By Fred Taylor
We all know from experience that with almost everything we see advertised or promoted, not everything we are told is always exactly correct all of the time. Some of it is probably true all the time (the car is probably always called a Buick), but some of the other information might only be correct under narrowly defined circumstances. For example, it may get 28 mpg on a dry, cool day with a moderate wind and a light load but it won’t get that all of the time. We all know that, and unconsciously discount for it just like we know the satellite dish TV will not really get 47 NFL games every weekend.
The same kind of quiet undisturbed deception crept into furniture production and marketing at the beginning of the 20th century and has continued unabated since. The seemingly harmless deception falls into two main categories – style and construction.
The deceptions in style fall mainly in the naming category that tries to lead someone into believing
that a piece of furniture is other than what it truly is. One of the most egregious examples of this was practiced by the otherwise straight arrow soap maker Larkin Soap Company. In 1892, John D. Larkin ordered 80,000 oak Morris chairs and 125,000 oak dining chairs to be given away as premiums for buying his soap products. Soon after, Larkin opened his own furniture factory in Buffalo, New York, and started making his own oak furniture for premiums. Initially, most of what he made was just like that of Sears in quality and style. The style was later to be called simply “Golden Oak.”
But in 1908, Larkin offered something different. He offered a library table with heavy scroll legs and turned under feet. It was listed in the 1908 catalog as “Colonial Library Table No. 616 – A true Colonial design Library Table.” Unfortunately, the design was far from Colonial. It was the revival of the cyma curve legs and feet of the Late Classicism period of the 1840s – an Empire Revival, if you prefer.
Why did Larkin call it “Colonial”? He did it to tie into the growing period of Colonial Revival furniture styles that had begun after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. After the Exposition, everyone wanted their furniture to look like that used by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They wanted things from the colonial era. Or at least things that looked like they were from that era.
Many furniture manufacturers had already picked up on the Colonial Revival movement and were turning out true hand-made or bench-made reproductions of 18th century Colonial period furniture. The earliest versions of these were called “Centennial” furniture because of the link to the Exposition.
Apparently, Larkin did not have his designers research the term “colonial” deeply enough or he just didn’t want to make a major change in manufacturing style and direction. So he just soldiered on. In the same 1908 catalog was also offered a “Colonial” parlor table of similar design, and subsequent issues featured “Colonial” dining tables, buffets, chairs, servers, sleigh beds, dressers and chiffoniers. The style was offered into the 1920s when the real Colonial revival became mainstream and the old style was not popular anymore.
The other minor deception has to do with a style named after a cabinetmaker. As discussed in a previous Furniture Detective column about furniture descriptions (read it in its entirety>>>), everyone knows what Duncan Phyfe style furniture looks like. Or do you? 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 base. 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.
In fact, Phyfe never made a dining table and did not make a buffet or china cabinet. He also did not ever make a “Duncan Phyfe” style sofa or chest of drawers. That should put to rest the question about whether grandma’s Duncan Phyfe dining table and chairs are genuine “Duncan Phyfe’s” or simply reproductions. They are neither since he did not make them and did make anything like them to be reproduced.
They are simply 20th century furniture deceptions.