The Furniture Makers: Harrison Higgins [Video]

Furnishings posts logo finalThe replica Washington house is open at George Washington’s Ferry Farm but furnishing is still ongoing. We traveled to Richmond to visit furniture maker Harrison Higgins and he told us about the furniture that he and his crew have made for the Washington house.

Watch other videos and read more about rebuilding the Washington house here.

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Video: The Seven Easy Pieces of Furniture – Episode 1: Low Post Beds

Furnishings posts logo finalIn this video, Fredericksburg, Virginia-based furniture maker Steve Dietrich discusses some of the techniques he used to create four low post beds for the reconstructed Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Watch other videos and read more about rebuilding the Washington house here.

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.

Furniture Feet (1)

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

Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box

Furnishings posts logo finalAfter lengthy research and an occasional head-scratcher, the furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is finished!  Reproduction furnishings are now being made. The probate inventory made after Augustine Washington’s death in 1743 guided us in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written over 270 years ago before standardized spelling, certain objects named on the inventory were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some detective work to determine what exactly they were.

The first unusual item was a scrutoire in the Hall, which we wrote about in part 1.  The second unusual item in the inventory was listed in the Parlor. At first glance, it didn’t seem so mysterious.  It is a “sugar box”, which was not an unknown term in 18th century probate inventories, especially those from the southern American colonies.  Obviously, we can assume the item was intended for the storage of sugar, but beyond that it gets a little murky.

Augustine Washington's Probate Inventory

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Sugar Box” highlighted in pink.

The descriptor “sugar” is often found in front of a variety of furniture forms in probate inventories – chests, cupboards, cases, boxes, etc.  The two most common combinations are “sugar box” and “sugar chest,” with the boxes more common to coastal Virginia and North Carolina inventories and the chests being more likely to show up on inventories further inland.

Only a few 18th century identified sugar chests still exist.  They are all finely made boxes on stands of turned or carved legs, equipped with drawers and compartments, and adorned with fine hardware.  In short, sugar chests were considered fine pieces of furniture, not simply storage devices.  They were status symbols, probably placed on prominent display in the best rooms of a house, signifying to visitors that this household, even though far inland, could afford the rare and expensive commodity of sugar.

So, what were the sugar boxes of coastal Virginia like? Until recently, no known sugar boxes were thought to have survived, but new scholarship may indicate that they were hidden in plain sight all along.  Bottle cases, or cellarettes, are known forms found in all sorts of households in colonial Virginia.  They were simply crates, or sometimes something more elaborate, intended to store bottles of alcohol.  The interiors were divided into standard size compartments (4”x4”) to fit the standardized gin bottles being produced in England.

Occasionally, a bottle case would surface that had abnormally large compartments inside, perhaps only two or three.  The assumption was made that these bottle cases were simply intended for larger sized alcohol containers.  The prevailing theory now, though, is that these particular cases, which almost always look like miniature blanket chests, were actually the mysterious sugar boxes.  The two or three large compartments were intended to hold loaves of sugar, or perhaps cones of sugar.

Sugar boxes were not nearly as elaborate and finely made as their inland sugar chest counterparts for one basic reason – it was much easier for coastal Virginians to access imported sugar than it was for inland colonists. Sugar wasn’t nearly the status symbol on the coast that it was inland.  Coastal Virginians didn’t need to show off their sugar – they simply needed to store it.[1]

As a result of this current scholarship on 18th century sugar boxes, a piece from the Foundation’s own collection has been selected for reproduction. It was originally cataloged as a Virginia-made cellarette, as its interior is divided into compartments.  However, its exterior can be described as a diminutive blanket chest.  In reproducing the piece, the interior will be divided into only two compartments instead of the current arrangement for multiple bottles. Thus, we will have a sugar chest in the Washington house.

Cellarette (1)

Cellarette at Historic Kenmore that has been selected for reproduction as a Sugar Box for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Cellarette (2)

An interior view of the cellarette at Kenmore shows the large compartment on the upper right that may have been used for sugar storage.

As you seen with both the scrutoire and sugar box listed on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory, even when we have 270 year-old written documentation, there can still be mysteries to solve!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Collie, P.E. Are Cellarets from the East Coast and Sugar Chests from Kentucky? Edenton Historical Commission, 2016.  http://ehcnc.org/decorative-arts/furniture/cellarets-and-sugar-chests/

 

Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 1: Scrutoire

Furnishings posts logo finalThe furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is done, and the reproduction furnishings are being made.  Whew! It was a long process, filled with lengthy research and sometimes a few head-scratchers.  Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory was our guiding document in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written more than 270 years ago (and long before spelling was standardized) the names on it for certain objects were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some digging to determine what exactly they were.

Right off, we have the enigmatic entry on the first line of the inventory for the Hall.  The handwritten words seemed to be “Scren Fore” or perhaps “Scren Tore”, with a valuation of 13 shillings.  There is no colonial-era furnishing known by that name, and extensive research turned up very little evidence as to what the inventory-takers could have meant by a “scren fore” or “scren tore.” At present, our best educated guess is that “scren tore” was an attempt at phonetically spelling the word “scrutoire”, a furniture form unique to the Rappahannock river valley and eastern Virginia during the first half of the 18th century.  Several variations of the word “scrutoire” show up in advertisements and probate inventories from those early years, suggesting there was a wide interpretation of how to spell and pronounce the word.  In fact, it is believed that “scrutoire” itself is a corruption of the French word “escritoire,” which describes a diminutive ladies’ desk.

Scren Tore

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” highlighted in pink.

A scrutoire in colonial Virginia was also a desk, topped with a bookcase or shelving, and enclosed with two pairs of doors.  The main difference between a scrutoire and a bookcase-on-desk of the variety we are most accustomed to seeing is that there is no slant-top, or fall-front writing surface in a scrutoire.  Rather, the writing surface is a pull-put board, which is also hidden by the doors when closed.  When not in use, a scrutoire resembles a cabinet or cupboard.

The scrutoire is usually associated with shopkeepers or merchants, as the desks almost always feature slots for oversized ledgers, and a variety of cubbyholes and small drawers for accounting purposes.  It appears that the scrutoire was a form brought to the Virginia colony by Scottish furniture makers, who settled near the Rappahannock and along the eastern shore, in places like Fredericksburg and Williamsburg.  In Scotland, the scrutoire had existed as far back as the 17th century.

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The reproduction scrutoire that will be displayed inside the completed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

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The valuation given to the supposed scrutoire in the probate inventory was also a somewhat problematic clue. At just 13 shillings, it seems rather low for a significant case piece.  However, this oddity may be explained by Sumpter Priddy in his 2012 article on scrutoires in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ journal.  As they were a form popular in Scotland as early as the 17th century, they arrived in colonial Virginia rather early in its history, and by the mid-18th century had fallen out of favor to the more common slant-front bookcase-on-desk.  While their valuations in early probate inventories show them to be highly valued household furnishings, by mid-century, they are almost universally given low values, indicating their old, worn-out, unfashionable status in the household.

A scrutoire currently in the collections of Mount Vernon served as the basis for our reproduction. This example dates to slightly after Augustine Washington’s death. It is attributed to Robert Walker, a Scottish craftsman who counted Augustine and Mary Washington among his clients in the 1740s and 1750s.  Later, he would produce pieces for the next generation of the Washington family as well as for Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law at Kenmore.  It seems likely that if the Washingtons of Ferry Farm did indeed own a scrutoire, it would have been produced by their favorite local Scottish craftsman.  The Mount Vernon piece does have a tradition of ownership on Virginia’s Northern Neck, where it descended in the Jett family, who lived in close proximity to the Washingtons at Pope’s Creek, and were not far from Fredericksburg and the later Washington home at Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty confident we’ve solved the mystery of the “Scren Fore” or “Scren Tore” but that left at least one other  strange item on Augustine Washington’s 270-year-old probate inventory to investigate.  We’ll turn to that mystery in part 2 of this post in early August!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Video: Furnishing George’s House – Painting the Corner Cupboard

Furnishings posts logo finalOver the last week on Lives & Legacies, we’ve been talking a lot about the Washington house corner cupboard!  We’re obviously excited because not only is the cupboard beautiful and a beautifully-made piece but because it also represents a shift from building the structure of the Washington house itself to an increased focus on the interior details as well as the start of the furnishing process.

As you learned in last week’s video and written post, talented joiners from Colonial Williamsburg built the corner cupboard. They also painted it and, recently, shared a quick timelapse video of the painting on the Historic Trades & Skills of Colonial Williamsburg Facebook page.  We wanted to share the video too!

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.