Judging antique furniture


A piece or two of old furniture, acquired by either inheritance or purchase, is frequently the beginning of antique collecting. Even for those who have entered the field by another way, such as glass, silver, china or prints, furniture forms a setting for these accessories that were once part of the early American home.

Individual taste is, of course, the prime factor in choosing the type of antique one collects, but in order that the reader may have a sort of yardstick for determining the merits or defects of a particular piece, we shall endeavor on this page to give him some concrete and practical points on judging the antiques in each of these categories.

These should help him to decide whether a chair, table or case piece is in original condition; whether it has been restored and reconditioned within proper limits, or has been so extensively reworked as to be of little value as an antique; and finally, whether it is a deliberate fake or just a copy of an old piece, with no claim to being an antique.

If the latter, too often after it has passed through two or three hands the fact that it was originally just an honest copy is not mentioned, or may even be unknown to its present owner.

Furniture, I believe, is easier to judge than other antiques. This is because each piece over the years has acquired certain signs of age and use which cannot be successfully faked. There is, for instance, the mellow tone of wood known as patina. One of my early mentors in detecting the genuine in furniture once told me that to him patina was just another name for complexion. The quality of it on old furniture depends on the care a particular piece has had over the years. Moreover, there are no cosmetics for new wood that can in any way simulate that soft glow that is one of the distinctive features of furniture made over a century or more ago.

In considering a piece of furniture, take time enough to get a general impression of it as a whole. Is its design pleasing? Are its lines graceful and its proportions good? American antique furniture with these attributes is not yet so scarce. So why bother with a piece that lacks them, such as a late Empire table with heavy and cumbersome base? Plenty of excellent old San Domingo mahogany was wasted on it, but it is far from being a good example of what our cabinetmakers could produce. Assuming, then, that the piece passes the test of good design, do the lines of the parts jibe? For instance, are the feet of a slant-top desk of the Chippendale period right for the rest of the piece, or are they of a type you have never seen supporting a similar desk? If the latter, these "wrong" feet can, of course, be removed and replaced by others of correct lines; or you can wait until you find a desk where body and feet started out together.

Look at the finish of the piece. Has it that much desired original varnish, more or less unscratched and unstained, or is the grain and texture of the wood buried under layers of varnish, stain or even paint? Many pieces of American antique furniture are found in such deplorable condition that the dealer must have them repaired and refinished before showing them. As a rule, this reconditioning is well done, and a dealer of reputation will state just how much restoration has taken place. For such a piece the price is naturally less than that asked for one of the same type in original and prime condition.

In genuine antique furniture, marks of the tools used by the old craftsmen can easily be seen on all but the finished surfaces. These were carefully smoothed by fine planes and sandpapered before varnishing, but backboards and other concealed parts were left in such rough condition that the slight ridges and hollows made by the wide-bladed jack plane can be seen or felt. Sometimes, too, the tooth marks of the old up-and-down pit saw, used to cut boards from the log, can be seen. They are always parallel scratches, slightly slanted but never curved in a wide arc. Tooth marks describing a wide arc prove the use of a buzz or circular saw, used in furniture making after the middle of the nineteenth century. Furniture with parts bearing this mark was either made too late to rank as an antique or has been rebuilt. It could also be a fake.

A dovetail joint, as the name implies, is a corner joint of interlocking tenons cut so that the ends are almost twice as wide as the bases. Such joints are rather crude in very early pieces, individual dovetails being sometimes two inches wide. In most American furniture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, dovetails are about an inch wide and are uniform. In some early factory-made furniture there are dovetail joints with rounded ends. Dovetail joints can best be seen at the corners of drawers and in case pieces where sides, tops and bottoms are fitted together.

Dovetails were also used in other pieces of furniture at points where a strong and tight joint was needed for a leg, apron or other part. In some pieces, especially tables and chairs, pinned mortise and tenon -joints were widely used. Here, for certain parts, such as the legs, narrow slots were cut and into them were fitted the projecting tenons of the parts joined to them. Then to make them secure, quarterinch holes were bored through the joints and wooden pins driven into the holes. In a genuine piece,, close scrutiny will disclose that these pins are many-sided instead of round. A perfectly round pin indicates the use of a machine-made dowel, which postdates antique furniture. The presence of such a dowel therefore means that the piece was either made comparatively recently or is an antique that has been taken apart for regluing or reconstruction, and that the man who did the work was too indifferent to replace the many-sided pins. It could also indicate a modern copy of an old piece.

Another thing to observe in furniture is replacement of feet and spliced legs. Sometimes the bracket or the claw-and-ball feet of chests of drawers or other case pieces have been removed or shortened. In refinishing such a piece, the missing feet are either replaced with new ones of appropriate design or, if cut down, built up to proper height. In American Empire pieces, simple turned feet are sometimes replaced by the more decorative carved paw feet. This is not hard to detect, as the carving of the new feet will be sharper than would be the case if they were the same age as the rest of the piece.

In very early examples, the small turned button or knob feet of butterfly and tavern tables may have disappeared or become so worn that replacements are the only answer. This is, of course, justifiable; but since such tables with original feet, though very rare, are more desirable, careful inspection is in order. Replacements are generally too smooth and perfect when compared with the rest of the table. Also a fine cut or groove between the base of the leg and top of the new foot can be seen, or found with the blade of a pocketknife. Where all is original there is no cut or groove, for leg and foot were turned from a single length of wood.

In the case of cut-off table legs, restoring the piece to its proper height of twenty-seven to twenty-nine inches is accomplished by splicing. Practically anyone with keen eyes and a good pocket glass can detect the diagonal lines of such repair. When the top or the drop leaves of a table are either missing or beyond repair, it is usual to replace them with similar parts taken from another table of the same wood but with an inferior base. Frequently these replacements have to be reduced in size, and here sharp edges and corners or newly made rule joints of bed and leaves are clear indications that such alterations have taken place.

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 together 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 plywood 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 replaced. Such restoration does not harm a piece, since it is a practical correction that compensates for normal wear.

Judging antique labels

From about 1760 to 1830, some of the American cabinetmakers 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 handsomely 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 label reads:

"Benj. Randolph Cabinet Maker at the Golden Eagle between third and fourth Streets Philadelphia Makes all Sorts of Cabinet & Chair work Likewise Carving Gilding etc. Performed in the Chinese and Modern Taste."

Randolph was one of the ablest of Philadelphia cabinetmakers 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 Independence. It is now owned by the American Philosophical Society and is on display in the Society's library adjoining Independence Hall.

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 cupboard 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 newspaper advertisements, the smallness 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 Hartford, 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 commenced with the Reign of Terror and continued through the Napoleonic period.

A gaming table, once attributed to Duncan Phyfe, in the Benkard Room at the Museum of The City of New York, is so marked with the name "Lannuier" on the edge of a drawer side. Lannuier worked in New York from 1790 to 1819, probably at first as a journeyman of Phyfe, but by 1805 he had established his own shop. Other pieces from his hands have either a simple printed label or an elaborate one with wording in both French and English.

His contemporary, Duncan Phyfe, evidently did not put labels on his furniture except in rare instances, and then only when it was to be shipped far from New York. Less than a dozen labeled Phyfe pieces are known so far, most of them found in the South. The Brooklyn Museum has a pair of rosewood window benches decorated with gilt stenciling, on one of which is his autograph. This signature, "D.Phyfe," is done in ink on the coarse white textile stretched over the springs beneath the removable cushion. These benches we're originally owned by a customer living in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Two different printed labels of this self-effacing cabinetmaker are known. The earlier one bears the address, 35 Partition Street; and the later one, 170 Fulton. Street. One such label, dated August, 1820, reads: "D.Phyfe's CABINET WAREHOUSE, No. 170 Fulton street, New York. N. B. Curled Hair Matrasses, Chair and Sofa Cushions."

Grandfather clocks are apt to have the maker's name on the dial, and the label of the cabinetmaker who produced the case attached to the back of the long door. Labels are also found on the back of many mirror frames. John Elliot, who worked in Philadelphia from 1753 to about 1780, used a label that was printed in both English and German. Charles DelVecchio, a New York maker of mirror glass and frames from about 1801 to 1830, at times used a label printed in Spanish, evidently for his West Indian trade. The last line of this label stated: "C.Del Vecchio speaks Spanish, French, English and Italian."

Judging antique chairs

Many chairs are found with shortened legs. Much of this mutilation was due to the rocking-chair mania which swept America between 1780 and 1830. Householders, either too thrifty or too impoverished to buy one of the new-fangled things outright, often improvised by taking a straight chair and cutting off from two to five inches of the legs, depending on the width and curve of the rockers that were added. So chairs with seats less than sixteen or eighteen inches from the floor were probably altered into rockers or were cut down for slipper chairs, as low-seated chairs used in bedrooms were called.

In the days when women wore multiple petticoats and skirts that swept the floor, putting on high button shoes was an undertaking that could be made a little easier if one sat in an armless low chair. Hence, some odd chair or one from a bedroom set was used to provide this aid in dressing, from two to four inches being cut off the legs. Since slipper chairs did not receive hard or frequent use, many of them have survived to plague present-day collectors.

Sometimes, too, one finds both arm and side chairs with about an inch of the legs missing and castors added. This, I believe, provided a chair for a semi-invalid in which he could propel himself about his room. I have a slat-back armchair of about 1780, all in original condition save for leg amputation. When I acquired it, some years ago, it was mounted on a wide heavy board with four two-inch wheels attached. It had been the favorite chair of an early breeder of Merino sheep who had become so crippled that he walked with utmost difficulty. Being an ingenious Vermonter, he had this chair converted into a primitive version of the modern wheel chair. Since the seat is almost sixteen inches high, I have never had it restored, even though the lower rungs almost rest on die floor.

In the case of a chair where the seat is so low as to be uncomfortable, there is only one way to regain the proper height. This is to splice the shortened legs. It is a proper repair and frequently done, but one does not like to buy a chair thinking it all original, only to discover later that the legs have been pieced. Where this has been done the lap is not hard to see, and there will be slight difference in the color and grain of the added pieces. With a painted chair, a close look may disclose the fine lines that mark the presence of lapped joints.

Queen Anne fiddle-back chairs with Flemish scroll feet ought to be checked carefully. In some, the feet may be half worn away; in others, one or all may have been replaced with new ones made secure by a long dowel extending up into the leg. When this has been done, the carving of the new feet will be sharp, and free from the minor dents of long usage, and there will probably be a slight difference in tone and grain of wood. Here again the knife-blade test can be used to find the joining of old legs and new feet.

Another repair common in slat-back chairs is replacing the urn- or vase-shaped finials of the back uprights. It can usually be recognized by the pristine freshness of the new finials. Also, the difference in tone and grain between them and the rest of the uprights, as well as the line showing where the new finials were attached, are additional clues.

Occasionally the pad or duck foot on the front leg of a Queen Anne chair or the carved claw-and-ball foot on a Chippendale chair is broken or partly missing. To repair it, the edge is planed smooth and a small block of wood is firmly glued in place and then shaped to conform to the original design. Again, this can be detected by the line of the joint and the difference between the old wood and the added piece.

In the case of arm or side chairs having vase-shaped or pierced back splats, it is well to look for evidence that such splats have not at some time been broken by accident or abuse. Tilting backward in a chair so that the front legs are free of the floor was an almost sure-fire method of breaking the splat or wrenching it from its location and splintering the lower cross member into which it was mortised. It could also break the tenon joints by which the sides of the seat frame were joined to the back legs. Repairs of such breaks can be seen by the lines where broken pieces were glued together.

All of these repairs, from splicing shortened legs to replacing an entire leg or a missing cross stretcher, are legitimate; but a chair on which such work has been done is, naturally, not as valuable as one all in original condition. Therefore the price should be correspondingly less. If the collector believes a chair under consideration may have been so repaired, he should not hesitate to ask the dealer. If it has occurred, the dealer will be willing to go over the piece and point out just what work has been done on it.

Before the days of modern plumbing, a commode chair was not an uncommon piece of bedroom furniture and a Windsor armchair was frequently adapted to such a use. With old pieces so mutilated, the only practical repair is to fit in a circular block of wood of the same thickness as the seat. No matter how skillfully done, the repair is clearly visible, but it is justified, since some of the best examples of old Windsors have had to be so restored.

A casualty with comb-back Windsors is apt to be one or both of the delicate scroll-carved ends of the comb piece. Here repair is achieved by gluing small blocks of wood to the broken ends, which are then shaped and carved to conform to the original design. Again, new carving, difference of grain and tone of wood tell where this necessary restoration has been done.

As for repairs that took place long before Windsors were collected as antiques, I know of a bow-back armchair where the hoop was broken at one of the spindles. The original owner repaired it by binding a two-inch piece of leather around the fracture. Then he balanced it by a similar wrapping on the other curve of the bow. This New Hampshire chair was repaired in this manner more than seventyfive years ago. At that time the wrappings were painted the same dark green as the rest of the piece. A neat and unobtrusive repair, it has held fast down to the present day.

All old Windsor chair seats were shaped from a single piece of wood ranging from an inch and a half to two and a half inches in thickness. Sometimes such seats cracked and were repaired by gluing or inserting dowels. Such repairs could nowise cause them to be confused with the factorymade chair of the 1890's, with its seat formed of two, three or even four pieces of wood glued together before shaping. During the last decade of the nineteenth century there was a revival in the popularity of Windsors. Since then, quantities of bow-back armchairs have been bought for libraries, clubs, Y.M.C.A. rooms and similar public places. Some of these factory-made Windsors with obvious signs of age and much use are occasionally offered as antiques, but they can be distinguished by their pieced seats, plainer turnings of legs and stretchers, heavier back spindles, thicker arms and uncarved hand-pieces, the latter frequently formed by gluing blocks of wood to the arm ends.

American Windors were made of an assortment of native hard woods with soft wood for the seats. Those of England were, except for the seats, all of one wood. Yew was a favorite but elm and beech were also used. Many English Windsors have, in addition to the spindles, a central pierced back splat with a wheel-like motif dominating the design; and there is also less splay to the legs than with American-made examples. Consequently they can be easily distinguished from those made here. They are good antiques, but in my opinion they belong in collections of English provincial furniture.

On Windsors, slat-backs, and corner chairs made of turned parts, if one examines the front legs and back uprights, faint scored lines can be seen. These were made with the blade of a chisel, at the time the parts were turned, as guides for the places where holes were to be bored for cross stretchers, or where mortises were to be cut for the back slats.

Such scored lines are clear indications of age and genuineness. Early furniture factories and craft workshops in the Southern mountains produced slat-back chairs. Some of them may have been around for better than seventy years, but they arc not antiques. They can usually be recognized either by lack of finials on the back uprights, or, if present, by their simple steeple shape. Stretchers and slats are heavier, and the entire chair is of one wood. In antique chairs, front and back uprights were usually of maple or yellow birch; oak, hickory or ash were among the woods used for slats and sometimes for stretchers.

In the days of one- and two-power candlelight, the slatback was much favored in many households as a reading chair, especially in the evening when it was a common practice to hang a pair of wrought-iron tubular candlesticks of the "hogscraper" type on the back of the top slat near the uprights. As a result, the upright finials and even the slat were often charred by the candle flames. Such charred spots are signs of use that bespeak genuineness.

In the case of sofas and upholstered chairs, particularly the wing type, made in the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods, about the only way to judge for originality is by the look of legs and other parts of the visible framework, unless it has been stripped of upholstery and the condition of the soft wood frame can be studied. When such a piece is in the rough, the presence of coarse old hand-woven linen as covering for the stuffing of seat and back is a good indication of age. Because of the difficulty in judging the merits of either a sofa or upholstered armchair, the collector would be wise to depend on a well-informed and experienced dealer of good reputation. His bill of sale for such a piece will state explicitly approximate age, provenance and any unusual restorations that have been necessary in reconditioning it. The price may be somewhat higher than that of one bought "as is," but in my opinion it is worth the difference.

One important dealer whom I know takes a series of photographs of each wing chair he handles. He starts with it as it comes to him, shows steps in the removal of the upholstery, until it is down to the frame, which is photographed twice, as is and again as repaired and strengthened before being reupholstered. Such care is justified, because a good, original wing chair is never inexpensive.

The tripod table was a popular piece of American furniture from the Chippendale period through that of the American Empire. It varied in design from a large one with circular top and handsome cabriole legs to a light stand size with a round, oval or lozenge-shaped top. There are distinct points to be observed in considering such a table, be it large, medium or small. Is it all of the same wood? Contrasting woods were seldom used. Are the legs original? Is the threepronged wrought-iron plate that strengthened the joining of legs and upright shaft still in place? If the top tilts, it should have the original brass latch in an elaborate table, or a wooden button in a simpler example.

If the top is circular, measure the diameter with the grain of the wood and again across the grain. If original, there will be a variance of from three-eights to three-quarters of an inch. This is because wood shrinks slightly across the grain, as it ages but never with the grain. In some elaborate tables in the Chippendale style, the rims of the circular tops are scalloped and have deep carved borders. These are called piecrust tables. To make such a top, the old craftsmen used an extra thick piece of wood to allow for the carving. When that was completed the balance of thickness was cut away to make a flat surface about three-quarters of an inch thick. A piecrust table in original condition is rare and valuable. Consequently one must be on guard against a plain circular top that has been glorified by the addition of a piecrust rim. This is achieved by gluing additional wood on the edge in about thirty-two short pieces lapjointed together, and then carving them to simulate an original piecrust design. In a table top having a raised molding, commonly known as a "dish-top," no new wood is added. Instead, the plain rim is carved and the rest of the table top is planed away to the unusual thinness of about a half-inch. A table that has undergone either of these glorifications no longer rates as a genuine antique, and is therefore not a desirable purchase as such.

During the past twenty-five years many small tilt-top tables have been made that somewhat resemble antique examples. They are usually about twenty inches high, with plywood tops. Made to sell as coffee tables or to go beside an armchair, they should not be mistaken for antiques. Old tilttops were never less than twenty-six inches high, and their tops were of solid wood rather than plywood, which is a modern material.

The butterfly table takes its name from the two winglike swinging brackets that support the leaves of the top. Such tables are of southern New England origin and date from about 1680 to 1730. It is now thought that most of them were made in the various villages of Connecticut. They were usually of maple, though cherry was also used. Occasionally one is found in which several native woods make up the base, and the top is of maple, cherry or even pine. As most butterfly tables were finished with the red paint known as New England red filler, this difference in woods did not matter. Wherever possible, this original finish should be preserved in preference to refinishing in natural wood color.

Most butterfly table tops, with the drop leaves raised, are oval, oblong, or square. Rarely are they round. They measure about 36 inches long by 40 to 44 inches wide, and the height of a genuine old example, with turned feet intact, is between 25 and 27 inches.

Butterfly tables are among the high-priced rarities. An all original one in good condition runs into a tidy sum of money. Over a period of more than two hundred years, the small turned feet are apt to have become worn down or to have disappeared. New feet are the answer, and can be detected in the usual ways. The top also may be from a later table, cut down to fit the base. The long narrow drawer, located in the bed of the base, should have a turned wooden knob and sometimes the front will be made of curly maple for contrast.

Because of their rarity and high value, one must be on guard against the unscrupulous or uninformed dealer who offers a changeling rebuilt from one of the large joined stools, made just a little earlier than the butterfly table. These seventeenth-century pieces have the same construction of four turned sloping legs and plain stretchers. To such a stool, wing-shaped supports and a drop-leaf top made of old wood have been added. However, the edges of these parts will be too sharp and perfect, and the difference in the tone of wood will be marked enough for the careful observer to read the story. Still easier to recognize are tables of butterfly design produced fifteen or twenty years ago by Western furniture factories with no intent to deceive. In them, the parts of the base are of smaller dimensions and are not held together with wooden pegs. Also, the tops are apt to be made of narrow strips of wood, glued together.

The gate-leg table, so called because of the resemblance of its two or four swinging legs to a fence gate, was made about the same time as the butterfly, in all the American colonies from Pennsylvania to Maine. These tables, with the parts of their bases turned in ring, vase or bobbin shapes, were never made with the sloping or canted legs of the butterfly table. The material used was the native hard woods. Some were entirely of curly maple, and some, dating as late as 1760, were of mahogany.

The tables varied in size from very small occasional ones to those large enough to serve as a dining table for eight or even ten people. Although not as rare as the butterfly, an all original gate-leg table with well-turned legs and stretchers is by no means cheap. The usual replacement of feet, legs, stretchers and top may be expected, and should be watched for in buying. Many of our furniture factories have made tables of this design for at least twenty years, but differences in wood and construction, as in new butterfly tables, will indicate this. The factory-made pieces have smaller turned parts, and some even have plywood tops.

About 1790, with the introduction of the Hepplewhite style and continuing through the American Empire period, a new kind of dining table came into use. It consisted of a set of two, three or even four tables that could be used with or without the leaves raised, according to the number of people to be seated. These tables were mostly of mahogany, though a few were of maple or cherry. Those in the Hepplewhite style had slender, square tapering legs; the Sheraton ones had turned and reeded legs; in the American Empire slightly heavier turned legs were carved in leaf motifs. In England many such tables in the Regency style had pedestal bases supported by concave branching legs, which were often reeded on top and terminated with brass box-caster ends. These English tables are more plentiful today than Americanmade examples of the same period.

In buying a two- or three-part table, make sure that all parts started out together, Sometimes, to go with a pair of original ends, an odd drop-leaf table of the same style is cut down to match the pair for size. This can be detected, both by the usual tests as to wood tones and new edges, and by turning the tables over so that the unvarnished part of the frame can be studied. If all three parts are original, the structural elements will be of the same soft woods. Similar tests can be made with a matching pair of double-topped card tables. Through the years such pairs tend to become separated through division of family heirlooms or other circumstances; consequently they are hard to find today.

Likeness of wood and workmanship are the best indications that both tables were made by the same craftsman at the same time.

Judging antique sideboards

Contemporary with these console card tables and threepart dining tables was the sideboard, originally developed by Thomas Shearer, London craftsman and furniture designer. Mahogany was the favored wood for this dining-room piece, but cherry and maple were also used. Sometimes mahogany or cherry formed the carcass, and drawers and doors were of light-colored woods, such as fancy-grained maple or satinwood. Many of the American Hepplewhite sideboards were elaborately decorated with inlay medallions and banding.

Since these sideboards were frequently very largeseven to eight feet long and nearly four feet high-when they went out of fashion some seventy years ago many seem to have gravitated to barns and hen houses. There they were used as a storage place for odds and ends of harness or as poultry nests. When recovered, they were naturally in bad condition, with some parts missing. Moreover, because their size is overpowering for many modern homes, some of them have either been completely rebuilt or reduced in size by deleting the end parts with their deep cupboards. It is wise to examine such a piece carefully for new wood, indications of rebuilding or cutting down, replacement of doors and drawers, as well as inlay repaired or added to glorify an original but plainer sideboard. Carefully restored and even made smaller, such a sideboard is a perfectly usable piece of furniture, although its value as an antique is naturally reduced.

For the collector who wants a small sideboard that will fit the available space in his dining room, there are a number of other choices. A few sideboards about five feet long were made by American cabinetmakers in the Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles. Rare and in demand, they are correspondingly expensive. In New England a good number, made in the Sheraton and American Empire styles, are similar in outline to a good-sized chest of drawers, and these are not over three feet six inches long. They do not have the tall cupboards at either end, but have one in the center beneath a wide shallow drawer; it is flanked by two narrow but deep drawers, originally designed for liquor bottles. These sideboards are handsome and charming pieces. Some are simple examples of country cabinetry; others are more elaborate, having been made by such skilled craftsmen as the group who worked in Salem, Massachusetts, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

At the same time that such sideboards were being made in the North, a much simpler piece known as a hunt board was being produced from Maryland southward. It was usually made of southern pine or red walnut, and was somewhat taller than other sideboards. Workmanship was on the crude side, with no effort at ornamentation. These hunt boards are now in great demand for country use.

Lastly, for those who are not insistent that a sideboard be of American provenance, many English-made ones in the Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Regency styles are to be found in our antique shops. They are not over four feet in length, and are generally a little less expensive than those made in America.

Judging antique desks and secretaries

Desks were first made by American cabinetmakers about 1700, and secretaries with upper sections fitted with doors and shelves were made just a few years later. They appeared in all of the styles, from William and Mary through the Early Victorian. Some were made with slanting lids, others with "fall fronts," and still others had a folding writing flap. These desks and secretaries offer the collector a wider variety of types and designs than do almost any other pieces, save possibly chests of drawers, chairs and tables.

Since all but the countinghouse desk, which is essentially a writing box mounted on a leg framework, are case pieces with a series of drawers beneath the writing section, in judging them for condition and originality, one should inspect them as one would a chest of drawers. Look at feet and drawers for indications of possible replacements or reconstructions. With a slant-top desk, be sure the lid is original and not a replacement made of old wood. In the case of pigeonholes and small drawers of the interior, the wood should be thin, not over a quarter to three-eights of an inch thick. The tone of the unvarnished sides, backs and bottoms of these small pine, spruce or whitewood drawers should be a clear light yellow. A good test is to take them out and replace them upside down. The old cabinetmakers were such careful workmen that drawers of their making will slide back and forth just as readily upside down, Replacements, on the other hand, frequently bind when submitted to this test.

As for woods, American desks and secretaries of the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods were of walnut, maple, cherry or sometimes birch. During the Chippendale era the favorite woods were walnut, mahogany and sometimes cherry or maple. The Hepplewhite, Sheraton and American Empire styles favored mahogany, cherry or maple, with drawer fronts sometimes made of fancy-grained maple or satinwood veneer. Some desks were also ornamented with lines of inlay or nicely done medallions, such as a sunburst or an eagle.

In repairing and reconditioning a desk, carving or inlay is sometimes added with the idea of "prettying up" an otherwise simple piece. Such glorification is as easily detected here as in other pieces.

Since the top and bottom of secretaries are separate, it sometimes happens that parts from two different pieces have been assembled, with the larger reduced in width and depth to match the other. Usually traces of new work are a definite clue. If original, both parts should be of the same wood and correspond in grain and color. Where the doors of the upper half are glazed, it is well to make sure that the fine moldings or muntins that separate the small pieces of glass are not new work, installed when the original wooden panels were removed. Similarly, if the secretary has a carved cornice or a broken pediment bonnet top, either of which adds materially to value if original, be sure that such features are not replacements or additions applied to a plain flat-topped piece. Lastly, with black walnut desks or secretaries of the Early Victorian period, look for evidences of handwork. The best of them were so done, and are much more desirable now than later ones produced in factories with practically all of the work done by machinery.

Judging antique highboys and lowboys

Like the secretary, the highboy, made in America from about 1690 to 1775 in the William and Mary, Queen Anne and Chippendale styles, was also a two-part piece. During the first two periods, highboys were made of walnut, maple, both plain and curly, and occasionally cherry. In the designs of Chippendale, walnut or mahogany was usual, though a few country pieces were made of maple or cherry. Some early highboys were made of a soft wood, such as basswood, sweet gum or white pine. These were all painted originally.

When the collection of the late George Horace Lorimer was dispersed at auction, I was lucky enough to acquire a William and Mary highboy made of basswood and painted to simulate walnut, with drawer fronts neatly grained to resemble burl walnut or oyster veneering. Five feet ten inches tall and three feet eight inches wide, it is typical in size of many of the early American highboys. As it has dust boards separating the drawer spaces, it was probably made by a recently arrived European-trained cabinetmaker, since this type of construction is seldom found in native chests of drawers, or kindred pieces. It also has the flat top characteristic of all highboys prior to the middle of the Queen Anne period. It has six delicately turned trumpet legs and shaped stretchers, and its ball feet are not only intact but in surprisingly good condition considering the fact that the piece was made some two hundred and forty years ago.

In the Queen Anne style, four cabriole legs replaced the earlier trumpet-shaped ones. Carving was added to the square central drawer fronts of the upper and lower sections during the latter part of the period and became very elaborate in some of the highboys made in the Chippendale style, especially those of the Philadelphia cabinetmakers. Many of these late Queen Anne and Chippendale pieces have either a broken pediment or an enclosed bonnet top and flame- or urn-shaped finials.

In examining a highboy for indications of genuineness or traces of reconstruction, regard it as you would a chest of drawers. Then consider the legs to be sure they have not been cut off and repaired by splicing, or even replaced by new ones. Occasionally one finds a reproduction highboy, particularly in the Chippendale style, made twenty to fifty years ago that shows signs of age and use. By looking at the interior, differences of workmanship and traces of buzz-saw cutting will identify it as a copy. Also, since tops and bases all too often tend to become separated in the course of time, be certain that the piece under consideration is not a "married" one, assembled from stray bottom and top sections, as indicated with secretaries.

Since the chest-on-chest is still another two-part piece, is should be examined in much the same way as a highboy. If it has a bonnet top, study the moldings and carvings for the possibility of too extensive replacements or added carving.

Lowboys were companion pieces to highboys. Some, especially during the Chippendale years, were produced to match their taller relatives. As they served more or less as dressing tables they measured from twenty-nine to thirty-one inches in height. Highboy bases are four to six inches higher, and larger in proportion. So if an oversized lowboy is offered, it is apt to be the base of a highboy to which a table top has been added. A Solomon act was frequently performed when two heirs wanted the same highboy in the course of property division. With feet added, the upper part became a chest of drawers; while the lower was converted to a dressing table or lowboy.

A collector I know spotted a transformed upper part some years ago in a Connecticut farmhouse and found the sister of its owner had the base. This division had apparently not resulted in peaceful settlement, since the two women had not been on speaking terms for years. By using diplomacy and patience, the collector finally bought both parts and reunited them, though not the sisters.

Judging antique beds

Although handsome beds were made by American cabinetmakers in the Chippendale manner, they are rarities and costly. Most antique beds found in, antique shops are in the Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Empire styles. Up to 1820, most four-posters were from six to eight feet tall. Then came the low ones, with posts from four to five feet tall. By modern standards these old beds are too short and too narrow. Consequently some strange conversions are wrought by repairmen to suit customers.

These include converting two beds with similar turnings into a pair of twin beds. Also, in order to get the desired length and width, the original side and end rails are discarded or made longer by splicing. Since the turned posts of many low-post beds are on the heavy side, some reconditioners have them returned on a lathe, thus reducing the size an inch or more. All of these changes seem to me unwise, as the results are rebuilt antiques of doubtful value. Personally, I am against buying beds that have been so reworked or having drastic changes made in beds bought in original condition. I am for either using old beds as they are, except for installing brackets on side rails to support the modern spring; or buying), modern beds of simple lines. For instance, a box spring mounted on four simply turned mahogany legs is an innocuous piece for use with antique furniture.

The side and end rails of original four-post beds should bear chisel marks done in Roman numerals that correspond to those on the posts. It is a form of labeling, and where the size and style of numbering differ, it is an indication that missing rails have been replaced by those from another bed. In both high- and low-post beds, the wood of rails and posts was usually the same, but the headboards were frequently cut from a wide piece of soft wood, such as pine. In a bed originally lacking these large iron screws used to make posts and rails firm, dealers have them so fitted before refinishing. This is desirable, since with the bolts and with iron brackets to support the spring, an antique bed becomes a perfectly usable piece of modern household furniture.

Judging antique painted chairs

From about 1815 to 1840, a large number of painted fancy chairs were made in American shops that specialized in producing and decorating them. Hitchcock, who worked in a small hamlet near Winsted, Connecticut, was one of these specialists. He made such fine painted fancy chairs that his name is now synonymous with them. Those that retain their original stenciled designs, done in gilt and colors, are the most desirable. Others that have been redecorated are sometimes so well done that at first glance they could be mistaken for originals. Such redecorating is perfectly proper if the chairs are not offered as in original condition. Other Hitchcocks are reconditioned by painting the entire surface black or a very dark green. In such a case the price should be somewhat less than for the redecorated chairs.

Along with the painted fancy chair, but not made quite as early, came the comfortable Boston rocker, which was also decorated by stenciling in gilt and color. Sometimes the design of one of these is worn in spots and is renewed by "touching up," which is a proper restoration; others are completely redecorated, as are the fancy chairs. A Boston rocker in original condition is a desirable antique. Those that have been redecorated are not as good, and even less desirable are others that have been stripped of all paint and refinished with shellac in natural wood color.

Judging antique mirrors

Another instance of value reduced is in the too thorough refurbishing of mirror frames. If the frame is one of the Chippendale type that combines mahogany with gilded carving, the latter may have been replaced in part or entirely regilded. In the same way, an old gilded frame that has been given a new coat of gold leaf may gleam like a fresh-washed infant, but its value as an antique would be considerably higher if it were allowed to keep its original complexion, though dulled by age and even chipped in places.

In tabernacle and similar type mirrors, the upper painted glass panel may be cracked or otherwise in bad condition, or it may be missing. A replacement, painted in the old spirit, is a legitimate restoration, but such a mirror is not worth over half or two-thirds as much as one with its original picture intact. As for antique mirror glass, it is not unusual for the silvering to be discolored or even disintegrated in spots. There is no way of correcting this, so the collector must either be content to regard himself in a glass darkly or get a modern mirror.

Judging antique nails

In most antique furniture the old cabinetmakers used only nails to hold back boards in place. The presence of them gives an important clue as to the approximate age of a piece. Until about 1810 all nails were hand-forged. Then came the cut nails, which were squarish tapered bits cut by a stamping machine from flat sheets of iron about a quarter of an inch thick. These cut nails have a head not much larger than the upper end of the shank. The other end is blunt.

Handmade nails all have a roundish cresting head formed by hammer blows, and a square shank that tapers to a fine point. Except in back boards, these hand-wrought nails are seldom found in antique furniture, save in early primitives and large architectural pieces, such as corner cupboards. Cut nails were used with some of the later furniture. They all date before the advent of the machine-made wire nail of about 1870, with its round head and circular shank. When wire nails are found in an antique piece, it shows that it was repaired recently.

Screws as well as nails are a clue to age. The modern screw dates from about 1860. Before that, they were handmade and can be easily recognized. Look at one carefully and you can see that the spiral thread of the shank was hand-cut with a file. As such, it lacks uniformity and is blunt, and the slot in the head was made with a hack saw. It is also irregular and sometimes slightly off center. All handmade screws of iron or brass-for both materials were used-are crude compared to the precisely fashioned machine products.

Judging antique hinges

It is well to look at the hinges on table leaves. Those used by old cabinetmakers were also handmade. A blacksmith took a thin strip of wrought iron and bent it double. This left the inner edge rounding enough for the insertion of the pin that united the two parts or leaves. The machine-made iron hinge has leaves stamped from a single thickness of metal and the circular opening for the pin is evenly formed by curling one side of the leaf. Old brass hinges were made by casting the leaves from molten metal; modern ones are machine-stamped from strips of rolled brass. Hence they are much smoother and more even than the cast ones and have the curled edge where the pin joins the two leaves.

For large chests and some dish cupboards, lids and doors were provided with handmade wrought-iron strap hinges, the tip ends of which were frequently given decorative shaping. It is desirable that they should still be on the piece, held in place by wrought-iron nails. Lids of blanket chests, the type with false drawer fronts for the depth of the chest compartment and with one or two drawers beneath, are usually found with pin hinges. These are of hand-wrought iron and are not unlike large cotter pins linked together by inserting one through the eye of the other. They were driven into the wood and made fast by turning over or "clinching" the projecting ends. These blanket chests should, of course, have their original pin hinges. Where leaf hinges are found, they either are replacements of broken pin hinges or indicate that the entire lid may be a replacement.

On certain primitive pieces and those of the early eighteenth century, two other special types of wrought-iron hinges were used, the butterfly, so named because the leaves flare outward from the pin and when open have a resemblance to butterfly wings; and the rat-tail, most frequently used in pairs on cupboard doors. In the latter, the upper half is a leaf supported by a slender tapering upright curved somewhat like a rodent's tail. Doors of secretaries and dish cupboards were sometimes held in place by variations of the leaf hinge, known as "H" and "L," since they resembled these letters in outline. They were made in both cast brass and wrought iron, though the latter ones were used more for house hardware than for cabinetwork.

Antique furniture equipped with these hinge variations is of greater value because of their presence. Therefore, they should be preserved, and repaired if necessary by a specialist in antique furniture hardware. Some of the large hardware manufacturers are now making assortments of iron hinges and handles that simulate the more elaborate old ones. Smaller sizes of this modern hardware are sometimes used as replacements on antiques. They are displayed by many hardware stores, and once seen will not be mistaken for handmade originals.

Judging antique drawer pulls and knobs

Comparatively few pieces of antique furniture are found today with their original brasses intact, so replacements are of necessity widely used. They are, naturally, reproductions, and can usually be identified by the way they are held in place. An antique drawer pull of the bail-handle type has posts with hand-filed threads and small cast-metal nuts. In reproductions the threads are die-cut, and the nuts are larger and exactly square. Look for these nuts on the inner side of the drawer where the posts come through from the front.

The same thing can be observed with large brass rosette knobs where the replacements have evenly cut threads and machine-made nuts. In addition to several excellent firms that specialize in accurately designed and carefully made replacement cabinet brasses, some hardware manufacturers produce machine-made stamped brasses that approximate the antique in design but not in workmanship. These are chiefly made for the large furniture factories, but are sometimes used on antiques as replacements. They are always lighter in weight and the posts are held in place by iron screws inserted from the rear. In my opinion these mass-produced brasses so detract from an antique that they should be removed at once and replaced with the more desirable reproductions of the style suited to the piece.

For those antiques originally made with turned buttonshaped wooden knobs, measuring from an inch to two and a half inches in diameter, replacements for the missing or broken knob must be used, and most of them are made of mahogany. Original knobs were held in place by hand-filed screws; the new ones are secured by machine-made screws.

Sometimes owners of old pieces tried to bring them up to date in the 1820's and 1830's by removing the brass bail handles in favor of the more fashionable wooden knobs. Usually the outline of the old brasses can be seen on the drawer fronts. Some American Empire chests of drawers have pressed glass knobs secured with metal bolts. No one who has ever seen a set of these old glass pulls in clear, colored or opalescent glass, many of which were made at Sandwich, will ever confuse them with the modern glass knobs that can be bought at almost any hardware store.

Basic antiques

Finding antique

American fireplace
American mirrors
Baltimore furniture
Common clocks
Queen Anne furniture
Romantic furniture
Sanderson & Salem
Secret drawers
Small sideboards

Glass American
Glass knobs
Sandwich salt dishes
Vermont glass company

Look of antique

Metal wares
Antique Andirons
Birmingham brass
Pewter, Brass, Copper

Chinese influence
Penny banks

Porcelain, Earthenware
Adam Caire
Antique dishes (Dutch)
Yang Stai

Prints & Paintings
Advertising lithographs
Robert Fulton
Samuel F.B. Morse

Drawers & Beds
Furniture hardware
Pewter, Silver, China
Tables & Chairs

Silver & Imitations
Huguenot silversmiths
Silver towns
Women silversmith

Textiles & Needlework
Pennsylvania panels
Quilting bee
Rugs hooking