Furniture Detective: ‘Phyfe,’ ‘Stickley’ descriptions often used in error

I respond to several hundred inquiries a month from readers about their older and antique furniture, and most of the questions are earnest inquiries about family furniture heirlooms or “new” acquisitions. Most readers have some idea of what they have and what the relevant terminology is to phrase a reasonable question. That, of course, leaves out the ones that say, “I have an old antique bedroom set from my grandmother. She was 81 when she died so I know the set is old. How old is it and how much is it worth?”

The questioner naturally does not include a picture of the set, any relevant data or even a list of the pieces.

Phyfe table

Is this a Duncan Phyfe table? No. It is a late 18th century English table that predates Phyfe’s work by several decades.
(Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

Then there are the inquiries that presume to know something of the subject. One of my favorites concerns a late 18th/early 19th century New York cabinetmaker. Usually the question runs something like this: “I have a dining room set that I know is Duncan Phyfe. How can I verify if it is an original Duncan Phyfe or if it is a reproduction? Is there a trademark or a signature I can look for?”

You can look for it but you won’t find it.

Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854) was a Scottish cabinetmaker who came to America in 1784 changing his name from Fife to Phyfe. He served his apprenticeship in Albany, New York, before moving to Manhattan in 1790. He worked in all the popular styles of the day including Federal, Neo-Classic, Empire, Regency and Rococo Revival. The style he didn’t work in was “Duncan Phyfe” because there was not then – and is not today – a style by that name.Somehow his name became attached to any piece of furniture from any period that has sweeping legs extending from a pedestal or a frame. While it is true he made some furniture in that style, so did every other cabinetmaker in New York.

The sweeping legs were actually in style before Phyfe was born. It was an English Georgian style used in pedestal dining tables just after the middle of the 18th century. Tables with this style leg and pedestal have been popular in America for most of the 20th century, the great majority having been made since the 1930s. For the record, Phyfe used a printed paper label when he marked his furniture, if at all.

So you will know if you have found a genuine Phyfe label you can see an example of his rare label in “American Cabinetmakers – Marked American Furniture 1640-1940” by William C. Ketchum (Crown Publishers, 1995). The style loosely referred to today as “Duncan Phyfe” is a reproduction, with several liberties, of early 19th century Federal and Empire styles.

Another favorite question has to do with another famous cabinetmaker, but it usually turns out to be someone else in his family. Gustav Stickley is the cabinetmaker. A frequent question is “How valuable is my Stickley chair?” That depends on several things, like how do you know it is a Stickley

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chair (Aunt Jenny’s word won’t do) – bearing in mind that not all Mission style chairs were made by Stickley – and which Stickley are you referring to? Gustav was one of five Stickley brothers. The others were Leopold, John George (J.G.), Charles and Albert. Every member of the Stickley clan was involved in the furniture business, generally in a company co-owned by another Stickley brother or two. Even Gustav started out as part of a family furniture company with two other brothers. Charles took it one step further and went into business with his in-laws, the Brandts, and formed the company Stickley-Brandt.

Some chairs made by Gustav are extremely valuable. Chairs made by companies owned by other Stickleys are usually less so. Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids is a good example. They made good quality furniture but even the earliest pieces are not as sought after as Gustav’s work. One of the Stickley companies, L. & J.G. Stickley Inc., is still in business. Which Stickley made it – and when – are the primary factors to the value of a “Stickley” chair.

I often see a similar case involving the multi-purpose kitchen cabinet system generically called a “Hoosier” cabinet. The question usually is along the lines of “How much is my Hoosier cabinet worth?” Like the Stickley chair, it depends on who made it and when.The “Hoosier” style cabinet evolved from the late 19th century baker’s cabinet with possum belly drawers, a large work surface and shelves above. A small factory in Indiana, the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, took the baker’s cabinet, replaced the possum belly drawers with an enclosed cabinet and by 1920 had produced 2 million cabinets of that design. Thus the name.

But other manufacturers were in the business, too, and not all of them were in the Hoosier State of Indiana. Big names in the Hoosier style cabinet business in Indiana were Sellers, Napanee, McDougall and Boone. Outside Indiana were Marsh in North Carolina and Wilson in Grand Rapids. The Wilson cabinet was sold through Sears.

A good source for information about Hoosier style cabinets is the self-published book by Phillip D. Kennedy titled “Hoosier Cabinets” found on Amazon.com. I will happily respond to our furniture inquires but remember – a better question gets a better answer.

Editor’s Note: We teamed up with our sister publication, Popular Woodworking, to bring you a special offer. Visit ShopWoodworking.com and enter Discount Code WOOD20 during checkout to save 20% on your total purchase and receive free shipping within the continental U.S. Discount does not apply to 3rd party products, items that ship directly from manufacturers, value packs, collections, bundles, kits, magazine subscriptions, or toward tax. Offer expires Dec. 31, 2015. at 11:59 p.m.

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