Depression furniture offers outstanding value


Some of the best buys in furniture today are items manufactured in America during our “Depression” cycle, which in furniture terms runs from roughly 1920 to 1960. Many of the items from this period are of made of very high quality materials, expertly assembled and finished.

As World War I drew to a close, the fledgling conservation movement in America, begun around 1900, was beginning to have an effect. Instead of turning out solid mahogany, oak and walnut pieces, the furniture industry, in response to environmental pressures, began to introduce new lines and designs making extensive use of fancy veneers which greatly increased the productivity of such indigenous hardwoods as walnut. Veneers had been used previously in many cases but usually only as decoration, and was even used by the Egyptians over 3,000 years ago. But American manufacturers developed the five layer process and veneered furniture became the standard throughout the world, paving the way for such decorative innovations as Art Moderne and Art Deco.

The five layer process starts with a solid core of a relatively inexpensive hardwood, such as birch or poplar, that is roughly the desired thickness of the piece being made, about 3/4 inch. Then a sub-strate of another common wood, such as gum, approximately 1/16-inch thick is glued to both sides of the solid core with its grain at right angles to the core. Finally, a face veneer such as walnut or mahogany is glued on top of that, again at a right angle to the next layer (top and bottom) so that five layers of wood, all at right angles to each other, now make up the solid table top or drawer front under construction. The bottom layer usually will not be the same as the top, i.e. mahogany or walnut, but will instead be gum or poplar – but it does count as a layer. This type of construction will stay straighter longer and more strength than a similar sized piece constructed of a single piece of solid wood or a series of solid boards glued together.

This construction technique, combined with the use of solid hardwood such as poplar and birch for structural members like legs, rails, stiles, cases, mirror frames, bed posts, chair backs, and so on, has resulted in the long term survival and availability of furniture from our recent past at generally affordable prices for very high quality.

Manufacturers of the period generally were not shy about styling, and subtlety was not the main concern. Remember, this was the era of the “Flapper” and the “Zoot suit” and just about anything went. It is not at all uncommon to see a dining set with a table featuring Duncan Phyfe legs, chairs with Hepplewhite splats and Sheraton fluted legs or Empire rolled arms, a china cabinet with a Chippendale broken pediment and a buffet with a Regency mirror, all with Queen Anne hardware!

In spite of the stylistic excesses in many cases, the solid construction is almost universal in this period and for good, serviceable, solid wood (no particle board) furniture, you can find exceptional value, dollar for dollar, in American Depression. While furniture from this period is not generally called “antique” by knowledgeable collectors, it is usually classified as “collectible” and is sometimes referred to as the “antique of tomorrow” since most of it will probably last the minimum hundred years. For more details on this important period of American furniture, see “Furniture of the Depression Era” by Swedberg, Collector Books, 1987 and “American Manufactured Furniture” by Fredgant, Schiffer Publishing, 1988. ?

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com.

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 info@furnituredetective.com.

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In the 1930s, the furniture industry introduced new designs making use of fancy veneers, such as those seen in 'waterfall' style bedroom sets, shown here. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

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