Furniture Detective: Looking closely at brass hardware aids in deciding furniture age

By Fred Taylor

When you read the catalog for an auction that will be presenting some genuine antique furniture, it’s always interesting to read the descriptions. Some of the most alluring will describe a piece of furniture as having “original finish” or “original brasses.” That’s a real selling point when looking at a chest of drawers that might be 200 years old and think that those brass pulls have been there undisturbed for that whole time.

Can that be?

Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

Sure it can, but sometimes that’s not the case. And it doesn’t have to be a 200-year-old antique chest for the hardware to make a difference. It could be a pretty nice Colonial Revival chest or desk or dresser, in excellent condition, that catches your fancy.

But is it all original? And does it matter?

Whether it matters is a concern for another day. Today the discussion is just on determining the originality of hardware.

Since changing or altering hardware is one of the quickest and cheapest ways of improving the look of an otherwise-bland piece, the pulls are always suspect, especially if they look really good.

Early 18th century hardware was cast from molten brass using molds made of sand. This type of hardware is easy to recognize because it often has “inclusions” from the sand itself in the brass, either grains of sand or odd colors from impurities. The backs of this type of hardware were often left with the impression of the sand while the faces were polished. Around the middle of the 18th century the customary blend of copper and zinc was changed to include more copper, giving the alloy more of a reddish cast than the pale yellow brass used for hardware earlier in the century. And by 1780, rolled brass sheets were available so that each piece of hardware could be cut or stamped rather than having to be cast. This greatly reduced the cost and increased the availability and uniformity of late 18th century drawer pulls and escutcheons.

The use of high pressure rollers during the Federal period increased output even more. No longer did decorative pulls have to be engraved or chased individually. The designs were rolled right into the brass itself. An excellent example of this kind of work is the ornate oval backplate of Hepplewhite pulls of the early 1800s with flags, acorns and leaves embossed on them.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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Another innovation of the Federal period was the reversing of the bail (the handle). In the Queen Anne period, the bail was inserted into the round heads of posts implanted in the backplate. The ends of the bail entered the posts from the inside and the bail hung between the two posts.

In the Federal era, the bails entered the post from the outside so that they surrounded the posts. But much of that became moot as time rolled on.

The Empire period certainly had decorative hardware but that was the end of it for nearly half a century. The Late Classicism style of the 1830s and 1840s used almost no brass hardware and Rococo Revival and Renaissance Revival used very little. It was only in the Eastlake period in the 1880s that brass hardware became important again.

The post at the top is handmade from the early 19th century. Note the rough texture and the shallow, flat treads. This post started as a square rod. The post on the bottom is a machine made post from the mid-20th century with a smooth surface and perfect threads. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

The post at the top is handmade from the early 19th century. Note the rough texture and the shallow, flat treads. This post started as a square rod. The post on the bottom is a machine made post from the mid-20th century with a smooth surface and perfect threads. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

So, if the hardware is the right style, looks appropriate for the piece and could very well be as old as the piece, how can you tell? The easiest and least intrusive way is simple observation.

Over the years you can bet that not every time that hardware was cleaned some industrious soul removed it from the drawer. The same is true each time the piece got waxed. If the finish was waxed or the brass cleaned while the pull was in place, there will be some residue around the edge of the brass. The build up of wax or the overflow of brass cleaner will be evident. But that clue is only valid in its presence. Its absence could mean the piece was meticulously maintained or that it has just been deeply cleaned or even refinished.

A quick peek inside the drawer might show the presence of holes that once accommodated the fasteners for hardware other than the current resident. The fasteners themselves can be a clue. The hardware of a 17th century piece would have been held in place by clinched cotter pins on the inside. If there is evidence of that but the current fasteners have threaded posts and nuts, something has been altered. And the threaded posts of an 18th century piece would have been hand cut and the nuts were usually round. If machine-made threads and octagonal machine-made nuts are visible, something’s up.

As a last resort, if possible, remove the existing hardware from the drawer front. Carefully examine the wood and the finish revealed when the brass is gone. Is there a shadow of another size or differently shaped piece of hardware? Is there an imprint in the finish caused by the sharp edge of another piece?

Your best tool is knowledge of what the correct hardware looked like for each style and period in which you have an interest.

I have yet to find a book or source that deals with this narrow subject, so as you read related antiques materials, you just have to mentally catalog what hardware looks like for a given period style.

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