A Case to Ponder: Is it 18th century? Or not?

By Dr. Anthony Cavo

Provenance (and a little background narrative)

As a teenager my family lived next door to two women, a mother and daughter named Mary and Doris, respectively. People in the neighborhood referred to them as recluses. Their house was the spooky one, complete with crooked shutters, overgrown bushes, trees, and lawn. Shingles were missing from the roof and siding and the paint was worn to the wood. Broken windows had been replaced by cardboard and tape and the dirt driveway. This led to a garage with a swayback roof with holes, that was impassable with overgrowth.

From before World War I until the 1930s, Mary and Doris lived in a true mansion in our town. It was on many wooded acres in their own private world. Mary’s husband Chester and a son named Edward lived there. They had a gatekeeper, a chauffeur, a cook, and a nursemaid. Chester had a thriving urology practice on Pierpont Street in Brooklyn. He was the author of several books on the subject. Photographs from that time show them in a seemingly enchanted world.

Surviving Challenges

Tragically, Edward committed suicide at the age of 18 and Chester died not long afterward. Leaving Mary and Doris with nothing but the house, its contents, and property. Mary, who had a poor understanding of finances, was apparently left impoverished by a succession of corrupt lawyers and bankers. She was forced to sell the property. She lost most of Chester’s book collection to unscrupulous book dealers, and took whatever possessions meant the most to her. The mother-daughter duo moved into a smaller home sometime during the 1930s; she lived there until her death in 1972.

We had a family of eight and it was nothing for my mom to cook for two more. So she often provided meals for the Stones. Mary and Doris were not well and pretty much housebound; they relied on us for their shopping and other needs. For a brief period of time they were without electricity as they couldn’t pay the bill. My parents quickly remedied that situation. At one point the town threatened to condemn their property if they did not clean it up. My family stepped in. We cleared the overgrowth, fixed doors and windows, and then finally painted the house. There was little we could do for the wall in the dining room, which actually swung in and out with a strong push. They had little money and no family other than Mary’s sister, Aunt Mim Haviland. An aunt who lived far and was ailing as well.

Invitation To A World Unseen

It was an entire year of delivering dinners before Mary invited me into her home. Entering a world

Cavo's case

After receiving this case of drawers as a gift, the owner (Dr. Anthony Cavo) examines the details in order to establish its origins. (All photos courtesy of Dr. Anthony Cavo)

untouched for almost four decades. They had four large cats that hissed and spit and watched from under furniture and atop bookcases. It seemed a page right out of Great Expectations, complete with updated versions of Miss Havisham. They had a candlestick telephone and employed candles and kerosene lamps to save on electricity. The house was quite dark and every corner, light fixture, door and window undulated with cobwebs. Layers of two to three thick sarouk carpets covered creaky wooden floors; draperies hung in doorways and covered every window pierced only by the sunlight that entered through the cat-scratched material.

Twenty-five years before I had first entered this house, the plaster ceiling in the bathroom collapsed into the bathtub filling it with debris. Consequently, the women took only sponge baths from old bowl and pitcher sets. A soggy cardboard container served as a litter box the contents of which seeped through to the floor; the stench was almost intolerable.

House Intrigue Trumps All

Far from being repulsed or afraid, I was intrigued. My first visit was limited to the parlor and dining room. Mary was immediately impressed with my knowledge of antiques and my ability to identify and date much of her furnishings. It was 1969, and at the ripe old age of 12 I had been in the antique business for six whole years. I was a six year veteran of countless auctions. And a vendor at the flea market on 26th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York. Despite the 67 year difference in our ages we became friends and with the passage of time and much selective breathing, I came to know every inch of the house.

The case of drawers is part of a gift I received. A ‘thank you’ for three years of mowing lawns, raking leaves, running errands, and shoveling snow. All on a piece of property just short of an acre. I had long admired the piece along with several others descended in Mary’s family. So, on my 15th birthday this piece and a number of other items were given to me. They were a present from Mary, whose full name was Mary Lodema Schouten Stone (1890-1972). She was the widow of Dr. Chester Tilton Stone (1886-1937), author of seven medical books and patent holder of the circumcision bell.

Celebrating Stewardship

Mary explained that after she and Doris were gone there was no one to whom she could leave these long-cared-for pieces. She said she was “passing along stewardship” and explained that I would be “the new custodian of a piece of history.” She knew I loved the pieces, understood what they were and would care for them as she had; she didn’t much care about the rest. Most of the furniture was warped from being closed in unheated, damp rooms and the carpets rotted from damp and cat urine. It’s a wonder the items she gave me had survived as long as they had.

Mary was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Chester was a member of the Sons of the Revolution; his genealogy had been traced back to the fourteenth century William at the Stone. Along with the case Mary also gave me an 18th-century linen press, her nursing school pins from 1915, her D.A.R. pin, and many of Chester’s medical tools and books. She also gave me a New York State land deed made to Alexander Macomb and signed by Lewis Allaire Scott, Secretary of the State of New York, and her ancestor, Governor George Clinton (1739-1812). She said the deed had been stored in the case until it was framed.

Tracing The Roots

Fan carving design on drawers

(Figure 1) The feature that stands out the most on this case of drawers is this carved fan, which is typical of pieces executed in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Mary was a descendant of George Clinton, vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the longest-serving governor (21 years) of New York State. According to Mary, the case and linen press originated in Connecticut, belonged to George Clinton and had been handed down through her family; the provenance is verbal, but Mary Lodema Schouten Stone’s genealogy and lineage are verifiable.

This particular piece is the upper half of a flat top, cornice molded tallboy (the base had been given away when the piece proved too tall for the room in which it was going to be used). I believed Mary’s story, I still do, however I decided to determine the age of the piece for myself; this is how I proceeded.

First, I posed a number of questions: Is the patina right for the reported age, is the style and wood geographically correct for New England, does the wood display appropriate signs of wear and age, would I find the expected tool marks, and is the construction right for the period? The only way to determine the answers to these questions was to consider the case point-by-point. In a piece of furniture greater than 200 years old there are certain characteristics you would expect to find in terms of style, construction methods, tool marks, brasses, patina, and other effects of aging.

The Finish is the Beginning

During the eighteenth century, cherry trees were abundant in Connecticut and a valuable source of wood for furniture makers. The primary and secondary woods of this case are cherry. This type of wood is especially sensitive to light and darkens with age at a very fast rate. The exposed cherry wood in this case is dark reddish brown to deep amber in color. The fine, tight, straight grain indicative of cherry can be appreciated in the bottom of the drawers, which have not been exposed to as much light and oxidation as the outside surfaces, and therefore have retained a lighter shade (Figure 2).

Eighteenth-century furniture that was not veneered was often finished with a stain that was meant to mimic better wood or improve the appearance by making the finish more uniform. A wax coat was applied to the stain and finally a varnish. Many of these pieces have since been refinished. Careful examination of sides of drawers, the interior, and back of the case may indicate signs of refinishing such as stripping, sanding, or even dripping of a newer finish. An overall, even finish on an eighteenth-century piece is inconsistent with an original finish; furniture does not wear uniformly.

Scent Speaks Volumes

Lastly, the nose knows. Smell the piece for the scent of chemicals; a two-hundred-year-old stain and

Drawer construction illustration

From left (Figure 5, Figure 6, and Figure 7): All characteristics of the case’s drawer construction.

varnish gave up the smell long ago. Pieces recently refinished may still retain a chemical scent; however, a piece with refinishing done 100 years ago will have no chemical smell and show wear; these are more difficult to identify in terms of original versus an “updated” finish. This particular case shows age-appropriate wear in the expected areas and no signs of recent refinishing. The secondary woods all remain unfinished. Always be suspicious of a “period” piece of furniture when the secondary wood is finished or stained; eighteenth-century cabinet makers did not waste time or effort finishing secondary woods (Figure 3).

When nails were used during the late eighteenth century, they were hand wrought and therefore irregularly shaped. During the last decade of the eighteenth century a nail cutting machine was available. But the heads of the nails still had to be shaped by a heading tool. The heads of hand-wrought and late eighteenth century cut nails were slightly dome-shaped and referred to as rose-head as they are evocative of the petals of a rose. They leave irregularly shaped marks in the surface of the wood; even when the nails are missing the shape left by the head of the nail can help determine what type of nail was used.

Throughout the years, iron leeches from these hand-wrought nails to discolor the surrounding area (Figure 4). Because early nails had a low carbon content the wood around the nail eventually blackens; nails from the nineteenth century contain higher amounts of carbon and cause a reddish-brown discoloration in the wood.

Draw(er) Your Own Conclusions

The drawer construction is also typical of drawers from the period. The corners display uneven, asymmetrically placed, hand-dovetailed construction. The bottom of the drawers are thick with chamfered edges fitting into a slot or trench known as a dado. The top edges of the drawer sides were rounded and typically lower than the drawer front, to prevent climacteric expansion and contraction of the wood that would interfere with movement (Figure 5).

Additionally, and to ensure smooth closing of the drawer after it was opened, the top rear corners of the drawer were chamfered (Figure 6). In drawers constructed in the eighteenth century the bottoms are fitted into dados along the sides and in the front, but not at the back (Figure 9). The bottoms of the drawers extend beyond the back of the drawer as a stop and prevents the drawer itself from hitting the case (Figures 9 and 10).

Generally, the grain in the bottom boards of drawers prior to the mid-eighteenth century ran from front-to-back, and after that time from side-to-side. The bottom boards in the smaller drawers of this piece run front to back while the grain in the larger drawers run side-to-side supporting a post-1750 date of construction. On solid front drawers (those that are not veneered) there is typically an overshoot of the saw on scribe lines at the back of the drawer fronts; these overshoot lines are not deep enough to mar the façade. This overshoot is purposely done to reduce the amount of chisel work needed to clean out the openings that accommodate the dovetail (Figure 7). These characteristics of drawer construction are all present in this particular case.

Understand Pattern of Shrinkage

Case pull backplates view

The front and back of backplates on the pulls of a case.

The bottom panels of the larger drawers display splitting of the wood; something you would expect to find in an older piece. Organic materials will shrink with age, and wood, being an organic material shrinks with age, but in a very definite pattern. Shrinking of wood occurs across the grain (think of the growth lines becoming narrower or the grain becoming tighter). This shrinkage results in splitting of wood that has been fixed at the borders (nailed or otherwise secured into place). If the wood is fixed the edges cannot shrink inward so the wood pulls on itself until ultimately it pulls apart. This splitting will occur in the same direction of the grain (parallel to the grain), rather than across the grain. To reiterate: shrinkage occurs across the grain, resulting in splitting along the lines of the grain (Figure 8)

The illustrations (Figures 9 and 10) depict typical eighteenth-century drawer assembly. Note the open-back construction where the bottom panel is deeply chamfered (planed down to form narrow edges) and fitted beneath the back panel of the drawer into grooves (dados) cut in the sides and front of the drawer; the bottom panel extends beneath and beyond the back panel of each drawer, (Figures 9 and 10) acting as a stop. This prevents the back of each drawer from hitting the back panel of the case. This was an early “stop” measure seen prior to the use of blocks.

Dovetails That Fly Right

Hand-cut dovetail construction first appears in the late seventeenth century. For the next eighty years or so dovetails were crude, stubby, and wide. One to four dovetails seen fastening the corners of box-constructed pieces such as drawers. Dovetails became thin and delicate by the end of the eighteenth century.

The dovetails in the drawers of this case (Figure 12) are wide, stubby, and crude, with a total of three in the corner of each drawer along with visible scribe lines that defined the depth of the tail. The same crude, stubby dovetails and scribe lines can be seen on the inset top surface of the piece (Figure 13) and the front cross rails (Figures 14 and 15).

Toolmarks Lend To Discovery of Age

Crude, stubby, irregular dovetails indicate hand-cut dovetails of the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Exposed dovetails can be seen in the tops of flat-top highboys, which were typically left unfinished or even composed of a secondary wood, as the top of a highboy was not meant to be seen as is the fact with this case.

Tool marks on the exposed surfaces of secondary wood can also provide valuable clues to age. From the early seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century pit saws were used, these left distinctive deep, up-and-down, irregular marks – l / l l \ \ / l. Mechanical saws left smoother, parallel, uniform vertical marks – | | | | | |. After 1840 or so, circular saws were used, which left, as the name implies, circular marks – ( ( ( ( ( ( (. The marks noted on the inside of the backboard are consistent with the irregular vertical marks left by an up-and-down sawing motion as you would see with a pit saw (Figure 16).

Other tool marks plainly visible on this case are the deep furrows (parallel ridges and hollows) on the outside surface of the backboard left by the “fore” or jack plane. This indicates that the case was hand-planed, as most furniture was prior to the mid-nineteenth century (Figure 17).

Hardware Hints

Brasses (pulls, bails, posts, nuts, escutcheons) are another, although often unreliable method for determining age. Often the only thing you may be able to determine with any accuracy is the age of the brass. Brasses, often receiving an update, leaves an old case with new pulls. Nothing prevented older pulls from being used on newer cases. Brasses, however, can be invaluable when they support other findings.

Backplates on early pulls were sand-cast; a wood form was pressed into the sand and the impression made by this form was used as a mold into which the molten brass would be poured. Once cooled, the brass would be removed and the rough edges filed, often beveled. This method leaves a distinctive rough surface on the back of the plate and often on the edges.

The backplates of the pulls on this case retain the characteristic stippled marks, discoloration, and inclusions from sand casting, The backs are rough, gritty, even abrasive when the fingernail is pulled across them (Figure 19). Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, brasses were brighter yellow due to the ratio of zinc to copper; later, a higher copper content was used, which resulted in a more reddish cast to the brass, as seen in the brasses in this case (Figure 18). The rough, stippled backs on these backplates indicate they were sand-cast and are from a pre-Federal era. By 1780 backplates could be stamped or cut from rolled brass. Stamped backplates have smooth evenly colored backs as well as smooth fronts.

Backplate Fasteners Offer Clues

The backplates in this piece are fastened to the drawer fronts by posts with threads on one end and

Nuts and a bail

Nuts and a bail can be a clue to the age of a piece (Figure 20).

a ball on the other; eighteenth-century nuts were usually round. Hand-cut posts were square between the ball and threads, and machine cut posts were round. Bails made prior to the mid-eighteenth century enter the post from the outside. After that time the bail entered the post from the inside as they do on these pulls (Figure 20). Note the scarring and marks on the lowest portion of the bail as a result of more than two-hundred years of striking against the backplate each time the drawer was opened and the bail released.

Examination of the wood under the back plate of the pull reveals the presence of residue outlining the borders of the pull. This is most likely a build-up of wax and other cleaners such as brass polish used over the years with the pull in place. Further inspection reveals the presence of another set of three holes, which suggests the pulls may not be original to the piece, or quite possibly changed very early on or even during construction. Perhaps the pulls were updated and the original pulls later replaced. This is all supposition but something to be considered when identifying and detecting characteristics of furniture. Important to note is the fact that there is no impression or shadow suggestive of another shaped pull. Also that the pulls are age-appropriate to the piece.

This is all supposition but something to consider when identifying and detecting characteristics of furniture. Important to note is the fact that there is no impression or shadow suggestive of another shaped pull. Also that the pulls are age-appropriate to the piece.

Examine, Inspect, Repeat

A verbal provenance may be inaccurate or even apocryphal and so consider as only a guide. Discounting the verbal provenance and considering the salient, verifiable features of construction, this piece dates to the third quarter of the eighteenth century. When examining furniture in shops or auction previews, it may be handy to have a list of things to check for on furniture identified as the eighteenth century.

You may also wish to carry a small flashlight to check undersurfaces and interiors. Lights can also be held at an angle to the surface of furniture to easily detect saw marks and other tool marks and irregularities expected in handmade furniture. Check for age-expected splitting, evidence of refinishing, replacement of parts – feet and legs especially, handmade or machine made nails or screws, and the presence of original or replacement hardware.

And, finally, a word about worm holes. Worm holes do not necessarily indicate centuries-old furniture; a hungry worm during the Eisenhower administration would have made the same type of hole as a pre-Federal era worm. Beware of “worm holes” that have never seen a worm. Often the only worm many of these holes have seen is the worm operating a drill while attempting to fake age on reproductions. Straight pins or sewing needles will differentiate natural worm holes from man-made worm holes. Natural worm holes are never straight. Apin will not pass into one, whereas a needle is easily inserted in holes made by human worms.

Hone Your Antiquing ‘Eye’

If you come across an antique that appears to be a steal, you can almost be sure that it’s the seller who is doing the stealing. Never fall for the “it has some age” line – everything including my laptop, has “some age”. Question the dealer as to what that “age” is. It pays to be suspicious, don’t rest on the word of the auctioneer or dealer — the piece must prove itself. It is better to begin as a skeptic and end as a believer than to begin as a believer and end up disappointed. Information, evidence, and finally proof should be requirements for the transition from skepticism to satisfaction. So bust out your flashlight, magnifying glass, blacklight, needle, a pipe and your deerstalker and happy sleuthing.

The pipe and deerstalker aren’t really necessary, but they add a touch of realism to the new sleuth in you.  

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