Don’t be a Duncan Pfool: Remember to use furniture’s correct vocabulary

Every area of special interest has its own vocabulary and words of common usage. The area of antiques certainly falls in this category with some of its more obscure terms like recamier and bergere. But there are also a number of terms that are quite common in the industry and among these common terms are a significant number that are commonly misused, misspelled or misunderstood.

One of the ones I see frequently in inquiries from readers concerns that cabinet maker with the musical name, Duncan Phyfe. In fact his family name was Fife but when he came to America from Scotland in the late 18th century he changed it to “Phyfe” to add a little sizzle to an otherwise mundane moniker. He was a talented cabinetmaker who worked in all the styles of his working life: Federal, English Regency and Empire. One style in which he did not work was the style “Duncan Phyfe.” There is no single style attributed to Duncan Phyfe that can truly be called “Duncan Phyfe.” In modern common usage it seems that every table with curved legs extending from a pedestal is called a “Duncan Phyfe” table. He did make some tables with legs like that but so did every other cabinetmaker of the period. That style leg came from mid 18th century English pedestal dining tables.

And he also made tables with legs of other styles.

An even worse transgression is the misuse of the name itself while describing a misnamed style. More than a few inquiries ask about their “Dunkin & Fife” furniture or similar variations.

Another modern misuse of a cabinetmaker’s name involves the mid 19th century English designer Thomas Chippendale. That really was his family name and he was named after his father. His style was an updated take-off on a basic Queen Anne base with some masculine embellishments, often topped off with French or Chinese accents. The style was not “Chip and Dale”; they are Walt Disney cartoon characters. And the style is not the style of the “Chippendales”; they are male exotic dancers.

The use of the term “Victorian” as a style is also a misuse of the word. “Victorian” refers to a period of time, 1837 to 1901, when Victoria, the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, sat on the throne of England. No style in modern history has been maintained continuously for 64 years and neither was the style of “Victorian.” Within that span of years a number of prominent and very distinct styles rose and fell in favor, among them were Late Classicism, Gothic, Elizabethan Revival, Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival, the Aesthetic Movement, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts and even Golden Oak. All could be considered to be styles of the Victorian era but none can be said to be the Victorian style.

Then there are ambivalent uses of the names of pieces of furniture themselves. In common use the term secretary is often used to describe a desk with a tall bookcase on top, usually with glass panel doors. But the term secretary can actually be used as a simple synonym for a desk with or without the top section. A more accurate way of describing the tall model is to call it a “bookcase/secretary” literally a bookcase on top of a slant front secretary or desk. That’s how the form got started. Most early bookcase/secretaries consisted of two separate parts. Only in the 20th century did they become one piece, tall cabinets.

The term “blanket chest” is also open to interpretation. Originally the term referred to a lift top chest with drawers below. This form is sometimes also called a “chest on drawers” and smaller versions are sometimes called a “mule chest.” When properly decorated they were sometimes called a “dower” chest, a place for a young bride to store her dowry.

Elaborate versions were the size of full size chest of drawers and had faux drawer fronts above the real drawers. Long low chests without drawers are simply called chests or storage chests. This type of chest in the late 17th and early 18th century was often a six board chest, one single large board for each of six panels. The 20th century helped confuse the issue with introduction of the cedar chest, essentially storage chest made of either solid cedar or lined in cedar to minimize the intrusion of moths. They came in all sizes and forms including simple storage chests, chests on drawers and even chests on stands that looked like complete cabinets with drawers but were really a single chest compartment. They were even called “hope chests” the modern version of the dower chest. But very few of them were truly “blanket” chests in the traditional meaning of the term.

The final term in the industry that is open to the most interpretation, even to the point of initiating vigorous arguments and heated exchanges, has to do with the use of the term “antique” itself. What may or may not be an antique is certainly open to debate in many quarters and less so in others. Fortunately there is not room left here for a full discussion of that subject. It will just have to wait.

Fred Taylor is an author and syndicated columnist. Send your comments, questions and pictures to P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or


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