a Lincoln rocker. Compare the original closely to any chair called a “Lincoln” rocker: while there are many Rococo Revival rocking chairs still in existence, there is only genuine Lincoln rocker. For more information on more “genuine” Lincoln rockers, click here.

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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