“Hand-Made” Victorian Furniture Does Not Mean 100% Hand-Made

by John Werry on July 23, 2008

henkels Hand Made Victorian Furniture Does Not Mean 100% Hand Made

I thought I’d share this excerpt from a 1980 dissertation by Page Talbot, “THE PHILADELPHIA FURNITURE INDUSTRY 1850 TO 1880″. This dissertation was written to partially fulfill her requirements to achieve the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Page’s name shows up often in our niche and is author, co-author, and editor of several books and wrote some of my go-to articles from The Magazine Antiques. Kenneth Ames was the Supervisor of Dissertation for this paper and he is equally visible in books and articles related to decorative arts.

This is mostly a clarification for us all to be aware of. It’s not a big deal, but I think worth a blog post. The following excerpt discusses the reality behind the term, “hand-made” when used to describe furniture during the Victorian era. While vast amounts of mainstream furniture were manufactured at the time using machinery, many of the great makers are known to have produced “hand-made” furniture. The reality is, that, many of these great cabinetmakers did indeed use machinery for parts of their furniture:

George Henkels (we’ve been talking a lot about him recently, haven’t we?) is known to have been staunchly against the use of steam-powered machinery in furniture making. He wrote in Household Economy (1867) that: “Hand-made work is much better than machine-work, and all cabinet-makers of reputation have their own designs, so as to have a pattern exclusively to themselves. The machine-work is sold mostly by those who have no factory, but merely keep the furniture stores. Persons who understand this prefer to pay the price for good hand-made work.”

A period magazine article described Henkels’ facilities in great length and the following quote from the article stands out due to Henkels’ “hand-made” alignment:

The first story which we next visited, contains turning lathes and other machinery and in this we found ten men employed.

So, although it may be readily obvious to many of you out there, I took “hand-made” and the pride with which these great cabinet-makers used the term, as literally meaning 100% hand-made. I can cut them some slack for using machinery for the inner construction and completely agree that they should have. The term, “hand-made” is not what I would have used to describe the end result, however. “Hand-carved” would work better for me to describe the outer, decorative elements being hand-made versus the former, which implies the totality of a given piece.

More from Page:

The clue to the discrepancy between Henkels’ use of machinery and abhorrence of machine-made” furniture is to be found in the same “Essay on Household Economy” where the above comments were written. Henkels wrote:
“Machines for planing, for mortising and tenoning, for doweling and moulding, have been brought to great perfection. A number of the same articles made by machinery can be produced much cheaper than a few can be made, as the advantage over hand-work is in the duplication of the different parts after arranging the machine. The scroll-saw is of great use and saves the workman the heaviest part of the labor. Those who manufacture by hand avail themselves of the advantage of machinery for heavy slit and scroll-sawiing: and turning.”
This qualifying statement is extremely important because it solves the puzzle about why those who emphasized hand-work also used machines in the process of furniture making. “Hand-made”, then, did not imply that the object was made without the use of any modern machine, but rather that the object was assembled and finished by skilled workmen.

So there you have it. “Hand-made” is … mostly … or, … largely… hand-made, but not 100%.

The dissertation is a good one, by the way, and has many a Henkels story within it’s pages.

Lex Henkels, the great grandson of George Henkels’ partner (and brother) Charles stopped by Rare Victorian recently. Lex, I didn’t find anything about Charles in this dissertation, FYI.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

james conrad July 23, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Interesting post which touches on why i for one collect old furniture. Although there are 2 or 3 climants to the invention of the circular saw, one being Shaker-Sister, Tabitha Babbitt. She invented the first circular saw used in a saw mill in 1813. It wasnt until the 1850s when steam engines came online that these saws really began to dominate and marked the beginning of the end of totally “hand made” furniture.

Prior to 1850 most boards/lumber were cut in america by hand with a Pit Saw, normally operated by 2 men with one standing in a pit. Pit saws leave vertical tool marks on the surface of the board while circular saws leave the familar arc or circular type tool marks.

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RareVictorian July 24, 2008 at 12:12 am

James, I meant to include in my post how the meaning of hand-made was different prior to 1850s, as you say, when there were no [commonly-used] machines.

If one’s head is in the Victorian-era all the time, it is easy to have an alternate perspective of what “hand-made” means. In the 18th century and prior, “hand-made” is hand-made.

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james conrad July 24, 2008 at 7:23 am

John,yup, i totally agree. I generally refer to furniture made prior to 1850 as hand made and after as hand crafted.

Another thing, just because furniture is hand made doesnt make it good. Lets face it, they made junk in 1770 and i have no doubt they will in 2070 as well.

An interesting feature of the Shaker movement was that while they did not believe in marriage or having children they embraced technology whole heartedly, indeed, even inventing it. This led the Shakers to manufacture furniture “for the world” that became the only known uniquely American Form of furniture of understated perfection.

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