Furniture Detective: What’s in a name? Furniture lexicon clouded by misnomers

A quick reading of selected world history reveals a number of events or artifacts that are identified with a specific time, place or person. Many of these references are historically accurate, such as the Pax Romana (the so-called Roman Peace of the period 27 BC-180 AD) or the Victorian period of 1837-1901. But other references are a little shaky on accurate details, like the Trojan Horse. Was there really a Trojan Horse? And was it related to the Trojan War?

In the long run it makes good mythology, so the facts are secondary to the story. But in the antique furniture business, we frequently are looking more for the facts and less for a good story. Unfortunately, there are a number of “good stories” that associate a particular style or type of furniture with a specific individual — even though the facts are a little thin for the attribution.

One such famous case is the name commonly ascribed to the ubiquitous slant front desk. That name is the “Governor Winthrop” desk. As the story goes, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, had a desk like this. Winthrop was born in England in 1588 and died in the Colony in 1649. This was at least 50 years before the drop front desk appeared in England and about 100 years before Thomas Chippendale gave it the famous form that commonly bears the Governor’s name. In other words, Governor Winthrop did not have a desk like this.

So who is responsible for the name given to the form of the drop front desk? The Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston has that honor. They introduced a new model of the desk in 1924 and called it the “Governor Winthrop,” a clever play on words that has polluted the trade vocabulary for more than 80 years.

Another instance of the use, or misuse, of the name of an American historical figure is the case of Duncan Phyfe. Phyfe, whose family name was spelled Fife, was born in Scotland in 1768 and worked first in America in Albany in 1784 before moving to Manhattan around 1790. Phyfe was a talented cabinetmaker working in the styles of the day, including Sheraton, Federal Neoclassical and Empire. He didn’t retire until 1847, so he saw a lot of styles come and go. But one style that he didn’t see come or go was the “Duncan Phyfe” style. In fact there is no such style.

That little flight of fancy was the result of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922 featuring Phyfe’s work. Furniture manufacturers looking for inspiration in the burgeoning field of the Colonial Revival immediately attempted to parlay Phyfe’s fame into their own by referring to their revival reproductions as “Duncan Phyfe” style. Now every dining table in America with curved legs supporting a central pedestal is referred to as a “Duncan Phyfe” table.

But not every furniture misnomer is from America. A notorious philanderer has his name attached to a form of dressing table. In 18th century France, men were as much attuned to their wigs and makeup as were the women and a special piece of furniture evolved just for that purpose. Initially the form was called a “poudreuse,” meaning “powder” more or less in French. In the slang version it meant “duster of the man” in reference to the generous use of powder both in the wig and on the face. With its many compartments and drawers, the poudreuse was a very rare example of precious mirror glass actually being attached to a piece of furniture before the beginning of the 19th century. The popularity of the furniture pre dated its common namesake by several decades but eventually the name of the English dandy George Bryan (Beau) Brummel (1778-1840) became associated with the form and is the most common name attached to the fancy dressing table today.

Then, of course, there is the famous drop leaf table with the short sides and a drawer, which according to Thomas Chippendale, is the only thing that distinguishes a Pembroke table from a breakfast table. I have found over the years at least nine separate accounts and attributions for the name given to the table. One gives credit to Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), who allegedly ordered the original design. That’s about 150 years earlier than most other attributions.

Another story gives credit to Henry Herbert, the 9th Earl of Pembroke (1693-1751), who was an amateur architect and supposedly designed the table himself. Most commonly the table is ascribed to Chippendale around the middle of the 18th century who named it for either Lord or Lady Pembroke who ordered the design.

Christie’s states unequivocally that the table is named after the Earl of Pembroke but gives no dates, while Thomas Sheraton, who was closer to the source, said in his design book that the table was ordered by the Countess of the period. Whatever. At least we know the family from which it derived its name even if we don’t know exactly which member ordered it or exactly from whom and when. But at least that is some improvement.

Knowing the history behind the name of a piece of furniture is like getting more for your money when you buy a piece. It enhances the interest of the piece, a little value added just for the research.