Peter Follansbee - Researching Historical Furniture

by Stephanie Stone

    Peter Follansbee has spent many hours researching 17th-century furniture, but there are always more questions: Why are there are more wainscot (joined) chairs than turned chairs in England, and the reverse in New England? Why are almost all English chests, and almost none of the turned chairs, made of oak? Were joiners allowed to use oak, and turners not? Or the mitered joints on chests: Why are they so prevalent in England, yet so rare in New England until 1700? To answer these and other questions, Follansbee looks for evidence in the written record and in the objects themselves.

    To a trained eye, these objects speak volumes about their construction: The unfinished backs of almost all 17th-century chests bear the marks of being hewn and rived. Ends of boards have the teeth marks of bench-hooks that held them 300-400 years ago (1). Applied turned ornaments are less than half-round, suggesting that the original turning stock consisted of two pieces glued to a central strip, making it easier to fasten the points of the lathe and separate the pieces after they are turned (2). Layout lines are still distinct on the surfaces of period work (3). Turned objects are oval in cross-section because the wood was worked wet (4). Similarly, pegs project from chest rails and styles, showing that the framing members still contained substantial moisture when the chest was assembled (5).

    Then there is the evidence from mistakes. When Peter turns a stool leg, for example, he comments that period joiners chopped the mortises in the square stock before they turned them. How does he know this? His own experience—it’s easier to clamp square stock to the bench. And from the objects themselves—he’s discovered a 17th-century chair table with a mortise mistakenly placed in the turned section, an error he says is almost impossible to make if the piece were turned first (6).

    Peter is equally fond of the evidence he finds in period books and documents. One of his favorite sources is Randle Holme’s Academie or Store-House of Armory and Blazon (1688). Holme was an English heraldic painter; an unintended consequence of his descriptions of motifs in heraldry was a thorough treatment of the technical side of living in the period, and its material culture. 

    Then there are diaries, indentures, contracts, and town records; wills and inventories; and court records. While inventories may sound like dry fare, they are full of detail and often amusing. Peter has become fond of using “higgledy-piggledy” since he encountered it in a Middlesex County inventory to describe an irregularly shaped plot of ground. Another current favorite is “will he, nill he,” which presumably meant “will he or won’t he” in the 17th century, and gave rise to our “willy-nilly.” Word usage can also reveal—and confuse—researchers of 17th-century joinery. One of Peter’s current interests is the word “wainscot.” To date, he’s compiled six pages of period references that describe wainscot variously as a species of oak, a unit of wood, raw material, a finished product, or any frame-and-panel work, like a chest or joined chair. “There are many detours in this work,” he says, and it sounds like he enjoys every one.

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