A Real Rare Victorian Mystery – Part III
The Two Makers Theory
On Friday, I was coming to a conclusion different than where I am today – that a strong possibility existed that Kathie’s chair was made by the Hammitt Desk, Co. who produced 131 of the chairs.
An excerpt from “The History of the United States Capitol” shows the original chair design done by the architect, Thomas Ustik Walter. Most of the Neal Auction chairs follow this design very closely.
Accompanying the image is the following text:
At the end of May 1857, Walter completed designs for members’ chairs and desks. Meigs sent a photograph of the desk design to Boston, where the Doe Hazelton Company was paid ninety dollars to make each of the 262 carved oak desks for the new chamber. The firm was too busy to make the matching chairs, so Meigs ordered half of them from Bembe and Kimbel of New York (at seventy dollars apiece) and the other half from the Hammitt Desk Company of Philadelphia (at seventy-five dollars apiece). The oak chairs, upholstered with red morocco matching the leather on the fly doors, had removable cushions to permit the cane seats to be used during the summer months. Meigs admonished the furniture makers to have the desks and chairs delivered to the Capitol by December 1 at the latest.
From 1853 to 1859, Montgomery C. Meigs supervised the building of the wings and dome of the United States Capitol and he made the agreements with the manufacturers. These are documented in Capitol Builder: The Shorthand Journals of Montgomery C. Meigs, 1853-1859, 1861:
[AUG. 12] I received today from Bembe and Kimbel 78 of New York a letter with a bill for two chairs and two desks which they say have been sent for inspection. They ask a less price than that I have agreed to pay to [Doe], Hazelton and Co. 79 of Boston for the desks of which they brought me specimens. I am surprised at the price they charge being so low. But I have not yet seen the chairs.
[AUG 14] The desk and chairs by Bembe and Kimbel have arrived. The chairs are better than the Boston chairs, the desks not so good. All are cheaper.
[AUG. 19] At the office. Mr. Kimbel of Bembe and Kimbel is here to make a bargain for the chairs for the House of Representatives. He will, I fear, not be able to make them in time. I shall probably give to him a small portion only of the number required.
[AUG 27TH] I made a bargain with Mr. Hammitt 84 of Philadelphia for one-half of the chairs for the House of Representatives at $75 each, delivered. I have telegraphed to Bembe and Kimbel of New York that they might make the other half at $70 each, not including the packing. This makes 262 chairs and the same number of desks in all for the House of Representatives which are now engaged.
Based on that information and the assumption that two competing firms producing furniture in two different cities would produce furniture with some variation from one another, I assumed that maybe Hammitt might have made her chair.
It was important, however, to examine the other chairs that are known to exist and not just the one that I had selected for initial comparison.
Hantmans sold one like Kathie’s that is stenciled A. Bembe Kimble [sic], 20 Broadway, New York
Neal auction has sold several:
And it just keeps getting better. In February, 1865 Lincoln posed in his favorite posing chair with his son, Tad and the chair is like Kathie’s.
With all these signed/stenciled examples floating around, I asked Kathie yesterday to examine her chair again and see if she had a stenciled name somewhere. Maybe it had faded and wasn’t immediately obvious to someone not looking for it. She wrote me back:
With a pair of high powered magnifiers, I use for my art work I am able to make out NEW YO on the bottom. So if this is a Bimbe& Kimble, still have to wonder why the craving is different…
So to me, with signed examples that look like hers sold by Hantmans and Neal Auction, and a stenciled “NEW YO” inside her chair, I think we can conclude this is the real deal made by Bembe & Kimbel (Hammitt who made the other chairs was in Philadelphia). Not bad for a dumpster dive. Kathie, I would bet your kids would no longer “be humiliated” that you had asked for the chair.
Why The Differences?
As Kathie points out, it still remains a mystery as to why there are design differences for the same manufacturer. There appears to be at least two designs followed by Bembe & Kimbel. The design that Kathie has seems to surface less often today than the others.
Was there a need to replace lost or damaged chairs with later batches? It seems that they were always in a position of reducing them, so any theory of a “later batch” seems unlikely.
According to Hantmans:
Two hundred sixty-two of these chairs were supplied for use in the House Chamber from 1857-1873 and were subsequently replaced by less bulky mahogany chairs. In 1857 House members totaled 241. When representatives of the eleven states that formed the Confederacy withdrew, the number of House members reduced to 175. The excess chairs were distributed to other government buildings and fourteen were removed from the House of Representatives and released to the public.
The remaining chairs were sold off in 1873 during the remodel.
However, Kathie relayed a story to me that the Representatives were allowed to keep their chairs when they left office. That scenario would create a situation where new replacements were needed.
Were there subsequent orders made for furnishing other buildings or offices?
Were the initial prototypes that Bembe & Kimbel made for Meig’s inspection different?
It’s possible that the addresses in the stencils may hold a clue. Some have 20 Broadway and some have 928 Broadway. The next step would be to map out a timeline of where Bembe & Kimbel started and when they were located at the other two addresses. According to cursory research 928 wasn’t populated until 1860’s – and it it was Kimbel & Cabus who were the occupants. There are some holes that need to be filled in there.
There is also some contradicting information in Meig’s journals talking about the Bembe & Kimbel chairs being better than “the Boston chairs” – which as we know were only made in Philadelphia and New York (see Aug 14th and 27th above). Maybe Doe Hazelton of Boston, who made the desks, also provided some prototype chairs. It’s not relevant to Kathie’s chair, but it bothers me that the contradiction is there.
Kathie’s information has been sent to the House of Representatives curator and maybe we’ll get something back from that. For the remaining questions, I’ll leave it for an episode of Wes Cowan and the History Detectives.
Big thanks go out to Kathie for sharing this with me and allowing me to share her photos and story with Rare Victorian readers. Thanks go out to Lise Bohm for tipping us off on contacting the Oshkosh Public Museum. Also, thanks to Rachael Weathers and Neal Auction for corresponding with me on this chair and for allowing their images to be used on RareVictorian.com.
By the way, Kathie’s chair is marked “XXXXXX II”, or 62.
Also, one other question remains,
Where are all the Hammitt-made chairs? I’m not aware of any ever showing up.