Vocabulary sorts the antique ‘thingamajigs’ from the ‘whatsits’



Have you ever been in the position of admiring a friend’s new antique purchase when they remark on the exceptional quality of the ‘qhystfk’ of the piece?

You don’t know whether to look at your watch or pull out the top drawer and agree with them. Or maybe you are trying to describe a new find to a neighbor but are at a loss for words. “The doobie that sits on the whatsit needs some repair to the thingamajig” just doesn’t seem to get it. Or worst of all you call a restoration shop to see if they have any of those ‘dohickeys’ and they laugh at you.

To help guide you through the obscure and sometimes arcane (I had to look it up) world of antiques terminology, here are a few of the basics, many of which I am sure you already know but still you may find a new pearl to amaze and delight your friends.

ACANTHUS CARVING – The leafy carving on much traditional furniture. It is said to resemble the leaves of the acanthus bush but since it only grows in Africa, Asia and southern Europe, I will take it on faith.

ARMOIRE – One of those French words we have inherited. This one means a large cabinet that substitutes for a closet in houses that don’t have any. Since most modern houses have adequate closets, we now use armoires as entertainment centers and the like.

ASTRAGAL – The small piece of wood that overlaps the doors on a piece of case goods to hide the space between the doors and provide integrity for the lock. It is often rounded or grooved to blend in so as to appear part of both doors.

BERGERE – Another French word for an upholstered chair with closed arms and a loose cushion (not to be confused with FAUTEUIL below). Popular during the American Classical period. In modern usage the term is loosely used to mean an upholstered arm chair in one of the French styling variations.

BREUER CHAIR – NOT BREWER CHAIR. Although not exactly an antique word or usage, it is common in the trade. Marcel Breuer was a German designer for the Bauhaus. His totally functional, tubular steel design from the 1920s, with bent pine seats covered in fabric or cane has become a 20th century classic and one of the bastions of misused vocabulary.

CANTERBURY – Fancy English name for a book rack, generally on wheels with a handle, not much larger than a footstool.

CHAMFERED – Usually refers to one corner or edge of a square object that is cut to create a flat or “beveled” edge. An example is a Chippendale chair with Marlborough legs that have the inside corners of the legs shaved or “chamfered.”

CHEVAL – As in cheval glass or cheval mirror. This is a free standing tall mirror supported on the floor by its own base and columns. First popular in the early 19th century.

CREST RAIL – The top back rail of a chair.

DAMASK – A type of upholstery and drapery fabric that features a pattern on a pattern, usually of the same color. Named after Damascus where it first appeared around the 12th century. Italy dominated in its manufacture from the Middle Ages to the late 17th century. Originally produced primarily in silk.

DEMILUNE – Crescent shaped or half-round, as in a demilune table, literally a half moon.

DENTIL MOLDING – A decorative trim molding of square or rectangular blocks that resemble teeth. Why it is spelled “dentil” instead of “dental” is lost on me.

ESCUTCHEON – The decorative plate that surrounds a keyhole. Usually made of brass but can be wood or even composition in later pieces. Not to be confused with the “key surround” or “keyhole,” the brass outline of the hole itself.

ETAGERE – Surrounded by the French again. A series of shelves, usually freestanding with their own columns for the display of “objects de art.” Severely Americanized to “Whatnot,” it attained great popularity with the late 19th century Victorians.

FAUTEUIL – Upholstered armchair in which the arms are open as opposed to closed (fully upholstered) on a Bergere.

FERRULE – The metal casing, round or square around the bottom of a chair or table leg. Often encompasses a caster. Originally used in the 18th century to add support and strength to the leg and protect it from wet mops and hard boots but later used purely as decoration.

FINIAL – It sits on top; usually on a bed post or at the top center of a china cabinet. Some different kinds are acorn, urn, twist, ball and flame.

MUNTIN – That filigree stuff in the glass doors of 20th century china cabinets that always seems to be in bad shape. Its usually made of very thin plywood or veneer and is used to give the illusion of separate panes of glass in the door. In cabinets that have separate panes of glass, the muntins are the wood pieces actually holding the glass.

ORMOLU – Brass, bronze or copper castings that have been gilded and mounted as decorations on furniture. Used first principally by the French in the 18th century and later used extensively in Rococo and Neoclassical stylings. In 20th century reproductions it is often cast “pot metal” that is then painted with brass or gold paint.

PATERA – The usually oval shaped inlaid or carved design featured on the skirts of Federal tables, among others.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s Web site at www.furnituredetective.com. His book, How to be a Furniture Detective, is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Send check or money order for $21.95 to the address above.

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) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

Fred Taylor writes a syndicated series of monthly articles under the bylines “Common Sense Antiques” and “Questions and Common Sense Answers” for antiques and collectibles publications in the U.S. and Canada. He covers major antiques auctions all over the country and is a contributor to the semi-annual publication Antiques and Art Around Florida.



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Representations of antique furniture terms.

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