Antiques: Birmingham cabinet brass info

 

Brass hardware made its appearance on English and American furniture toward the close of the seventeenth century and heralded a definite break with the Tudor influence of which court cupboards, chests, and Bible boxes of richly carved and turned oak were typical. For these, turned wooden drawer knobs and iron chest handles and locks were eminently suited. But when the cabinetmakers of England and the American colonies began to use walnut and other darker coloured cabinet woods for their furniture, there was need for hardware that would provide a contrast. For as oak went out of fashion, so did the practice of painting carvings and turnings in red and black for decorative effect cease. Handles and keyhole escutcheons of polished brass were the logical and artistic solution to contrast with, first, the brown of walnut, the yellow of fancy-grained maple, and, later, the red tone of mahogany.

Simultaneously with the need, in Birmingham, long a town that had iron working as its chief industry, a group of men began to shift their activities to brass founding and to specialize in making drawer pulls, keyhole plates, chest handles, hinges, and kindred items, generally known as cabinet hardware.

The name of the original Birmingham metal master who shifted his apprentices and journeymen from ironwork to brass cabinet hardware has been forgotten but the time was about 1690. It was less than half a century since this, the largest town in Warwickshire, had been sacked by Prince Rupert as a minor incident in the Cromwellian civil strife. In fact, Birmingham did not achieve parliamentary recognition for over a hundred years, but from the last decade in the seventeenth century down to now, brass founding has consistently maintained its place as the outstanding trade of this town.

Indeed, not being an incorporated municipality was an advantage to the industry since craftsmen who so wished could establish themselves in business there without the formality of securing admission as freemen. This resulted in a steady increase in the number of brass founders. Also, just as Sheffield later maintained a virtual monopoly on its particular craft, still known the world over as Sheffield plate, Birmingham retained control of the business of making brass cabinet hardware.

Probably there were only three or four shops at first in which this work was done. But metalworking craftsmen in other English towns made no serious efforts to compete and soon Birmingham was the brass hardware centre, supplying the needs not only of the cabinetmakers at home but of the American colonies and elsewhere. This continued for over a century. Duncan Phyfe, during the height of his career as the finest cabinetmaker in New York, sent his brother, Lochlin, on yearly trips to Birmingham to select the finest quality and newest designs then being produced there.

Just how rapidly this trade developed is a question, but study of furniture examples made on both sides of the Atlantic from the William and Mary to the Victorian period, shows clearly that Birmingham was the producing centre; that the production of the individual shops was, in the main, standardized; and that the cabinet hardware made there adhered to a relatively clear-cut series of design periods. These were definitely related to the styles followed by English and American cabinetmakers and there is every indication that almost from the start these Warwickshire brass founders had a well-organized means of distribution both at home and abroad.

In this, Parliament was no little help with its legislation which so effectively discouraged manufacturers in the colonies that until well after the beginning of the nineteenth century practically all the furniture made in America that required brass mounts was equipped with those coming from Birmingham. How brass founding finally got started in the United States is another story and has little to do with the days when Birmingham made our brasses.

This century and more of supremacy is -a tribute to the commercial instinct of that type of English producer now known as the Midland industrialist. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries his operations were not conducted on so large a scale but he was just as keen to get orders. With Birmingham brass founders, this search for business to keep their journeymen and apprentices occupied resulted about 1750 in the publication of engraved sheets showing the designs of the cabinet brasses they were making. Preparation of the copperplates from which these style sheets were printed was an easy matter, for their workmen were accustomed to decorating brasses with engraving. After that it was a logical step to bind sets of the pages together and distribute them to cabinetmakers at home and abroad, thus introducing trade catalogues in their earliest form.

They were evidently considered highly confidential, for none of the numerous books of this sort that I have seen bears either the imprint of the founder who circulated it or any list-price information regarding the handles, locks, and hinges depicted. Evidently these catalogues were intended simply as style books for the various cabinetmakers to show their customers. The needed information regarding price, size, etc., of the hardware must have been conveyed by an accompanying letter. If one of the latter could be found today, it would shed much light on the original cost of these early pieces of brass cabinet hardware.

In the print collection library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a catalogue with the name of the brass founder who issued it and the date noted in handwriting on a front flyleaf. It reads: "Tim'y Smith, Birmingham, 15 August 1766." Here then is a dated pattern book showing exactly the types of brass handles made during the height of the Chippendale period. Among the plates are ornate designs in the French taste, such as those found on English Chippendale commodes and on such American pieces as the serpentine-front chest of drawers of Jonathan Gostelowe of Philadelphia, now in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at the Yale University Gallery of Fine Arts.

In addition to being well organized, the brass-founding trade constantly grew in size. The first Birmingham directory, issued about 1800, lists thirty brass founders and notes that their shops are using about a thousand tons of brass yearly. Nor was cast-brass hardware their only product. As early as 1769 they were also turning out pieces formed by stamping. This method, whereby the desired shape was obtained with sheet metal pressed between, carefully cut steel dies, was patented by John Pickering, a London jeweller. Richard Goode of Birmingham first used it to make saucepans, basins, and warming pans. Eight years later, John Marston, another Birmingham brass founder, improved the Pickering patent and began making pieces of stamped metal small enough to be used for cabinet hardware.

How this revolutionized the business of making brass ornamental accessories can best be realized by a comparison of the old method with the new. With hardware made entirely by casting, the only means of achieving added decoration were by engraving, the use of punch work, or by elaborate cutwork done with a fine-bladed saw akin to the modern jig saw so beloved by puzzle enthusiasts. It was all slow handwork that had to be repeated with each brass so decorated. With the new method, once the steel dies had been cut, it was simply a matter of feeding plain pieces of brass into the stamping press and out they came embossed with a raised design.

Such cabinet hardware ornamented with classical motifs was ideally suited to the Hepplewhite furniture just coming into vogue. From this it was only a step to designs that would particularly please foreign customers. So, for Spain and Portugal, the Birmingham founders made brasses depicting religious scenes and lettered in the tongue of the country to which they were to be exported. For the French, who had cast off the House of Bourbon, there was a liberty cap or weeping willows surrounding the tomb of Louis XVI for the popular approval of the citizens of the newly created United States, there was a wide range of designs with distinctly patriotic motifs. Portraits of Washington and other outstanding personages, various modifications of the coat of arms of the United States, including wherever possible a ribbon lettered "E Pluribus Unum" and thirteen stars, were among the most popular. There was also one depicting a beehive, made particularly for the American trade.

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