This is an historic photograph of a canoeist, probably an Ojibwe guide, who is navigating a rapids called Blue Chute on the French River in Ontario. It is housed in its original oak frame that is inscribed “Canadian Pacific” along the bottom. With overall dimensions of 35.5″ wide x 29.5″ high, it has an eye-catching presence.
There are several layers of history revealed in this circa 1910 photo. First, it is an artifact of the original era of passenger railway travel across Canada. Second, it captures a place, the French River, that was an important fur trade route. Finally, it conveys something about early 20th century canoeing traditions.
Canadian Pacific Railway
We contacted an archivist with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) who confirmed what we had learned through buying and selling several other CPR photos in the past. These large-format photographs captured iconic Canadian landscape scenes and were hung in CPR stations as “simple, yet stunning and effective, advertising tools for Canadian Pacific and Canada.” Aimed at attracting tourists from within and beyond Canada, the photos captured scenes closely tied to Canadian identity and its proud links to the incredible scenic beauty of the country. The CPR photographs could be found on display until the 1970s when all of the stations eventually closed.
Although we do not have photos of other CPR images we have owned, we do have images from our past inventory of a large-scale photograph from another railway system, the Grand Trunk Railway, which had a similar approach to promoting Canadian rail travel. The Grand Trunk was an important rail system in Canada and the northern U.S. from the 1850s to the 1920s.
This early 1900’s photo depicts a romantic scene of a well-dressed couple on an outing in which the man rows the woman who is nestled in the stern facing him. Its captions reads: “McLean Channel Among the 30,000 islands of the Georgian Bay.” Even the location of this particular photo, also in an inscribed oak frame, is not far from the subject of the CPR photo – the French River.
This article discusses six species of trees that were less commonly used during the original eras of rustic furniture design than the five species described in our previous journal article, Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part I. Photos and range maps of each tree species are presented, along with examples of antique rustic furniture made from each type of tree within the regions where it grows.
American Elm (Ulmus Americana)
American Elm trees, prized for their vase-like shape and broad canopy, were once common in forests and cultivated landscapes throughout eastern North America. While most mature elm trees (over 150 years old) have died in the past 50 years due to Dutch elm disease, saplings and young trees of this species can be found growing in forests throughout its range from the plains states eastward in the U.S., and into southern Canada and the Maritime Provinces.
Elm is a strong, dense wood that has been used over the centuries for products that needed to endure heavy use, such as wagon wheels and ship decks. Native Americans traditionally used elm wood for mortars. The Iroquoian tribes also used elm bark much like eastern tribes used birch bark to make utilitarian objects such as canoes and baskets. The photo below shows a set of rustic furniture with elm bark surfaces that was made by Ojibwa Indians in the Georgian Bay region of Canada. The thick, furrowed bark is distinctive, and makes a strong seat or table top.
Black Willow (Salix nigra)
Black Willow grows into the largest tree of the ninety species of willows occurring in North America, and it is the only commercially important willow. It is a short-lived, fast-growing tree found in wet and often sandy regions of river margins where it thrives at or slightly below water level. Although it has an extensive range in the southeastern portions of the U.S., it reaches its maximum size only in the lower Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coastal Plain. Black willow trees yield a light, straight-grained wood.
This glider was made by Indiana Willow Products Company of Martinsville, Indiana, which was started in 1937 by former employees of Old Hickory Furniture Company. In the early years of its existence, the company made furniture frames out of willow in an attempt to distinguish itself from Old Hickory and Rustic Hickory Furniture companies, even though their furniture designs were nearly identical to their predecessors’, as seen in the familiar form of this glider.
A second example is this stockade-style desk made of willow. This was most likely also made by Indiana Willow, as the design is based on a desk that appeared in an earlier Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog. While bark-on willow, like hickory, has an appealingly textured surface, hefting either this glider or desk reveals that willow wood is much less dense, making this furniture easier to move around.
Since willow was a difficult wood to acquire commercially, Indiana Willow Products Company soon began making furniture from hickory like their competitors. Early Indiana Willow pieces made of willow are rarely seen on the market – these two pieces in our inventory are among the few that we’ve owned.
These two signs once marked a canoe and boat building establishment that was active in Maine during the 1940s. Solon is a town in central Maine through which the Kennebec River flows. The Arnold Trail Boats and Canoes company appears in a list of Maine canoe builders from the 1870’s to the present that was compiled by the Penobscot Marine Museum for their 2001 exhibit “Bark to Canvas: The Evolution of a Maine Canoe.” So far, all that we have been able to find out about this company is its location, the era of its existence, and that its owner built canoes.
The larger sign (80.5″ wide x 2″ deep x 32.5″ high) is single-sided, so most likely hung on the front exterior of the shop.
It is painted on a clear-finish birch veneer surface and has a molded frame.
The hand-painted lettering is red with gold outlining.
The smaller (34″ wide x .75″ deep x 11″ high), solid wood sign is double-sided, so it either hung on a post at the roadside or perpendicular to the building at its doorway.
The background is painted gold, and the chamfered edge and lettering are navy blue.
In both signs, the name Arnold Trail is done in the same script lettering.
These signs evoke the history of two distinct time periods. First, they are artifacts of an earlier period of commercial canoe building in Maine which began in the late 1880s. Most likely the canoes made at the Arnold Trail Boats & Canoes shop were crafted of wood and canvas in a traditional Maine design. A classic Maine trip canoe, such as the one made by the E. M. White company pictured below, is characterized by its wide, shallow hull making a stable and large capacity interior suitable for holding packs and paddlers on long canoe trips.
Makers of rustic furniture in the late 1800s through the early 1900s typically used wood native to their local region as the raw material for their creations. Since the distribution of North American trees changes with climatic conditions from east to west and north to south, so, too, does traditional rustic furniture change in materials, and thus in form and style, along geographic gradients.
This article describes five species of trees commonly used during the original eras of rustic furniture making, and shows examples of furniture pieces that were made from each type of tree in the regions where it grows. Part II will continue this theme by describing five different species of trees and the furniture made from them.
White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
White birch is an early successional species, meaning that it is among the first trees to colonize open spaces where forests have burned or woodlots have been cut over, where there is plenty of direct sunlight to support their rapid growth. It is a distinctive species that stands out in a crowd, so is familiar to most anyone who walks in the woods or drives along country roads in the northern tier of North America.
The stark, papery bark of white birch is an iconic emblem of rustic furniture; it is indeed hard to think of a piece of furniture made with bark-on white birch that would not be considered rustic. In the circa 1905 secretary pictured below, the craftsman Ernest Stowe used just the bark of white birch laid over a case of milled pine boards to clad the exterior of this exquisite case piece. Stowe gathered materials for his furniture in the Saranac Lake region of New York’s Adirondacks where he lived and worked. The legs and trim of the secretary, as well as the entire chair, are done in bark-on yellow birch poles and rods. Stowe was thus a progenitor of what we now regard as Adirondack-style furniture using these two species of wood.
Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
In contrast to white birch, yellow birch is found in mature hardwood forests. Since it, too, gets established where there is abundant sunlight, it tends to grow in gaps created by fallen, wind-thrown trees. It grows most commonly in mid- to upper-mountain slopes, but occurs patchier at lower elevations. Yellow birch can live for hundreds of years, so in the right locations it is not unusual to see very large, old trees and its younger saplings with golden bark scattered among other hardwoods such as sugar maple and beech.
The circa 1920 table picture below was made by Lee Fountain, a craftsman who worked in the western Adirondacks near the town of Wells. He is most recognized for his use of yellow birch root masses, which forms the base of this table. Whereas Stowe used the golden patina of yellow birch twigs and branches to great decorative effect, Fountain’s furniture emphasized the sculptural drama of roots that had been gnarled and shaped over rocks and other tree roots, or simply spread like props to support the trunk and upper branches of a 60′-70′ tall tree.
Hickory (Carya tomentosa)
There are about a dozen species of hickory trees native to North America, including shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut, bitternut and pecan. Although the bark varies among the different hickories, the mockernut hickory, which is the most abundant of the hickory species, has dark ridges alternating with lighter veins of bark (shown above). It grows in humid environments that receive 20-35 inches of rain from April-September, and is more of a southern and midwestern species than are birches.
Hickory is prized for furniture making because of is strength, hardness and flexibility. Although it is possible to find antique rustic furniture made from hickory by independent craftsmen who created their own designs, the vast majority of hickory furniture in the rustic antiques market was made by a half-dozen or so commercial furniture companies in Indiana beginning at the turn of the 20th century. Hickory formed the major structural elements of seating, tables and case pieces in manufactured hickory furniture, with milled woods such as oak and pine used on table, desk and dresser tops, arm rests and seats. In the uncommon circa 1930s wardrobe made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana pictured below, hickory poles comprise the frame and trim, while oak veneer and pine comprise the panels.
Animal sculptures and carvings are traditional accents for rustic homes where they complement decorative schemes that are rich in organic textures and natural elements. An attractive animal carving that also fulfills the necessary function of lighting is all the better.
This lamp (26″ wide, 9″ deep, 32″ high) is a dramatically scaled carving of a caribou, created and signed by the artisan Arthur Dubé.
He was a member of a family of accomplished carvers from the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli region of Quebec (on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River about an hour northeast of Quebec City) which has been known for its tradition of folk carving since the early 1900s. Over the years we’ve had a number of lamps carved in the 1930s-1970s by the Dubé brothers Arthur, Clement and André, most often in the forms of moose, bear, squirrels, deer, rams and dogs. Caribou lamps are uncommon, as are any of their carved animal table lamps of such large dimensions.
This lamp is carved from butternut, which is one of the softer hardwoods that carves readily. The caribou, tree and base are carved from one piece of wood, and the removable antlers are carved separately.
The shade is also handmade, with alternating wood slats of butternut and cedar joined with lashing.
The caribou, a symbol of wilderness, has unfortunately been nearly extirpated in the lower 48 States. They need large undeveloped tracts of land for roaming and foraging, primarily on lichen and low-growing shrubs like huckleberry. We were lucky to see them in the wild a number of years ago in Trepassey, Newfoundland on the southern tip of the Avalon peninsula where we crept across a misty moor to get a close look at them. We gathered a tuft of shed white guard hairs (they are hollow for insulation value), which is still tucked away in one of our bird field guides. Back in the 1980s and 1990s when we saw them, the Newfoundland population of Woodland Caribou was over 90,000, but it is now estimated at 37,000 individuals (The Natural History of Canadian Mammals, D. Naughton, 2012).
The essence of traditional rustic design is that an object or structure incorporates unprocessed natural materials sourced from the local environment. Examples in the northern and central U.S. include cabins made of bark-on cedar logs, dressers clad in birch bark, and mirrors trimmed with yellow birch twigs. From the southern U.S. we have had chairs with rhododendron root lattice backs, stands with diamond willow bases, and even a mosaic twig-style sideboard made with palmetto fronds.
On a recent trip much further south – to Belize – we admired local rustic elements and architecture, the primary form being living quarters and cabanas with thatched roofs and bamboo-like interior walls.
According to local residents, the most long-lasting material for thatched roofs is the fronds of the Cahune Palm tree, which have a high silicon content. After seeing lots of finished roofs, we were finally able to see this palm tree growing in its natural habitat while on an ecotour traveling by boat up an estuary into a coastal rain forest.
Transforming these fronds into roofs takes skill and teamwork.
Here is a completed woven cahune palm frond roof from the outside:
And from the inside.
While on the river trip, we also saw a bamboo-like plant called Giant Reed that is used in local architecture. Here it is as seen from the boat:
These intriguing sculptural objects are Native American basket-making tools. Specifically, they are forms around which ash splint “fancy baskets” were woven. They turned up recently in Maine, where they would have been owned and used by a Penobscot or Passamaquoddy basket maker during the early 1900s.
Native Americans in Maine have made ash splint baskets for over two hundred years.* During the 18th and 19th centuries, men made rugged work baskets with thick, wide ash splints, and traveled to towns as itinerant peddlers to sell the baskets. Indian families also made covered storage baskets and handled gathering baskets with finer, dyed splints for their own use as well as for sale.
But beginning in the 1870s when developers were building seaside and lakeside lodges, inns and resorts to attract rusticators from urban areas outside of Maine, a whole new market and means of selling opened up for Maine’s Native American craftspeople. Whereas formerly they would have to travel from town to town to sell their wares, basket makers now settled into summer Indian encampments near the new resort areas where potential customers congregated, joining families from other tribes and reservations.
They would arrive with a stockpile of crafts that they had made all winter, as well as with raw materials such as ash splint for making crafts to sell all summer.
During these years the tribes readily adapted their crafts to the Victorian tastes of well-to-do rusticators, ushering in the era of “fancy basket” making. Distinct from utilitarian ash splint baskets made by men which had previously been the mainstay of the Indian basket trade, the fancy baskets were typically made by women and were small, lightweight, intricate and extremely varied in form.
The women expertly rendered ash splint versions of popular Victorian goods that were made of leather, wood, ceramic or sliver, such as glove boxes, collar boxes, sewing baskets, scissors cases, candy trays, napkin rings, comb boxes and wall pockets. To suit the tastes of their customers, these objects were adorned with embellishments such as sweet grass and colorfully dyed, thin splint curlicues.
Tools to Facilitate Production
Producing uniform fancy baskets in great numbers for the tourist trade required two essential tools: basket gauges and basket forms. Basket gauges are wooden hand tools with cutting edges (often razor blades) set at measured intervals for slicing strands of ash splint into regular sizes. Whereas the wider, rougher splints of work baskets were typically hand cut with a knife, basket gauges made it possible to efficiently make a stock of evenly-sized splints of narrow widths for fancy baskets.
Basket forms or molds, which were not typically used for weaving the large work baskets in earlier eras, also made it easier to produce small, finely woven baskets of uniform size and shape relatively quickly. The forms were either single blocks of shaped wood, such as the two we have acquired, or were made up of multiple pieces that could be pulled apart to remove the form from a finished basket whose opening was smaller than its body.
Whenever antiques dealers find themselves together with idle time to chat, it does not take long before someone bemoans the lack of young people interested in buying antiques. (Actually there is a huge amount of interest in antiques among the young adult demographic, but it manifests in ways that traditional antiques dealers do not necessarily understand – but that’s a topic for a different cultural analysis.)
Most present-day antiques dealers are upwards of middle age, and have grown into their careers with a strong clientele of baby boomers who are now retiring and downsizing, rather than accumulating antiques. So there have been efforts to recruit “young collectors” with events such as evening parties at antiques shows for young adults, and mentorship programs that encourage older collectors to take young collectors under their wing. The focus of these efforts is on people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are beginning to furnish and accessorize their own apartments or houses.
But being out and about in the antiquing world during recent weeks (while exhibiting at a show in New York and shopping at the Brimfield Antiques Markets), I witnessed a few scenes that put a new spin on my thoughts about young collectors.
On Sunday afternoon of a garden antiques show at The New York Botanical Garden I watched a 10-year old boy leading his mother around to booths. She was holding his jacket and intentionally standing back as he entered booths and engaged with dealers.
He was keen on figural cement garden ornaments, and finally honed in on one booth that had a huge variety of animals – otters, owls, cats, bunnies, and the like. I watched as the dealer offered to lift one of the figures that the boy was particularly attracted to off the floor onto a plinth to place it beside another one that he was considering. His mother stepped into the booth at that point, not to control the situation, but to ask questions “What do you like about that one?” “Is that the size you want?” “Which one makes you smile more?” She then stepped back to let the boy state his final choice to the dealer – a recumbent stone puppy with floppy ears – and finally engaged with the dealer to pay for the purchase.
They proceeded to the booth across from us, where the boy went directly to a mushroom garden stool that was the perfect height and size for him to sit on – this was obviously his second visit to the booth, as he knew exactly what he wanted. He talked briefly with his mother, and again she physically stood back while he engaged with the dealer. After the transaction was complete (and Jeff was helping the dealer lift and carry the heavy toadstool to the family’s car), the boy proudly told me about the puppy he had just purchased from “that dealer over there.” He seemed genuinely as excited about his one-to-one interactions with dealers as he did about the objects he purchased.
My observations of children in an antiquing milieu continued a few weeks later. On the extremely hot and dusty main road through the town of Brimfield, Mass where thousands of people trudge as they make their way from one antiques market or field to the next, we were walking in tandem with twin boys who were about 8 years old. They caught my eye because they were each holding a large (18” or taller) doll-like figure. One boy’s doll looked like Dick Tracy, and the other’s was a sailor doll such as were once sold as souvenirs on cruise ships.
This month we are pleased to present a pair of antique floral andirons that infuse as much joy into a room as a gigantic bouquet of actual flowers. These andirons are as functional as they are beautiful, having evolved from a centuries-old tradition establishing andirons as essential fireplace accessories. Ever since humans starting building fires in indoor fireplaces they have used firedogs – a pair of horizontal bars – to hold logs off the hearth, thereby improving air circulation for better burning and less smoke. Upright front guards were then added to the firedogs to prevent flaming logs from rolling forward.
The practical human impulse that led to the creation of andirons eventually led to the artistic human impulse to transform the front guards into beautiful ornaments. There are endless variations on the shapes of andirons which correspond with major design aesthetics of different historical periods – in America these include the simple but shapely wrought iron andirons of the Colonial period, elegant brass lemon-top andirons of the Federal period, and heavily proportioned andirons of the Arts and Crafts era.
Most decorative andirons are either cast iron, which are shaped with molten iron that is poured into molds, or wrought iron, which are hand shaped by a blacksmith. Most of the figural andirons we’ve bought and sold have been in the shape of animals, and are usually cast iron. Figural wrought iron andirons with such an elaborate floral, foliate and spiral tendril design as these are far less common.
These andirons also retain traces of their original polychrome paint decoration in shades of green, yellow/orange and red.
This wallet is a fine example of Iroquois Indian beadwork dating from the 1840s. It was made by a Tuscarora woman whose people comprise the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, and who resettled from their North Carolina homeland to western New York in the early 1700s. The beadwork artistry of the Tuscarora and their fellow Iroquoians (Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk) is described in two excellent books on Indian beadwork by collector and scholar Gerry Biron: Made of Thunder, Made of Glass: American Indian Beadwork of the Northeast (2006), and A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag In Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art (2012).
Biron traces the history of beaded objects that the Iroquois made to sell to non-native Anglos of the middle and upper classes. This exchange began during the earliest years of Iroquois contact with Europeans. Shortly after the first trading post was established in 1608 in Montreal, the Iroquois living in upstate New York were able to obtain cut glass beads imported from Europe. Their traditional arts of adorning hide pouches and clothing with porcupine quills evolved to incorporate the new mediums of beads and fabric.
By the early 1800s, tourism was increasing in the Niagara Falls region near Iroquois lands, with the Tuscarora Reservation being closest to the Falls. This presented an opportunity for the Iroquois to make a subsistence living selling their creations to tourists.
By the early 1840s, the Iroquois had adapted both their beaded designs and the forms of objects they decorated to the Victorian tastes and sensibilities of their customers. Their traditional geometric and organic decorative motifs – curves, spirals, circles and wavy lines – gave way to floral decoration. Biron calls this beadwork the “Niagara floral style” because it was developed largely by Iroquois vendors at Niagara Falls.
Based on Biron’s research, we can date this wallet with good certainty to the mid-1840s. This was the earliest period of the Niagara floral style in which the flowers are round rather than elongated, are smaller, and have longer stems than in later floral designs. Also, the design is bilaterally symmetrical and worked with smaller beads than were used in later designs. The multiple colors of beads – white, blue, ivory, rose, green and gold – are vibrant against the black velvet background.
The pictorial imagery of a bird was also introduced during this time period. Contemporary Tuscarora artists call the bird a Carolina Parakeet, after the now extinct bird that was native to their ancestral North Carolina homeland. Biron says the Iroquois beadwork designers most likely took their cue for the bird motif from Euro-American women’s own needlepoint projects in which it was popular to embellish pincushions, purses and the like with bird imagery.
Iroquois craftswomen were attuned not only to popular design motifs, but also to the types of accessories that would appeal to their non-Native clientele. During the 1840s-50s, both middle and upper class women in the United States emulated fashion trends and customs of the European elite. This type of wallet was made to hold calling cards, the use of which was a form of etiquette adopted from European aristocracy.