Political turmoil is seldom something to be thankful for, but it sometimes produces positive results. The political unrest in Germany in the middle of the 19th century actually had a profoundly positive effect on American furniture construction and design for the next 50 years.
A large number of German craftspeople made their way to America in the 19th century, but four in particular stand out in the furniture field: John Henry Belter, George Hunzinger and Gustave and Christian Herter.
John Henry Belter
Born in Germany in 1804, Belter made his way to New York where he opened a cabinet shop in 1844 at 401/2 Chatham Square. Within a couple of years, he had moved to Broadway along what would become “furniture row” in Manhattan. In the 1850s, he opened his factory at 3rd Avenue and 76th St. Belter worked in America at the height of the Rococo Revival period represented by the flowing, flowery, sinuously overdone style employed to recreate the lavishness of the 18th century French court.
Belter took the style to a new pinnacle using a technique he had learned in Germany based on the work of Michael Thonet, the Austrian cabinetmaker who perfected a method for laminating and bending layers of wood into unusual forms. Belter used the idea to create some of the most striking seating and cabinetry ever seen.
While he did not invent the laminating process, he did receive a number of patents for his ideas involving steaming the laminated layers in cawls or molds to produce thin surfaces that were curved in two planes and were incredibly strong. The strength of the laminated material allowed Belter to produce the elaborate pierced carvings that decorated formal drawing rooms across the country, including that of Abraham Lincoln, in patterns called “Rosalie,” “Rosalie Without Grapes,” “Tuthill King,” “Henry Clay” and the “Bird,” among many others.
While Belter was not the only cabinetmaker turning out Rococo Revival pierce-carved masterpieces (Meeks, Boudine, Jellif and Mallard also come to mind), he consistently took the form to the extreme, in the highest quality and his name is most closely associated with the genre.
After Belter’s death in 1864, his business was operated by his in-laws, the Springmeiers, before closing for good in 1867.
Gustave and Christian: The Herter Brothers
Gustave Herter, born in Germany in 1830, fled the impending revolution in Germany in 1848. Like Hunzinger, he arrived in America already fully trained as cabinetmaker and ready to go to work.
In 1851, he opened his furniture shop in Manhattan but unlike so many before him, he stayed away from downtown and made the most fortuitous choice of his life by opening in the neighborhood that would soon be home to Macy’s, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Lord & Taylor and Tiffany.
Working in the common styles of the period, Gustave rose to prominence with his early individual pieces. However, it wasn’t until his younger half brother Christian, born in Stuttgart in 1840, left Germany and joined his brother’s business in 1864 that the Herter name really took off. Christian assumed control of the business in 1870 and was solely in charge until he retired in 1880. Herter Brothers took advantage of the change in direction in American furniture, abandoning Rococo Revival and making a name in the new Renaissance Revival period. After the Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Herters concentrated on the Japanese influence in the Aesthetic Movement.
But the Herter Brothers’ main contribution to American furnishings was in the complete decorative schemes, developed mainly by Christian, which they used to create the look of astonishing opulence for their clients such as Vanderbilt, Morgan, Gould, Crocker and others of the Gilded Age millionaires. Herter Brothers at its height employed more than 600 craftsmen and designers, and Christian registered 14 patterns of wallpaper with the U.S. Patent Office in 1879 alone.
Herter Brothers brought a combination of craftsmanship, uncompromising quality and exquisite original taste to American home furnishings that had not been realized until that time. Christian died of consumption in 1883 followed by Gustave in 1898. The firm continued until 1907.
Hunzinger, born in 1835, made his way to New York in 1855, empty handed but not empty headed, having already been trained in the 200-year-old family tradition of cabinetmaking. He opened a shop in 1866 and moved to Seventh Avenue in Manhattan in 1870.
Hunzinger’s approach to furniture making and styling was almost the opposite of Belter’s. Hunzinger was very involved in the evolving technology of the second half of the century and his concepts were those of the engineer. He incorporated the style into the technology rather than the technology into the style. He allowed the machinery to do the work and concentrated on fitting the pieces together in a series of unique forms.
Commonly perceived as the father of the modern folding chair, which he is of course, Hunzinger’s forward-thinking anticipated modern manufacturing techniques, turning out interchangeable parts for chairs and tables and his “mix and match” approach to wood choices, accessories and upholstery presaged the modern furniture showroom. His marketing plan was equally modern. Each piece produced in Hunzinger’s 50-employee factory was impressed, tagged or labeled with the maker’s name, establishing an identity in the marketplace.
From 1860 to his sudden death in 1898, Hunzinger accumulated 21 technical patents for his “furniture in motion” techniques. You can thank George Hunzinger, the German immigrant, for your comfortable, adjustable recliner.
The 19th century was an exciting time in the history of American furniture and these craftsmen, fleeing from political trouble in their own country, made great contributions to the craft in style, design and technology in their new country.
Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Fred’s website: 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.
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