Why Were There Weird Animal Feet on 18th Century Furniture?

Furnishings posts logo finalAs more of reproduction furnishings for the Washington house get underway, I thought I might address one of the more notable characteristics of the pieces: their feet.  Anyone familiar with antique furniture has noticed the sometimes rather odd appearance of foot shapes at the end of table and chair legs.  We have a variety of feet among the Washington house furnishings, some more unusual to our modern eyes than others.  There are three furniture styles represented in the Washington house furnishings: William and Mary (the earliest, dating from the late 17th century to the very early 18th century), Queen Anne (early to mid-18th century) and a bit of Chippendale (mid-18th century onward).  Each of these styles had their own weird feet.

Probably the most well-known type of furniture foot is the “ball-and-claw.” As the name suggests, the foot looks like the talons or claws of a large animal or bird gripping a ball.  The talons or claws could be quite detailed and realistic or a bit more stylized.

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An example of the ball-and-claw foot on a reproduction escritoire — a massive cabinet-sized desk — that will sit in the Hall of the Washington house.

Why did these somewhat grotesque feet take hold in furniture design? In the early 17th century, design elements and decoration from the Orient began showing up in everything from ceramics to textiles to furniture all over Europe, as maritime trading vessels brought Asian goods to new markets.  The image of a dragon’s claw gripping a precious stone had been a common symbol in Chinese mythology for centuries, and was usually intended to symbolize the Emperor’s protection of knowledge.  As with many Chinese decorative elements imported to Europe at the time, the reason it was used in China was less important to European buyers than its exotic look.

In England, the ball-and-claw style of foot was used primarily during the Queen Anne period and faded in popularity as the Chippendale style came into vogue.  In America, however, the ball-and-claw remained a popular decorative feature well into the 19th century.  As a result, American Chippendale style chairs will often have ball-and-claw feet, while English Chippendale chairs often do not.  During the height of its popularity, English furniture makers adapted the ball-and-claw style to other types of claws, often favoring a lion’s paw, to represent the King.  In America, eagle talons were the preferred model.  The level of detail portrayed was purely up to the desire and skill level of the furniture maker and carver.

Another animal-inspired foot found on furnishings in the Washington house is known as the “pied de biche” (literally translated from the French as “doe’s foot”) or hoof foot.  Much like a ball-and-claw, this style can either be an exact replication of a delicate deer’s cloven hoof, or it can be a shape inspired by the graceful curve of a deer leg and foot.

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An example of a “pied de biche” furniture leg on a gaming table that will be displayed in the Washington house.

The reason for its popularity comes from two related trends in furnishings.  In the early 18th century there was a strong backlash against the bold, heavy, bulky style of the William and Mary period, which resulted in something completely opposite – the very graceful and delicate curves of the Queen Anne style.  This preference for lighter furnishings in the Queen Anne period also ushered in the beginnings of interest in classical themes, such as ancient Roman and Greek art.  Animal feet were featured prominently in classic Roman style, and the legs and feet of a deer just so happened to emulate the graceful, delicate curves that exemplified the Queen Anne style, so it was a perfect match.  Pied de biche feet are often found on Queen Anne furnishings in both England and America, but it was raised to a real art form by the French.

The last weird foot that we’ll cover in this installment is probably the most mysterious, simply because we aren’t sure exactly why it came into being.  Known as the trifid foot in America, this style is found mostly on Queen Anne furniture.  In some cases it appears to be more of a three-toed paw, while on other pieces it looks like three webbed toes.  The webbed toes may have been its original iteration, because in Britain this style of foot is often referred to as a “drake” foot, drake referring to a male duck.  Interestingly, it was Irish furniture makers who began using stylized duck feet on their work, and so the trifid foot shows up in American in regions with high Irish immigration, like the area around Fredericksburg. As to why the Irish chose duck feet, well, that remains a mystery, nevertheless we can add the trifid foot to the list of unusual animal feet in the Washington house.

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A trifid foot on a chair at Historic Kenmore.

So whether it was Chinese dragons or Roman deer, furniture designs of the 18th century were looking to the past for inspiration, although the actual reasons behind these choices are sometimes forgotten.  Visitors to the Washington house will have the chance to see a wide variety of homages to these ancient cultures, whether they know it or not.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009

 

 

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2018

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2018 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 5, 6, and 7. Here are a few photos from the performances.