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Latin Lesson: Knowing Before or After Helps Date Antique Furniture

by Fred Taylor (06/19/12).

A pit saw in action. The differences in strength and stamina of the two men working the saw leave tell-tale saw marks on the wood.

In his scholarly (and lengthy) video “Authenticating Antique Furniture,” John Bivins presents us with the concept that studying older furniture and verifying its antiquity is, in essence, “above-ground archaeology.” He then borrows some extremely useful terminology from that field and provides us with the basic framework for examining furniture from the point of view of “functional sculpture.” An understanding of Mr. Bivins’ terms is important and enlightening to anyone interested in antique furniture.

Terminus Ante Quim: Very loosely interpreted from Latin, this means “it couldn’t be before. . .” Or, more closely fitting our purpose, “it couldn’t have happened before. . .” The manufacture of furniture, whether in the 17th century or the 20th century, involves the manipulation of a medium, usually wood, into a desired form usually using some type of specialized tool or equipment. Learning to recognize the distinctive signature of these tools and knowing how to place them in their proper technological era is often the key to verifying the age of an antique.

For example, knowing that the historical sequence of the technology of dimensioning lumber in North America is riving, pit-sawing, mill-sawing and circular-sawing can help put a possible earliest date on a piece of furniture. “Riving,” or “to rive,” is the act of splitting a piece of lumber to a desired size without the use of any type of saw. Riving is sometimes evidenced by a tearing of the wood fibers in the direction of the grain; an event not seen when a piece is sawn. This is a physically difficult and dangerous task but it was the state of the art in the 17th century. By the early 18th century, the use of the pit saw had replaced riving as the latest technology. A pit saw employs two men, one standing in a trench or pit, the other atop a log and each holding the end of a large saw. Such an operation produces a very distinctive set of saw marks on a piece of wood. The marks are at an angle to the grain of the wood but, since each pass of the saw teeth through the wood is slightly different due to the position and relative strength of each man, the marks are not exactly parallel or evenly spaced.

In contrast to the pit saw is the mill saw, a machine saw powered by water or steam. The mill saw made a similar type of cut mark in the wood but, since the blade was machine-driven and the log was advanced through the blade mechanically, the cut marks are nearly evenly spaced and are parallel to each other, and easily differentiated from a pit saw. By the first quarter of the 19th century, the latest technology was the circular saw, powered by steam or water and leaving a completely different type of mark in the wood: overlapping semicircles unlike anything produced by hand work.

Keeping all of the above in mind will now allow you to look at a piece of unsmoothed wood and search for dimensioning marks. When you see circular saw marks you can then say with reasonable certainty that the piece was not made before 1825 because “it couldn’t have happened before” the invention of the circular saw. Terminus Ante Quim! This gives you the earliest date by which this piece could have been made, but it doesn’t give you much help on the other end of the time scale.

This shows the parallel evenly spaced marks of a mill saw. It could have been made almost anytime.

Terminus Post Quim: Unfortunately, this phrase translates to “it couldn’t have happened after. . .,” doesn’t always solve our problem of finding the other end of the time scale the way its companion phrase works on the early time frame. This is because once a technology—a mill saw or a circular saw, for example—is developed, it can be used indefinitely into the future. Just because the circular saw came along does not mean that any other previously developed form of wood-cutting cannot be used.

However, this phrase is useful in another context—the one where things have a definite ending rather than a definite beginning. Since people fall in the category of having a definite ending, human life spans are good measures of time in some circumstances. Take the case of some recent auction results. A 19th-century oil lamp belonging to a historically important local personage was one of the lots offered. Spirited bidding on the piece, resulting from its association to the local luminary who had died in 1876, resulted in the lamp being secured by the local Historical Society for a significant sum. Further inspection however, revealed that the lamp was of a type that was not manufactured until 1900, throwing significant doubt on its ownership in 1876. The local luminary just couldn’t have used it after that. Terminus Post Quim!

This shows the semicircular marks of the circular saw which was introduced around 1815. It means this drawer is not from the Colonial period of the 18th century.

Obviously, these two phrases are not all you need to know about looking for antiques, but they do provide the framework for a reasonable, technology-based assessment of the facts you may gather in your quest.

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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