Precise definitions are important in any field, and the field of antiques is no exception. We have written previously about how loosely the word “antique” itself is used, for instance to describe new mass-produced merchandise in home decor shops (see article), and about our definitions of “rustic” and “Adirondack” furniture (see article).
We now turn to defining the difference between “Old Hickory” and “Hickory” furniture, which is a query that customers have occasionally posed to us.
In the world of rustic furniture, hickory refers to bark-on hickory poles (i.e., unpeeled branches and trunks of young hickory trees). Milled hickory boards and turnings were also used to construct antique furniture, but not antique rustic furniture. This can sometimes create confusion, for instance in the case of a woman who hoped to sell us a pair of country ladder-back chairs that she assumed were something that rustic furniture collectors would want because they were made out of hickory wood.
Another thing that can be confusing is that several of the rustic hickory furniture manufacturers made a few lines of furniture for a limited number of years that had no hickory parts. These were constructed of willow, pine, oak or chestnut, but sometimes were of the same designs as the rustic furniture that those manufacturers made from hickory poles.
Finally, we have occasionally encountered confusion caused by the names of two makers of non-rustic contemporary and reproduction furniture (Hickory Chair Company and Old Hickory Tannery) which are very similar to the names of the traditional rustic hickory furniture companies.
We find it easiest to avoid this terminology muddle by referring to all manufactured rustic hickory furniture with the catchall title of “Indiana hickory.” This works because the handful of companies that produced classic rustic hickory pole furniture from about 1900-1960, were all located in Indiana. (We do occasionally come across antique “homemade” hickory pole furniture from other regions of the country, but we classify that as unique rustic furniture, not the manufactured furniture that we are describing here.)
So the best way to continue our discussion of “Old Hickory” vs. “Hickory” rustic furniture is by describing the various Indiana hickory furniture companies.
The Indiana Hickory Furniture Manufacturers
There were six major companies (and several minor companies) producing rustic furniture made with hickory poles in Indiana during the first half of the 20th century. (See more discussion of these companies in A History of the Old Hickory Chair Company and the Indiana Hickory Furniture Movement by Ralph Kylloe, 1995)
1. Old Hickory Furniture Company, Martinsville, Indiana
Old Hickory was the most prolific and longest lasting rustic hickory furniture manufacturer, so more of their products turn up on the market than do the products of all the other Indiana hickory manufacturers combined. Theirs is the only furniture that can technically be called “Old Hickory” and we try to abide by that in our descriptions, for instance by titling our website listings of furniture made by the five other companies either just “Hickory” or “Indiana Hickory.”
Not all dealers or auctioneers are as careful about that nomenclature, however, so you cannot always be sure that a piece that a seller calls Old Hickory was actually made by Old Hickory Furniture Company. (Sellers also sometimes call a piece “old hickory” meaning it is old and made of hickory poles, not that it was made by Old Hickory.) It helps if the furniture is branded or tagged with an authentic Old Hickory identifier, but the company did not consistently stamp all of the furniture it produced. So if a piece is marked Old Hickory, non-specialist dealers and customers can be sure of its maker, but if it is not marked, it does not necessarily mean that the piece was not made by Old Hickory.
After decades of handling and studying hickory furniture and collecting original catalogs from all of the manufacturers, we can usually pinpoint its maker from various clues, so we often do not even look for a brand before making a purchase. When we advertise an unmarked piece as Old Hickory, we are always happy to explain to a potential buyer how we identified it as such in that particular case.
Here are some examples of changes in Old Hickory’s name, maker’s marks and furniture styles as they evolved throughout the years.
a) Old Hickory Chair Company
The first incarnation of the Old Hickory company was called Old Hickory Chair Company, a name which lasted from 1895-1921.
Old Hickory Chair Company also sometimes put a paper label with the Andrew Jackson logo on their furniture, and we have occasionally had pieces that retained that early label, pictured here.
Below is an early Old Hickory Chair Company dresser with woven hickory bark panels.
b) Old Hickory Furniture Company, early eras
When Old Hickory Chair Company changed its name to Old Hickory Furniture Company in 1921, it used the brand shown below, modified just slightly from the earlier brand. This stamp was used into the 1930s.
Here is a piece from that era with that brand:
c) Old Hickory Furniture Company, middle eras
The brand pictured below was used throughout the 1940s, and is what appears on the majority of stamped pieces we encounter.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Old Hickory also sometimes marked their furniture with a “Bruce tag,” a small round copper tag that contained the year (e.g., “39”) that the furniture was treated with the company’s Bruce preservative.
There are hundreds of furniture designs from this era, but here is one example with a 1940s brand.
d) Old Hickory Furniture Company, final eras
The style but not the content of Old Hickory’s brand changed a bit in the 1950s to a rectangular shape. That stamp seems to have been used on some, but not all pieces made in the 50’s, and we do not often see it.
The following drop-leaf table with casters is an example of a table made during that era.
After 1960 Old Hickory Furniture Company shifted to making generic furniture that was not in a rustic style and not made from hickory. In 1978, Old Hickory Furniture Company closed its operations in Martinsville, Indiana.
The company was eventually purchased and reopened under new ownership in 1982 as “Old Hickory Furniture Shelbyville” in Shelbyville, Indiana where its plant is still located. Therefore, any furniture with an Old Hickory Shelbyville tag (pictured below) was made sometime between 1982 and today. Since this is contemporary furniture that is still being manufactured, it is not something that we buy or sell.
Even when a contemporary hickory piece does not have a brass Shelbyville tag, it is not difficult to distinguish it from early Old Hickory pieces. Although some of the Shelbyville furniture is based on early Old Hickory styles, the modern interpretations of the designs, the hickory poles used, the construction techniques, the weaving and upholstery, and the finish on the wood all make it immediately recognizable (and we think undesirable!) to a trained eye.