Dating Antiques? Check the Joinery

Editor’s Note: The age and period of antiques can often be determined by the simplest details. Worthologist Fred Taylor examines drawer joinery and Mr. Knapp’s ingenious invention.

One of the first things to be looked at when trying to determine the age of a piece of older or antique furniture is the type of joinery used in its construction. Knowing the history of the technology of various periods goes a long way toward explaining clues about the age of furniture, and none is more important (or accessible) than the type of joint used to secure a drawer.

Mostly what we see are dovetails of a sort. The interlocking dovetail joint came into general use in the William and Mary period in the late 1600s and very early 1700s, and for the first time, allowed the construction of reliable drawers, a device with extremely limited use or convenience until then. Before this innovation, most furniture consisted of simple boxes called coffers or some type of open-shelving arrangement and cabinets with shelves behind doors, such as the old court cupboard.

Dovetail drawback

As useful as the dovetail joint started out to be, it did have a serious drawback—it was hard to make by hand, and of course, everything of that period was made by hand. By the end of the 18th century, some progress had been made in furniture technology. Rotary saws were on the horizon, and all nails were no longer made one at a time by a blacksmith. The early 1800s saw lots of advancement in woodworking machinery, and by the Civil War, mechanized furniture factories were on line, but the dovetail drawer joint was still a holdup.

While the joint had been refined and perfected, it was still too difficult to be made by a machine. Some progress had been made by the use of jigs to help guide the hand-powered saws in their cutting, but essentially, the dovetail was the last holdout of handwork in a machine era.

The perfect Knapp joint looks like this, an obviously machine-made feature that looks nothing like drawer joinery before or since.

Several inventors were hard at work on the problem in the 1860s, and most concentrated on trying to duplicate the handmade dovetail using a machine—that is until Mr. Charles B. Knapp of Waterloo, Wis., applied himself to the task. He did some creative thinking and solved the problem not by duplicating the dovetail joint but by inventing another type of joint entirely that was at least as good as the dovetail and could be made by machinery.

The joint he came up with has several colloquial names—scallop and dowel, pin and scallop, half-moon—and all describe the new joint, which looks like a peg in a half-circle on the side of a drawer. If you look at much old furniture, you undoubtedly have seen this unusual-looking arrangement and wondered what the heck it was. Now you know—it is a Knapp joint.

In real life, the Knapp joint is often obscured by wear and dirt on the drawer sides.

And knowing that, you also get some very valuable information about the age of the piece on which you saw the joint. Mr. Knapp patented his first joint-making machine in 1867. In 1870, he sold the rights to an improved version of the patented machine to a group of investors who formed the Knapp Dovetailing Co. in Northampton, Mass. The investors proceeded to make further refinements in the machine and actually put it into production in a factory in 1871 where it proved to be a technological miracle. Where a skilled cabinetmaker could turn out 15 or 20 complete drawers a day—on a really good day—the machine, on any day, could turn out 200 or more and work more than one shift if required. The drawer department had finally caught up with the rest of the factory.

By the mid-1870s, the great factories were in full swing turning out late-Victorian creations consisting mostly of Renaissance Revival and Eastlake furniture. While not all the great factories used the Knapp machine, particularly those of Grand Rapids, Mich., most of the Eastern factories and other mid-Western areas were faithful customers of the Knapp company. Over time, maintenance on the machines became a chore, but they were still a better alternative to handwork.

In the late 1800s, the Knapp joint was commonly found in the less-expensive version of the Renaissance Revival style called “Cottage Renaissance.” These pieces were made of inexpensive lumber and were cheaply decorated and finished.

At the very height of its greatest popularity and use, the death knell of the Knapp joint was being sounded by a new movement afoot in the furniture-design industry, and it had nothing to do with the soundness or the economy of the joint. Like so many things, its demise turned on sentiment.

That sentiment was the beginning of the Colonial Revival—the resurrection of things in style during the era of the founding of our country. And a round, technical-looking, obviously machine-made drawer joint just did not fit that image. At about the same time, machinery that did simulate the handmade dovetail was perfected, and by 1900, the Knapp joint had almost completely disappeared from the American furniture scene.

So now you know that a piece of antique furniture with those odd little drawer joints was made between 1871 and around 1905 without a doubt.