How to Judge Antique Furniture Part 2
Drawers in a piece of furniture should be taken out and
looked over carefully. Here can be seen certain indications of
age, origin and genuineness not as readily visible elsewhere.
Except where a different wood, such as fancy-grained maple
or satinwood, was used for decorative contrast, drawer fronts
should be of the same wood as the rest of the piece and should
match in grain and tone. Sides, back and bottom of drawers
in American pieces were universally made of such soft woods
as pine, spruce, yellow poplar or whitewood, as the old
cabinetmakers called basswood. Oak is a clear indication that
the piece is of English or Continental provenance. In chests
of drawers of such origin, there are usually “dust boards”
that completely separate each drawer space from that below
or above it. American chests of drawers practically never
have this refinement.
In the many pieces of American furniture that I have
inspected, I found the same kind of soft wood used for all
drawer parts of an individual piece. Also, drawer interiors
were never shellacked or varnished. The sides were put to-
gether with dovetails and the underside of the bottom bore
the ridges and hollows left by a jack plane. Sometimes in
the small drawers in desk and secretary interiors wooden pins
were used in place of dovetailing. A drawer bottom of ply-
wood is a modern replacement. In many old pieces, the
lower edges of the drawer sides will have been worn away as
much as a half-inch. Frequently this has been repaired with
new wood, and the runners on which the drawers slide re-
placed. Such restoration does not harm a piece, since it is a
practical correction that compensates for normal wear.
From about 1760 to 1830, some of the American cabinet-
makers labeled their furniture. The upper side of drawer
bottoms, near the front, was a favorite location. The labels
were usually printed from type, although a few were hand-
somely done copper-plate engravings. Some were so simple
that they merely gave the maker’s name and the town where
he worked; others, like the engraved label of Benjamin
Randolph, depicted a number of pieces of furniture. This
“Benj. Randolph Cabinet Maker at the Golden Eagle
between third and fourth Streets Philadelphia
Makes all Sorts of Cabinet & Chair work
Likewise Carving Cilding etc.
Performed in the Chinese and Modern Taste.”
Randolph was one of the ablest of Philadelphia cabinet-
makers who worked in the Chippendale style. It was at his
house that Thomas Jefferson lodged in 1776 while attending
the Continental Congress. Possibly Randolph may have made
the revolving Windsor chair with broad writing arm on which
Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Inde-
pendence. It is now owned by the American Philosophical
Society and is on display in the Society’s library adjoining
In desks, the labels were sometimes pasted on the back
of the small door in the center of the interior, between the
pigeonholes; in sideboards, on the back of one of the cup-
board doors; and in tall case clocks, on the back of the long
narrow door of the lower section.
A label adds materially to the value of a piece and should
be protected. A good way to do this is to cover it with a
piece of cellophane held in place by strips of adhesive tape.
An unusual label that I saw recently was hand-lettered in
ink on part of a page torn from an account book.
Forged labels have proved too much of a temptation to
some unscrupulous dealers. A favorite practice is to clip the
advertisement of a cabinetmaker from an old newspaper or
city directory, or even to use the letterhead of an old bill, and
paste it to a piece of old furniture as a label. This type of
faking can be recognized by the lack of decorative borders
and the difference in typography. In those made from news-
paper advertisements, the srnallness of type is noticeable.
Moreover, if such a “label” is moistened and removed, the
printing on the back will serve as a give-away. Genuine labels
never had any printing on the reverse side.
In some pieces, like the fine American Chippendale
desk in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum,
the name of the maker may be found done in pencil on the
underside of a drawer. In this desk the inscription reads:
“This desk was made in the year 1769 by Benj. Burnam
who served his time in Filadelphia.” This eighteenth-century
cabinetmaker was born in Connecticut and worked in Hart-
ford, but went to Philadelphia for his apprenticeship.
In the case of Windsor chairs especially, a name was
sometimes branded on the underside of the seat with a hot
iron. It might be that of the maker or of the original owner.
That the latter’s name was occasionally so used is shown by a
Windsor branded “John Jay.” This chair was one of a set
which the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme
Court had made, possibly by a New York craftsman. It was
acquired by its present owner from a Jay descendant.
Occasionally the maker’s name was stamped on a piece
of furniture with a steel die in quarter- to half-inch capital
letters. This was a standard practice with French ebenists.
When found on American furniture it indicates that its
maker was probably one of the French workers who migrated
to the United States during the unsettled times that com-
menced with the Reign of Terror and continued through
the Napoleonic period. Continued in Part 3