By Fred Taylor
America has had several periods that might be called the “Golden Age” where furniture was concerned. The 18th century saw great art in isolated locations like Newport, Rhode Island, and New York. The Federal period of the early 19th century saw a prolific expansion of American furniture craftsmanship but it was, after all, dependent a great deal on English designers. Then there was the
great Rococo Revival period that rehashed 18th century French extravagances, followed by the Renaissance Revival that celebrated architectural concepts. Even the great “people’s” style of Arts and Crafts began in England and was based on medieval English traditions.
So when was America’s true Golden Age? It began in the 1870s as a confluence of four major events. The first was the increasing scarcity of walnut used so prolifically in Victorian styles for three quarters of a century followed by the prosperity of America following the Civil War. The American middle class emerged from the war hungry for some status. This all occurred as the American furniture industry became increasingly mechanized and the concept of mail order began to take hold.
Wealthier families acquired bigger houses and they wanted bigger furniture to fill them. Renaissance Revival filled that void for a time with its “battleship” furniture, but walnut was running out. What was next? Our old friend: oak.
Oak was one of the first woods used in the Colonies for furniture and was used in great quantities for building ships. It had not been a very popular wood for refined furniture construction since the Jacobean period of the 17th century in England but that was about to change.
Some of the earliest exemplary oak furniture was hand made and elaborately hand carved by such masters as Robert J. Horner and designed by the likes of George Hunzinger and the natural beauty of these pieces and the oak itself was enhanced by two methods. The primary wood was white oak, a pale wood with little natural color. Both color and texture were improved by the process of “quarter cutting” an oak log to reveal the startling pattern of the flecks of the medullary rays, the “tiger’s eyes” in the oak. The other improvement came with the application of coats of orange shellac sometimes tinted with yellow ochre to produce the famous golden oak look of the late 19th century. This led to the “Golden Oak” period of American furniture that lasted from the 1880s to the second decade of the 20th century.
But as relatively wealthy as the emerging middle class was, it couldn’t afford to hire Horner and Hunzinger on a regular basis and was much too impatient to wait for new finery. They wanted it now! That led to the catalog sales books promoted by Sears, Eaton’s of Canada, Montgomery Ward and Larkin. But there had to be a trade-off. Since these companies were capable of shipping a specific item from a book full of furniture across the country, there had to be some standardization and some compromises. Instead of shipping furniture to a local agent for any needed assembly and repair, the designs had to be simplified enough to either ship the furniture as an assembled unit directly to the customer or in such a simplified condition that the customer could assemble it in the home. By the 1890s, expensive hand carving was replaced by machine cut applied carvings and moldings and surface decoration moved from carving to pressing. Sharp metal dies with an intricate design were pressed over chair backs under great pressure to produce the “press back” chairs of the period that had the look of hand carving. In addition, the overall size of individual units began to decrease from commercial pressure. Smaller pieces cost less to ship and used less raw material to construct. This became increasingly important as the seemingly inexhaustible stretches of old oak forest began to disappear.
In response, manufacturers began to use substitute woods like red oak, elm, ash and hickory in less conspicuous places instead of using all old growth white oak.
Then came the use of veneers. Quarter cutting an oak log is very wasteful of the raw material but thin slices of quarter cut oak veneer could cover 25 times as much surface as solid quarter cut wood. Some factories even went one step further. Using a textured roller, an oak looking grain pattern could literally be printed onto a piece of wood painted the correct background color. Even today it often takes a discerning eye to see the difference.
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The “Golden Oak” period was briefly interrupted early in the 20th century by the Arts and Crafts influence which tended to use a darker finish caused by exposing the raw wood to ammonia fumes, the “fumed” finish, or by using nut brown stains to tone down the gold colors. But the darker colors faded around World War I as the public grew weary of the severe styles of the movement and popular taste turned back to the golden choices.
By the 1920s, the desire for styles from the country’s past overtook the hunger for oak as the Colonial Revival period rolled onto the scene with its traditional designs in dark walnut and mahogany. The Golden Oak period was over.