Everybody knows what wicker is, right? It’s that woven stuff that’s painted white. It may even be that stuff used in some chair seats.
Or is that cane?
Or rush or reed?
As it turns out, the word “wicker” in furniture terms actually refers to a process rather than a product. The process is the weaving of pliant flexible plant materials over a frame of some sort to produce a structure of sufficient strength to support various objects, including people.
Such natural materials include rattan, a type of climbing palm vine that can reach 600 feet in length; reed, the central core of rattan once the skin is removed; cane, the skin of the rattan; willow, a shrub; and rush, a woven grass-like stem. In the 20th century, the process has also included the weaving of man-made and synthetic materials.
Wicker furniture is most often thought of in terms of the late Victorian period of the 1880s and 1890s (a very important time in the history of wicker), but the real story goes back much further than that. The Egyptians were quite adept at weaving natural materials into strong forms. Evidence from drawings on tomb walls indicate the existence of wicker chairs. But the introduction of wicker to the West was, in a roundabout way, the result of the English passion for tea and the Chinese opium wars.
In the 18th century, the English became addicted to tea. The tea came from the Orient, producing a drag on the English economy. To pay for the tea, they grew opium in India and traded it to China for tea, enslaving entire populations to the drug in exchange for the mildly invigorating beverage.
This trade eventually opened up the Orient to other Western traders who noticed the unusual type of furniture made from what became known as wicker. They imported this furniture to the United States in the 1840s and it became moderately popular until after the Civil War. After the War, people wanted to leave the big cities and enjoy the open country air and the lightweight woven furniture seemed a perfect fit. This era of wicker furniture was made mostly of rattan and cane in simple utilitarian designs. In its natural finish it was perceived as healthy and clean but it wasn’t long before more elegant pieces were brought inside and painted to match the other elements of Victorian décor.
The idea of a natural fiber being used to produce a useful piece of furniture in an inexpensive manner and looking great in a natural finish was instantly appealing to John Ruskin and William Morris, the English founders of the later Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Eastlake even became a proponent of the process and England was originally the world leader in the production of wicker by companies such as Dryad Works, Maple & Co. and Slocomb and Son.
In the United States, a grocer named Cyrus Wakefield watched a sailor about to throw a bundle of rattan overboard in Boston Harbor in 1844. The rattan was used as packing material on long voyages and was discarded after the trip. Wakefield bought the scrap rattan and sold it to basket weavers who stripped the outer core and used the soft inner material in their work. They then sold the hard skin to chair makers who used it to cane chair seats. Wakefield even insisted on spelling the product “rattan,” instead of the traditional spelling of “ratan.” This was the beginning of the Wakefield Rattan Company that eventually became part of the Heywood-Wakefield Company, the American leader in wicker furniture production in the 20th century.
By the last quarter of the 19th century, the flower of wicker furniture was in full bloom. In addition to its intrinsic qualities of modest cost and stylistic appeal, it had a feature very seldom found in other Victorian furniture — it was actually comfortable! It was flexible enough to accommodate various sizes and shapes and it allowed air to circulate, producing a cooler perch for over-dressed Victorian denizens.
With technological advances in weaving and bending machines in the 1870s, the designs of wicker furniture became much more elaborate and lavishly “Victorian.” After the Centennial Exposition in 1876, even wicker designs were influenced by the Oriental bent, as seen in some of the traditional furniture of the period. The height of ornate designs was reached in the late 1880s and early 1890s. By then furniture styles were beginning to be affected by the Arts and Crafts movement and styling became more austere. Even Gustav Stickley had a line of Mission-style wicker.
The wicker end of the furniture trade at the beginning of the 20th century completely passed over the Art Nouveau movement that began in France and had modest success in the U.S. It looked too much like the frilly Victorian period for them.
The next major event in the wicker industry occurred in 1917 when there was a strike at a wicker production plant in Menominee, Michigan, owned by Marshall Lloyd. In response, Lloyd developed a machine that formed a wicker-like substance out of brown paper, sometimes wrapped around a small wire. This was “fiber” wicker. The Lloyd machine could also weave the material into continuous sheets for incorporation into baby carriages, chairs and anything else. It fit nicely with the next new style, Art Deco, which was soon to hit the country. Heywood-Wakefield bought Lloyd in 1921 and produced the bulk of American wicker from then on.
For more information on wicker furniture, see “Fine Wicker Furniture 1870-1930” by Tim Scott, published by Schiffer Publishing (ISBN: 9780887402319).
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