20th Century Furniture Marketing: Small Deceptions a Matter of Style
Is this a Duncan Phyfe table? No, it is a late 18th-century English Georgian table.
We all know that, when it comes to advertisement or promotion, not everything we are told is always exactly correct all the time. Some of it is probably true all the time—the car is probably always called a Buick—but some of the other information might only be correct under narrowly defined circumstances. For example, it may get 28 miles per gallon on a good dry, cool day with a moderate wind and a light load, but it won’t get that all the time. We all know that and unconsciously discount for it.
The same kind of quiet undisturbing deception crept into furniture production and marketing at the beginning of the 20th century and has continued unabated since. The seemingly harmless deception falls into two main categories: style and construction.
The deceptions of style fall mainly in the naming category, which may lead someone into believing that a piece of furniture is other than what it truly is. One of the most egregious examples of this practice came from the otherwise straight-arrow soap maker Larkin Soap Company
In 1892, John D. Larkin ordered 80,000 oak Morris chairs and 125,000 oak dining chairs to be given away as premiums for buying his soap products. Soon after Larkin opened his own furniture factory in Buffalo, NY, and he started making his own oak furniture for premiums. Initially most of what he made was similar in quality and style to furniture from Sears. The style was later to be called simply “Golden Oak.”
But in 1908 Larkin offered something different. He offered a library table with heavy scroll legs and turned-under feet. It was listed in the 1908 catalog as “Colonial Library Table No. 616—true Colonial design Library Table.” Unfortunately, the design was far from Colonial. It was the revival of the cyma curve legs and feet of the Late Classicism period of the 1840s—an Empire Revival, if you prefer.
Why did Larkin call it Colonial? He did it to tie into the growing period of Colonial Revival furniture styles that had begun after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. After the exposition, people wanted their furniture to look like that used by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They wanted things from the colonial era. Or at least things that looked like they were from that era.
Chairs with cyma-curved legs and tables with turned-under feet were often called Colonial style in the early 20th century.
Many furniture manufacturers had already picked up on the Colonial Revival movement and were turning out true handmade or bench-made reproductions of 18th-century Colonial-period furniture. The earliest versions of these were called “Centennial” furniture because of the link to the exposition.
Apparently Larkin did not have his designers research the term Colonial deeply enough, or he just didn’t want to make a major change in manufacturing style and direction. So he just soldiered on. In the same 1908 catalog Larkin also offered a Colonial parlor table of similar design, and in subsequent issues were offered Colonial dining tables, buffets, chairs, servers, sleigh beds, dressers and chiffoniers. The style was offered into the 1920s, when the real Colonial revival became mainstream and the old style was not popular anymore.
The other minor deception has to do with a style named after a cabinetmaker. Everyone knows what Duncan Phyfe–style furniture looks like. Or do you? Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854) was a Scottish cabinetmaker who came to America in 1784 and changed his name from Fife to Phyfe. He served his apprenticeship in Albany, NY, before moving to Manhattan in 1790.
He worked in all the popular styles of the day including Federal, Neo-Classic, Empire, Regency and Rococo Revival. The style he didn’t work in was “Duncan Phyfe” because there was not, then, and is not, today, a style by that name. Somehow his name became attached to any piece of furniture from any period that has sweeping legs extending from a pedestal or a base.
While it is true he made some furniture in that style, so did every other cabinetmaker in New York. The sweeping legs were actually in style before Phyfe was born. It was an English Georgian style used in pedestal dining tables just after the middle of the 18th century.
In fact, Phyfe never made a dining table and did not make a buffet or china cabinet. He also did not ever make a Duncan Phyfe–style sofa or chest of drawers. That should put to rest the question about whether grandma’s Duncan Phyfe dining table and chairs are genuine Duncan Phyfe’s or simply reproductions. They are neither, since he did not make them or anything like them to be reproduced.
They are simply 20th-century furniture deceptions.
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