By: Barrymore Laurence Scherer
In 1851, feeling very good about itself and its place among the nations, England threw its wealth and commercial muscle behind an idea conceived by Prince Albert, the German-born husband of its beloved Queen Victoria. Under the prince’s leadership, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations opened on May 1 of that year beneath the vaulting glass and iron of Sir Joseph Paxton’s immense Crystal Palace. Nearly 14,000 British and foreign exhibitors showed commercial and artistic marvels ranging from the Koh-i-Noor diamond to a sportsman’s pocketknife with 80 blades, and by the time it closed, on Oct. 15, well over 6 million visitors had passed before its wonders. The great commercial success of this first World’s Fair led to a succession of these opulent trade shows during the ensuing decades.
Therefore, when the United States was feeling proud of attaining its 100th birthday and marking a decade’s peace since the end of the Civil War, it decided to celebrate in similar style. The Centennial Exhibition in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of American Independence opened on May 10, 1876, in Philadelphia, where that independence had been born. By the time President Ulysses S. Grant formally closed the exhibition on Nov. 10, 1876, more than 9.7 million people had visited, and they took away with them the resounding message that America had come of age.
With that maturity came a new appreciation of origins; the fair offered a wholly novel look at early American life. There were portraits of George Washington and other historic figures by Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. Reverent crowds gathered before George Boughton’s large painting Going to Church in New England in the Olden Times, its sober Puritans making their way through a hostile winter forest. Equally popular was the New England Log House and Modern Kitchen. Among the dishes on the menu was “Ye Baked Beans, prepared as in ye fashion of ye Olden Tyme in ye Ancient City of Boston.” Before lunching, visitors toured a structure believed to reproduce an 18th-century New England farmhouse.
Inside, it was decorated to show domestic life at the time of the Revolution. In the “settin’-room” was a wide, inviting fireplace, its high wooden mantel furnished with brass candlesticks and pewter dishes. A large gate-leg table with knobby turned legs occupied the middle of the room, and in a corner was that ubiquitous symbol of Colonial domesticity, a spinning wheel.
Spartan though these might have appeared to Gilded Age Americans, they struck a chord of fierce historical pride. The urge to possess Colonial objects strengthened; fashionable Americans were turning their attention to genuine antiques. And among the many who lacked heirlooms or the means to buy genuine old pieces, there was a demand for furniture designed in the manner of Washington’s time—or at least in what people thought that manner was.
“The best Colonial Revival pieces, from the romantic freestyle years before 1910, was as aesthetically creative and carefully crafted as any furniture that came out of the Art Nouveau or Arts & Crafts movements,” says Ulysses Grant Dietz, senior curator of the Newark Museum and an authority on 19th-century American decorative arts. “It began as an intensely romantic style—in fact, a group of intermingled styles—evocative of a dimly seen but revered past, and expressive of both the aspirations and the anxieties of an entire nation.”
Admittedly, between 1880 and 1910 the term “Colonial” grew increasingly elastic. With their usual eclecticism the great Midwestern furniture manufacturers worked overtime to achieve a mass-produced Colonial style that would catch the public fancy. In this style—which 20th-century pundits named “Centennial furniture” because of its historical proximity to the Centennial Exhibition—every American design motif from 1640 to 1840 was mixed and matched with commercial abandon: cabriole legs and baluster-and-trumpet legs, ball-and-claw feet and pad feet, splat backs and ladder-backs, with scallop-shell motifs, vase finials, pie-crust molding and glued-on yards of machine-carved ribbons, bows and anthemion motifs in French-polished mahogany, walnut and even golden oak.
The 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue contained an ad for a massive dining room set in golden oak, claiming it “an exact reproduction of an old Colonial design.” The chairs’ cabriole legs and baluster shaped splat backs are vaguely inspired by 18th-century models, but the heavy sideboard, bow-front china cabinet and circular extension table have no 18th-century antecedents and are embellished with classical pillars adopted from the “pillar-and-scroll” style of American Empire furniture of the 1830s and ’40s. Moreover, instead of ball-and-claw feet, which would have evoked a connection with Chippendale, the feet are carved lions’ paws, another American Empire idea that is one of the most frequent motifs of Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s spurious Colonial vocabulary. True, many of these pieces are beautifully veneered in substantial quarter-sawn oak, and when they are in pristine condition or carefully restored their homey monumentality still appeals to buyers today.
Nevertheless, there was a more faithful alternative to these and other illegitimate sons of liberty. A number of furniture workshops were striving to reproduce more or less authentic 18th-century designs using the best materials and craftsmanship. For example, during the last quarter of the 19th century the successor to the venerable Duncan Phyfe workshop was the New York cabinetmaker Ernest Hagen, who had purchased all of Phyfe’s tools and design books and continued to produce bench-made furniture. As the demand rose, especially for pieces to fill in or supplement the genuine Colonial and Federal furniture inherited by wealthy families, Hagen was kept busy producing handcrafted designs by Phyfe and others. A Phyfe-style mahogany-and-cane sofa by Hagen, with reeded legs and baluster turned arms, is in the furniture collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And at first glance the piece, made around 1898, looks exactly like a Phyfe original. Only on close scrutiny do the details of the carved crest rail and general construction bespeak its true date.
In the marketplace, even the finest bench-made examples of early Colonial Revivalism are still eminently affordable. For example, a Hagen Chippendale-style fall-front desk is currently being offered for $8,500 by the Providence, R.I., dealer Stanley Weiss. Every feature, from the notably heavy, beautifully figured mahogany to the carving of the ball-and-claw feet bespeaks its high quality and studious fidelity to the spirit of the original. Inside, stacked and blocked drawers flank a carved shell motif whose slight proportions reveal Hagen’s late-Victorian sensibility. “Hagen was certainly a great American cabinetmaker,” observes Weiss, whose primary inventory is of top quality 18th- and early 19th-century pieces. “But he wasn’t strictly a copyist; he liked to put his own contemporary imprint on his reproductions of old designs.”
Hagen’s rival at the time was another New York firm, Sypher & Co., which around 1890 made a very handsome Chippendale-style block-front kneehole desk, now in the Weiss collection. Once again the overall proportions and style are faithful to the spirit of the original—the bold block-fronted drawers, the vigorous crouch of the ball-and-claw feet. The shell-carved knees are a subtle late-Victorian touch—most 18th-century block-front desks have bracket feet, and those with claw feet have plain knees. But again, the crucial giveaway here is the fan-and-shell carving in the kneehole door; however beautiful, it smacks of painting the lily. In most New England desks one finds a carved shell or a fan, not both together. Moreover, though the door is a charming piece of woodcarving, the carving itself lacks the graceful fluidity of shells and fans on 18th-century originals, whether from Newport, New York or Philadelphia.
That said, one cannot dispute Weiss’ observation that “the handcraftsmanship, and the fineness of the materials used by Hagen and Sypher were way above even the best things being done by the big furniture mills of that time.” Even when these highest quality pieces stray from straight-and-narrow authenticity, they often succeed at seducing the collector’s eye. For example, a slender mahogany corner cupboard (circa 1890) is really a very high-style form of creative revivalism rather than a true attempt at reproduction. Much narrower than the prototypes of 1750–1800 on which it is based, it is replete with far more beautifully finished details than one would have found on any one original corner cabinet—the heavy scroll-top boasts large rosettes, three elaborate flame finials, a carved shell and acanthus leaves. The doors (with typical Victorian beveled glass) are flanked by quarter columns, below the drawer are doors with their own bold shell carvings, and the entire piece rests on boldly carved claw feet, with shell-carved knees surmounted by yet another 19th-century touch, a bold gadroon border. And it doesn’t detract from this piece’s beauty to acknowledge that this very abundance of richness declares the piece to be Colonial Revival.
A number of Chicago firms also made a specialty of sensitive Colonial Revivalism. At the high end were pieces by Gustav Behm, whose beautiful hand-carving compensated for his very free interpretation of Colonial style—his desk with panels depicting Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe presented to the hotelier Albert Pick combines the kind of carving identified with the Black Forest with 18th-century cabriole legs in the French manner, while the matching splat-back chair has a solid wood seat carved to resemble stretched leather upholstery. The Storey Furniture Company produced a “quaint and handsome” Windsor armchair that was a “faithful reproduction of one of the Mayflower patterns,” while the Colonial Chair Company quickly became the largest Chicago manufacturer of Colonial-style seating pieces.
Other firms produced relatively sensitive interpretations of Colonial-style furnishings for the middle-class trade, keeping costs down by using more machine work. Beginning around 1894 John A. Colby & Sons offered mahogany sofas, dining tables, desks and four-poster beds as “exact reproductions of the best existing types of rare Colonial masterpieces,” claiming that they were “made better than the originals” while costing “only half as much.”
Indeed, this blend of studious handcraftsmanship and more modern sensibilities gives the best Centennial pieces their great charm. “Colonial Revival furniture, while looking to the past for inspiration, was entirely of its time and could have been created at no other moment in America’s history,” says Dietz. “In that way it is also thoroughly modern in a uniquely American way that is largely ignored or dismissed by museums today in favor of more obvious expressions of modernism.” Certainly the time will come for museums to reassess these works just as they once reassessed the earlier revival styles of the Victorian era, for their external qualities of sophistication and refined interpretation distinguish the best Centennial pieces from the flood of mass-productions that were to engulf the 20th century.