The Laborer is Worthy of His Hire
Cabinetmakers make things from wood, both cut wood and “manufactured” wood: plywood, medium density fiberboard, particleboard, and so forth. This is starting to sound a little simple minded, but it is an important point. Wood furniture technology, with the exception of steam bending, largely reached its apogee in the late 18th Century.
Even in the most mechanized end of the upscale furniture trade--the pieces made for lines such as Broyhill, Ethan Allen, and Thomasville (my own personal favorite among them)--it still remains a pre-assembly line type of manufacture. It will never, I think, be fully robotized and computerized. This is really why good wood furniture is so expensive, and why any inexpensive item manufactured in wood is almost certain to be produced by brutally sweated and exploited labor.
Read the labels to find out the names of the chief national sweaters and exploiters and consult your consumer’s concience accordingly.
In fact, as a technology, woodworking is so fascinating because it still exists at the cusp where mechanical supplements first began to optimize the application of labor in hand craft. It still makes as many demands on the craftsman’s sharp mind as his strong skilled hands. Woodworking also turns design decisions into a species of seat of the pants mechanical engineering, much like European church architecture between the Romanesque and the Gothic.
For any American, and particularly for Americans with a taste for politics, that late 18th Century of the woodworker’s apogee is all shrouded in the same numinous nimbus which surrounds the Eagle and the Pyramid on the back of our one dollar bill. It is almost impossible to even think of the 18th Century without a mental soundtrack of something like “Columbia, the Gem of Ocean”, probably played on a fife, with a snare drum accompaniment.
And the first great glory of American cabinet making, as opposed to the mere worldly elegance and beauty of Colonial casework, still tightly involved with British models, is the American Windsor Chair. The golden years of the American Windsor are almost exactly enclosed between the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. It is, quite literally, the furniture of the Founding Fathers. There are dozens of references in letters, diaries, inventories, and wills to the “comfortable and commodious” chairs made to order for places such as Monticello and Mount Vernon.
A well-designed American Windsor--made in the old fashioned way with a froe, an adze, a drawknife, a lathe, and a spokeshave—is a light, delicate, and comfortable piece of practical engineering rather like a miniature suspension bridge. It is made from mixed woods—poplar for the seat, rock maple for the legs, and oak or ash for the arms and spokes. Its beauty is that of delicate line, and not of rich surface like a curly maple Pennsylvania flintlock riflestock.
So, unlike the gunsmiths, who preferred rubbed oil to bring forth the surface beauty, the chairmakers finished Windsors in thrifty paint made of soured milk and mineral pigments. Milk paint was as American, and as colonial, as a cold tavern lunch of apple cider, soda crackers, and sharp cheese.
Americans have started making Windsors by hand again, largely due to the thirty-year efforts of two men—Michael Dunbar and Thomas Moser--both modern masters of the late 20th century woodcraft revival. Their books on Windsor chairmaking are well worth having even for non-craftsmen.
If you want to see and learn about the vintage chairs, there is no better reference than furniture historian John Kassay’s The Book of American Windsor Furniture.
When you sit in a hand made Windsor, and have a little imagination, you can almost smell the Virginia Burley tobacco in clay Dutch pipes and taste the hard apple cider out of homely porous mugs that accompanied many a political discussion of those worldly and sophisticated gentlemen, who made a whole new country.
And no, they were largely deists, freemasons, and skeptics—not Christians—though they filled a pew well on a Sunday, and were perfectly willing to include the not very censorious Anglican Rector in their little male circle of Windsor Chairs, on the breezy porch in Summer, or cozied round the kitchen hearth in Winter.
Those plainspoken men would certainly recoil in gentlemanly horror at the spectacle of “faction” and “enthusiasm” (to use their own well chosen words) of people wailing and praying over the removal of the Ten Commandments from a local courthouse. They looked to Senatorial Rome, not Biblical Sinai, for their inspiration in law, politics, and government.
The inclinations of their private lives were also generally much closer to Bill Clinton’s than to George W. Bush’s. In fact, they were often the Fathers of Our Country, in a much more widespread and literal sense than many find comfortable to admit.
I have my own Windsor chair, a Sack-Back type patterned after a Rhode Island model of about 1780, which I made myself in the old-fashioned way and, if I ever get around to it, I have parts for one of the Continuous-Arm style of New York City to complete.
When I sit in this chair to type these essays, I like to think that were I able to join that circle around the kitchen fire, in some gentlemanly manor of long ago, we would all have a good private horse-laugh--among men of the world--at the thick layers of frantic American lunacy, or hypocritical American humbug, which encase the issue of “morality and responsibility” in our politics today.
Now let's move on to a new beginning, starting with a new sound track: “Variations on ‘Simple Gifts’” by Aaron Copeland, the All-American composer, whose music is so frequently in the key of C-major—bright, simple, lucid, and up-beat. The song is the most famous of the many hymns of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, known as the Shaking Quakers, or simply, Shakers.
They were a sect chairismatic and ecacstic, founded by a woman of religious visions preaching celibacy, simplicity, and communal ownership of property. They were almost the complete antithesis of the worldly, public minded, men founding a new Republic, with the Roman stocism of Seneca, and the Roman nobility of Plutarch's Lives, always echoing in the back of their minds when they thought about the necessities of state.
The woman leader herself, “Mother” Ann Lee, of Manchester, England, was regarded by the Shakers as the second, female, manifestation of God on earth, as Christ was the first, male, manifestation, and they believed themselves to be already living in the Millenium, after the Second Coming.
Mother Ann brought them here on the eve of the Revolution to escape English persecution and they prospered in the wake of religious revivals, first in New England and Upstate New York during and after the Revolution, and, later, in the newly minted states of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. By 1830 they had reached an apogee of 6000 converts in 19 utopian communities and, incidentally, turning themselves into the greatest cabinetmakers America has ever seen.
The greatness of their woodworking consists of absolutely nothing you can put your finger on, except for durability, and they did build to last.
You can immediately grasp both the muscular delicacy of line and the iron tensile strength of construction in an American Windsor Chair simply by looking at it. But most of what the Shakers made, particularly in the magic two decades of 1820-1840, has an utter stark plainness of surface and absence of ornament that is immediately both beautiful, and ungraspable, like common sunlight at midday, or Mr. Copeland's open faced C-major melodies.
The Shakers believed in cleanliness, orderliness, constant work, and constant prayer, and shaped everything they made to the most efficient end they could conceive of. In the process, they created an ideal environment for religious visions—a mode of life that was like a blank sheet of vellum to Leonardo.
When you see the pieces, particularly in the original, and especially in the whole rooms that have either been recreated or preserved, it is still very easy to fall into a light visionary trance, yourself.
Beyond this, there is a freedom of alteration for function in their carpentry that is often a lucid burst of eccentric genius. If a chest or desk needed an extra drawer, they might add one below, between the four legs, or an additional one in the side of the case. If a firewood box needed to be used with a saw they had no hesitation about popping in one of their famous clothes pegs where the saw would be handiest.
They were the inventors of so many handy things: the circular saw, the flat broom, and even an early washing machine. Shakers were virtually the inventors of the built-in chest of drawers or cabinet. A lifestyle of massive communal living required industrial scale treatment of all components of life, so whole rooms were often full of built in cabinets and drawers for clothes or any other necessities.
And, of course, there are their famous high moldings of wooden pegs across the walls of most of the rooms on which they would hang anything, including their famous ladder back chairs, to completely clear the floor for communal sweeping.
When Shaker work has been stripped and refinished, the craftsman notes that they had a fine eye for the wide boards of even old growth in the woods they favored--butternut, hard maple, black cherry, a good strong pine. They themselves finished the pieces, more often than not, with a wonderful translucent wash of light orange, light blue, or light green that gives the wood a shimmering surface by windowlight.
The Shaker craftsmen made their work mostly out of the two common cabinet styles of the America of the early 19th Century: the rustic style of greenwood turned ladder-backed chairs and plain nailed boards in table, cabinet, or chest, and the Federal Style of virtuoso city cabinetry, which looked toward the Roman influenced Empire Style of Napoleon's Paris, as a patriotic alternative to still-hated England.
The Shakers were better than their teachers. Much of the Federal furniture has crumbled to sticks, since the a la mode city craftsmen designed constantly to the limits of the capacity of wood to bear weight and withstand both temperature and humidity in a climate much more brutal than Europe, turning their back on the engineering lessons of their very British colonial progenitors.
And the rustic style was, as always, slapped together anyhow, surviving where natural care and caution informed the individual wood butcher, but more often disintegrating under hard use and the minimal craftsmanship of a maker with more important things to do, like plow the crops or chop the wood for the winter.
The Shakers made their furniture as strong and sound as it was possible to make it, as a matter of religious intent. And that furniture more than anything else I know, let’s you feel that wonderful American world of 1830, which was so radically different than anything we know today, and which died so utterly at Bull Run, at Shiloh, and at Gettysburg.
Think of the men it shaped: Lincoln, Lee, Twain, Melville, Poe, Thoreau, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Kit Carson, and John Brown. Think of that world where so many ordinary men and women got as excited about religion and politics as we get about football, where the Bible, the Camp Meeting, and the Abolitionist broadside would fire the feelings of all to a potent white heat.
Mark Twain knew that world as a young boy and was able to make that boyhood more vivid to us than anything else in our literature. Thoreau knew it as a thinking man and surveyed it with the same naturalistic precision as he surveyed the Concord woods, and sounded Walden Pond, for pay. And the Shakers lived it, continually forming that inviting blank canvas of communal life, on which they painted their visions of the New Jerusalem.
Think, especially, of 6000 American men and women, all owning nothing of their own, working like beavers, praying continually, living among visions, and dancing for joy around the altars in their Meetinghouses.
What was it that we had and lost that once we could do this, and now, no longer?
What was it that we killed so utterly in ourselves when we finally fought, among ourselves, over exactly how far all men were created equal?
There is a door between the America which once had been, and is now gone, and the America which was before and is with us still. It is the door to the Clay County Savings Association Bank in Liberty, Missouri. On February 13, 1866 two men walked out of that door, and into the America that we still know, carrying $62,000. These men were Jesse and Frank James, and they made their escape with ten other men, none of whom were ever convicted for the crime.
They shot and killed one bystander in the confusion.
The bandits were disaffected and marginalized Confederate soldiers--members of the Confederate Civil War equivalent of today’s elite Special Forces, Quantrell's Raiders--who used their military skills to not only turn to crime, but to pioneer a whole new kind of American crime: Armed Bank Robbery.
The Clay County robbery was the first of its kind. And from this point forward, as least as I read American history, the balance of flavors—liberty, wealth, crime, disaffection, violence, and tragedy—is exactly the same generous dash of bottled hot sauce, that comes with my daily ration of lightly scrambled domestic news, nearly 140 years later.
Henry James said it best, as he said so many things best:
To make so much money that you don't have 'mind' anything, that is absolutely, I think, the American formula.
It was not the formula of those sober patrician men of 1776, sitting around the kitchen fire in their Windsor Chairs, and remaking a nation. Nor was it the formula of those 6000 Shaker visionaries carefully sweeping the rooms, building the cabinets, and rocking in the ladderback chairs in 1830.
It was definitely the formula of Jesse and Frank James, and it is still our formula, as far as I can see, today.
The thoughtful men who lived through the American late 19th Century called it The Gilded Age. And that name makes more sense than our habit of using the label our British cousins give the same period of time: The Victorian Era. It makes more sense because we're still living in it, and because it captures precisely the sense of both the expensive and beautiful surface of American life, and the crude cheapness beneath.
For that crude cheapness is the other component of the America I know and love--for all these 140 years something has been "wrong" with it. For some what was wrong was the South's rebellion. For others it was the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and new negro voters which followed in the War’s wake.
For some it was the new lawlessness and banditry, for some it was drink, for some it was bloated wealth and big business trusts, and for some it was the gold standard in money. For others it was government graft and corruption, for some it was the fact that women could not vote, and for some it was even cigarettes.
Yes cigarettes, and not cigars, snuff, chewing, or pipe tobacco--Merideth Wilson's old musical, The Music Man, lampoons the era perfectly, but the prohibition of cigarettes in Iowa--so funny in that musical--was real, and it is prudishly returning, in the name of public health.
Thoughtful men and women of every kind all wanted to see "reform", even if they disagreed completely on what needed "reforming". Just like we all still do today.
"Reforms" are a risky business. Jim Crow and Prohibition, among others, are examples of how they can create more problems than they solve. Not the all reforms since 1866 have backfired so spectacularly as these two, but the potential for it is always there.
Reforms do best, perhaps, in the world of art and artifacts, for there the violences which always accompany them are confined to the studio, or the workshop, where the final consumer never need take them into account, as the final consumer had to 'mind' ever more baroque and complicated forms of mayhem and crime, both from Jim Crow and from Prohibition.
So let's turn to the reform minded cabinet maker, Gustav Stickley, father of the Arts and Crafts Style in American furniture. He studied American Windsor Furniture carefully, gave due attention to the Shaker commercial chairs, and, most of all, sank himself in that parallel English Arts and Crafts movement, spearheaded by William Morris. Stickley believed, as Morris did, that the care of handcraft and the inspiration of the Middle Ages acted as a counterweight to the cheap, gaudy, and mechanicly ornamented, commercial furniture of his day.
But Stickley also looked forward to a future for machine production combined with "rational" and "functional" design to produce a fine wood furniture that was affordable in less than wealthy homes. It was solid and modest, both in its durability, and in its good value for the money.
These same basic ideals in many other materials, such as tubular steel, would find a home in the Bauhaus craft school of the German 1920's and 1930's. And Stickley's version of them has seen a tremendous revival in the last decade, most prominently in the cabin and cottage furniture offered by the mail order retailer, L.L. Bean, of Freeport, Maine.
The impulses for this furniture were clearly in the American air around 1900, and it takes very little training of the eye to recognize them in the century-turning architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and, most of all, in the California Bungalow housing style of Charles and Henry Greene.
Stickley's furniture itself is very architectural--strongly rectilinear, constructed of pieces relatively narrow and thick in cross section for their length, thus reducing wood movement. They were held together with open mortise and tenon joinery, which was easy to machine, and whose decorative detailing was an echo of the wood joint's functionality.
Stickley also made extensive use of "screen" construction, most prominently on the sides and backs of his seating pieces, which would feature a regular alternation of narrow wood slats and gaps, achieving nearly the same strength of solid wood, while reducing the weight. This slat and gap screen surface is what sticks most clearly in the mind, when one confronts Stickley's furniture, in memory.
The wood itself was generally "quartersawn" white oak. Quartersawn wood expands and contracts the least with changes in temperature and humidity, and this stability, combined with the savviness of Stickley's design and construction, has given vintage Arts and Crafts furniture a life of great durability and functionality--the match of any well-made Windsor or Shaker equivalent.
Quartersawn white oak also develops a beautiful spotted “flame” figure--a tag which only suggests approximately what it looks like—it is one of the most luscious wood figures going, supremely tactile in its illusory depth and its rugged character. Before varnishing, the furniture would be fumed with ammonia, developing a rich black-brown patina on the oak.
One still finds Stickley’s original chairs and tables quite frequently in many of the common rooms of American college libraries, where restless rebuilding has not overtaken the staid quiet of the early 20th century chunks of a college campus.
It is heavy, solid, brown, and squat furniture. It was well accompanied by leather bound books in glass fronted cases. And it was well decorated with Beaux Arts bronze or marble busts of the dreary academic eminence, who bestrode that narrow college world, as the President or Provost of it in 1906.
Reproductions of Stickley pieces, these days, are commonly cushioned in a buttery calfskin, but the ones I remember of my grandfather’s were covered in an iron-wearing, dark green, wool velvet. They were stuffed with horsehair whose solidity, with resilency and spring, no foam can duplicate. Against that green velvet, the clipped tidbits of my grandfather’s freshly barbered white hair, still smelling of bay rum, would gather, until the week’s hard dusting and brushing would move them on.
My parents were enamored with the cheaper contemporary furniture of the 1950’s—bright bottle green and blue washed fabric, with a little touch of dark “mahogany” wood showing on the chairs or couch. They also liked, and bought, bleached blond bed headboards, chests, and dressers, all fitted with fake brass. They thought grandfather’s craftsman pieces fusty, dingy, and old-fashioned.
But Stickley’s recent return to fashion bespeaks his furniture’s real character--a "reform" that really worked, and brought a measure of stability, solidity, and value to an America always restless with itself, always keeping up with its own Joneses.
These Joneses lived not next door, but in everybody's parlor mirror, and they are still the monkeys on our back today, as we sit in our La-Z-Boys, surfing with the remote through the cable channels, in the turn of still another century.