Early 20th century furniture made in America developed its own unique style, loosely known as Colonial Revival. That “style” was characterized by the resurrection of themes and elements that remind us of those in use in Colonial times, primarily variations of forms found in England and on the Continent over the last three centuries. Those themes included the ponderous weight of Jacobean, the verticality of William and Mary, the graceful elegance of Queen Anne, the Rococo excesses of Chippendale and the self consciousness of Federal.
Colonial Revival assembled those themes and elements in ways that looked like a litter of puppies born to Spot and Blackie — a random mix. But it was just this randomness that created the uniquely American flavor of the furniture made in American factories in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
However, there was another element that was uniquely American about this genre of furniture, the wood from which it was made. At first glance you would probably be inclined to say that the most popular wood of the period was walnut, maybe even oak. Mahogany was certainly popular and many exotic imports such as zebrawood, Australian walnut and Carpathian elm were also featured. But a close examination of most pieces from that era reveal that the beautiful, richly grained surfaces, the tops and drawer fronts were mostly made of veneers, often laid up in matching patterns.
So what was the rest of the typical cabinet made from — the veneer underlayment, the legs, rails, stiles and frame? It sure looked like walnut or mahogany, having the same color and finish as the rest of the piece but somehow it seemed to lack something once the wood itself could be seen through the often dark and opaque finishes.
It turns out that the wood most frequently used in American furniture in the first half of the 20th century was gum, also known as sweet gum, red gum, hazel pine, sap gum, satin walnut and copalm balsam. Its real name is liquidambar styraciflua and it grows to as much as 150 feet in height from Connecticut to central Florida, as far west as Missouri and as far north as southern Illinois. It is also lightly scattered in northern Mexico, Honduras and Belize.
According to a report entitled “Furniture Selection and Its Use,” issued in 1931 by the National Committee on Wood Utilization, U.S. Department of Commerce, nearly three times as much gum was used in furniture production in 1928 as its nearest competitor, oak — 450 million board feet to 169 million board feet. In comparison only 51.5 million feet of walnut and 40 million feet of mahogany were used. The report further states that while the gum tree has been plentiful for centuries it traditionally has not been harvested for domestic use because of its tendency to split and warp when cured. New lumber drying technology developed in the early years of the 20th century enabled forest products companies to avoid this problem and gum became a primary wood in furniture production in the 1920s. Its use tripled in the 25 years ending in 1928.
Gum has all of the desired traits of a secondary wood: no distinct grain pattern of its own, a plentiful supply that keeps its price under control, a reasonable strength-to-weight ratio and moderate hardness yet with good workability. In short, an ideal material for structural uses in furniture.
Its natural color is slightly brown with hints of red, making it ideally suited for coloring to match mahogany and walnut. Following the introduction of aniline dye in the furniture industry it became possible to make telling the difference between walnut, mahogany, gum, poplar and birch very difficult.
The furniture industry of the 1920s naturally had its own trade organizations. One of them was the Hardwood Manufacturers Association based in Memphis, Tenn. It had several subsidiary “service bureaus” and one of those was the “Gumwood Service bureau” dedicated to the promotion of the use of gum in manufacturing. It was touted as “THE American furniture wood” by the bureau, which even published a promotional brochure entitled, “Beautiful American Gumwood.” Major manufacturers of the period such as Imperial and Mersman proclaimed the use of “selected gum with walnut finish” in their advertisements of the day when describing the structural components of their products.
Gum became almost the universal wood in the early 1900s. It was used in some standard grade rifle stocks by Winchester. It was used in the Victrola Orthophonic Credenza record player of the 1920s. The Edison Phonograph company introduced an all-gum unit in 1919, the “B-19 Chalet,” stained to simulate mahogany without the cost of mahogany. Even musical instruments had some gum. The “jasper shell” is a cylinder used in snare drum manufacturing that was made in the Jasper, Ind., area. Originally it consisted of two outer layers of maple, light in color and an inner core of dark gum.
The next time you get the opportunity to examine a “walnut” bedroom set from the 1930s or a “mahogany” dining set from the 1920s, take a good look at how much of it isn’t really the touted wood. Most of it is probably crafted from the ubiquitous gum tree. ?
His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or email@example.com.
More from Antique Trader and Fred Taylor, Furniture Detective
• Furniture Detective: Antique furniture mythbusting
• Furniture Detective: How to properly fix a Phyfe leg
• Furniture Detective: Labeling ‘American style’ furniture
• Furniture Detective: Depression-era furniture offers outstanding value
• Made by Hand: Furniture Projects From the Unplugged Workshop
Traditional woodworking using hand tools can offer a more satisfying relationship with the wood and the creative woodworking process. By working through the six projects in this book, you’ll learn the basics of hand-tool woodworking and how to use the tools effectively and efficiently, then add joinery skills and design complexity. The accompanying DVD includes valuable insight into the tools themselves and a look at the techniques that make these tools work so well.
• Finishes that Pop
Glen D. Huey pieces are instantly recognizable – in large part because of his signature finishes; they make Glen’s work stand out in any room. Whether you work with figured woods such as tiger maple or flame birch, or you use traditional hardwoods such as cherry, walnut or mahogany, this DVD shows you everything you need to make your finishes pop!
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