All about antique candlestands


Household lighting has come a long way in these latter days. Let hurricane, flood, or sleet interrupt electric service and you step back to the age of candlelight, where you find that "how far that little candle throws his beams" is poetic license and that the craftsmen of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knew what they were about when they made the candlestand.

A candle power is not just an arbitrary scientific term. It is a definite measure of illumination-that produced by a two and two-thirds ounce pure spermaceti candle burning at the rate of 120 grains an hour. Try reading your newspaper by one or even two such candies and your graceful and decorative antique candlestand becomes a practical solution to the essential problem of getting the source of light close to the user and at the elevation to do the most good.

Of course, English designers like Chippendale, the Brothers Adam, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and their contemporaries designed elaborate, tall stands that were highly decorative and intended as standards for candelabra.

But these were for handsome houses in which such lighting was used decoratively rather than as an aid to useful occupation after sunset. Such ornate examples may be considered as related more closely to the European torchere.

English provincial and practically all American candlestands, on the other hand, had common characteristics in shape and size, regardless of design period. They ranged in height from twentyfive to thirty inches, thus bringing the light of the candle in its stick to about the eye level of a person seated in a chair. Also, to ensure this close proximity, spread of legs and size of top were restricted; over twenty-five inches in its greatest dimension for the latter would be unusual. The candlestand was a piece of furniture in which use dictated form and size. For instance, there was a most practical reason for the prevalence of the tripod base in English and American candlestands of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. On the somewhat uneven floors of the time, three legs would stand evenly and with less danger of tipping over.

The same practicality of design is to be found in those intended for use in a craftsman's workshop and generally known today as cobbler's candlestands. They were sturdy of construction and usually the wooden upright was cut with a coarse screw thread so that the crossarm. supporting the two candles could be raised or lowered. A variation of this is to be found in Shaker-made examples. Here the upright was hollow and the candle support aflixed to a smaller rod that moved up and down within the hollow center. A thumbscrew adjusted it to the proper height.

To set a year or even a decade in the seventeenth century for the making of the first candlestand in America is impossible. But from various contemporary records there is every indication that they did not appear earlier than the last quarter of it. Before that came the rushlight and the fireplace fire of pine, heavy with rosin.

The latter, sometimes referred to as "candlewood," gave a bright though uneven light.

Some years ago, while visiting in a southern plantation home, I found I could read in bed with real comfort by putting into the fireplace fire a stick or two of yellow pine from the butt of a tree, that had been "boxed" in the turpentine woods. Penetrated with rosin, this burning wood gave a brilliant light that far outdid the kerosene lamp on my bedside table. I was no longer sorry for the boy Lincoln reading at his father's fireside by the light of pine knots.

Although these are not classed as candlestands, Americans began in the latter part of the seventeenth century to make small tables which, I believe, served this purpose and probably others. They were of the gate-leg and trestle types, with tops usually round and under thirty inches. Their height ranged from twentyfive to twenty-seven inches, which was from three to five inches lower than larger tables of the period. In this, I am convinced, lies the key to their use.

By the time these small tables appeared, life in the American colonies had become organized. The records show that making candle dips was an accepted part of household duties. The colonists had fat from their domestic animals, as well as deer and bear grease, as their raw material. For especially fine candles they used wax, from the hives of wild bees, found in the woodlands that surrounded even the most important centers of trade. But candles were expensive in labor, if made at home, or in money, where they brought five shillings a pound if bought in a town such as Boston. Consequently, candlestands were carefully designed for the purpose they were intended to serve, the greatest amount of usable illumination.

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century forerunner of the tripod base had neither curved nor turned legs. The base of such a candlestand rested directly on the floor and had a longer central column which continued upward to support the top. One of the most interesting designs was the cross-block base. Here two heavy blocks were set at right angles with a lap joint at the crossing which was also bored with a hole about an inch and a half in diameter into which the upright support was made secure by a wedge driven from the underside. The column itself was usually turned in vase shapings, much like those of tavern tables of the period. The round or square top was attached to the upper end of it by a chamfered cross member applied across the grain of the top. As this anteclated screws, the top was secured with hand-wrought nails; sometimes even driven through the top and clinched.

Other designs for this period, about 1690-1715, included a solid block of wood, either square or slightly oblong and about three inches thick for the base; a base in the form of a "T" with the cross member approximately twice as long as the other; and a turned, circular base somewhat smaller than the top; a vase-turned upright and a circular top. This last was made for a long time by English provincial cabinetmakers. Many of these tops had a slightly raised bead on the upper edge, thus giving rise to the name "dishtop."

A variation of design, dating probably from the Queen Anne period, raised the crossbar or turned circular base four to six inches from the floor and added short, turned feet-four for the crossbar type and three for the circular one. Generally these Early American candlestands were made with an oak base and a maple column. But as many were homemade, primitive pieces, they can be found in various woods-a heavy dense one for the base with upright and top of pine.

By the time the Queen Anne style was being followed in all its nicety of line and design, a few delicate and beautiful candlestands were made by American cabinetmakers. In form they were small tables with four cabriole legs terminating in Dutch feet and with a square top. These appear to have been made for only a few years. then use of the four-legged type lapsed until after the turn of the nineteenth century.

The long period of the tripod candlestand began in the Early Georgian years and continued through the style eras of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and even into the American Empire. Some of the finest and most decorative ones were made during the Chippendale span. Mahogany was the material used. Their decoration and design frequently followed that of the most elaborate tilt-top tables, bird cage at the top of the column, thus allowing the top to rotate, piecrust top, finely turned and carved central column and beautifully executed cabriole legs terminating with carved claw-and-ball feet.

Many of the candlestands of this period, and later, had a top that tilted. There was a reason for this. If there was a draft causing the candle to sputter and burn unevenly, the top could be moved from a horizontal to a vertical position, candle and stick placed on the block at the top of the central column, and the upright top would serve as a shield from the disturbing draft. Sometimes one finds tilt-top candlestands of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, or Sheraton design with underside of the top slightly charred. This of course was caused by the candle flame and the charring is always found at the upper edge of the top.

Although many Chippendale candlestands were made with round tops-some piecrust, some dish-others had oval, octagonal, or square tops. When the latter were used with tilt-top mechanism, the tilt was always on the diagonal, showing that the old cabinetmakers had a nice eye for line. American candlestands of Chippendale lines are by no means scarce today, indicating that they were undoubtedly made in goodly numbers in the chief cabinetmaking centers, as well as in the less sophisticated, smaller towns. Candles were by this time in general use owing to the fact that a new material plentiful and well suited to candlemaking had been discovered. This was the fat from the head of the sperm whale. From this material came the spermaceti candle, superior even to those of beeswax for burning and illumination. Candlemaking became a business. For instance, in 1750 Benjamin Crabb was granted the exclusive privilege of manufacturing sperm candles in Massachusetts for fourteen years. Soon candles were among the standard commodities shipped in New England trading schooners to the southern colonies and the West Indies, as evidenced by a listing of fifty boxes of candles weighing eight to the pound in the cargo of the Charming Betty on its trading voyage to Barbados. By 1761 there were eight sperm-candle factories in New England and one in Philadelphia.

The Hepplewhite style did little to the form of the candlestand in America except for the shaping and lines of the three legs of the tripod. The relatively low, curved cabriole leg usually executed in the round was replaced by a double curve with a higher arch. Instead of a claw-and-ball, Dutch, snake, or slipper foot, either a spade foot or none at all marked the new fashion. The carved piecrust top also disappeared in favor of the lozenge-shaped top with inlay panel of satinwood in the center. Also, the central turned column was less frequently ornamented with carving.

Some time after the beginning of the nineteenth century came the Sheraton influence, which showed itself most strikingly in a tripod of three legs of concaved curve and a central column decorated in part by fluting, either straight or spiral. Candlestands in this design were widely made throughout the cabinetmaking centers of the United States and most frequently with a tilting top a little larger in dimensions and of octagonal outline. In both periods, mahogany was the wood used for the finest examples though there were some of nice proportion and distinct style in maple, both plain and fancy grain, cherry, and other hardwoods. Primitive examples were often executed in pine or other softwood. I once saw a charming and delicate one of straight-grained spruce, a material generally disregarded by even country cabinetmakers.

During these years a new influence manifested itself, particularly in Massachusetts. This was the combination of the candlestand and pole screen. "Fire screen with leaf to set candle on" was the way Jacob Sanderson of Salem described one he made in 1802 for Captain John Derby at a price of eight dollars. Such a combination was both practical and decorative. Candle and stick stood on the flap or tray and a square, oval, or shield-shaped screen, that could be moved up or down on the upper part of the pole, provided excellent protection from drafts.

Such a design is not to be found in the books of leading English designers. Since all the examples I have seen were of Massachusetts origin, especially Boston and Salem, I am inclined to believe this piece of furniture was peculiar to that locality.

There exist several candlestands in the Sheraton style which may with reasonable certainty be ascribed to Duncan Phyfe. All of them have brass claw feet and casters. Evidently floors were by then so well laid that stands so equipped would rest firm and even.

About 18 15 the tripod candlestand began to go out of favor. Its place was taken by a small four-legged table, related in proportions to those of the Queen Anne period, referred to earlier, as well as to the contemporary sewing table then so widely made. They were generally referred to as lightstands, and their advent marks the wider use of various types of lamps burning a liquid fuel, such as whale oil, camphene, and the like. A table with four legs was perhaps a little more stable. An upset lamp was a distinct fire hazard. Such stands were made with the tapered square leg that was typically Hepplewhite, and the reeded leg of the Sheraton style. They were also made in the American Empire and Early Victorian styles. Their tops were usually square. In some of the earlier examples one finds the edges surrounded with a slightly raised bead molding, sometimes referred to as tray-top lightstands. Made in mahogany and our native hardwoods, some were decorated by lines or more elaborate designs of inlay. Many had a single drawer, thus distinguishing them from the sewing and writing tables of the period, which had at least two.

One of the most elaborate lightstands I have ever seen was displayed at a New York auction several years ago. The top and sides were ornamented with an elaborate design of inlay executed. in satinwood and other woods of contrasting colors. In the drawer was a neatly done but small label executed with a quill pen. It read, "Made by Samuel Bishop, Charlotte, 1815." This is a small town in Vermont just south of Burlington. In the years that followed I spent many hours trying to identify this unknown man whose work was so much more delicate than other work done in the state at that time. But to this day he remains a man of mystery.

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