This graceful center table (30″ wide, 21.75″ deep, 30″ high) is a stellar example of a decorative technique called pyrography, literally meaning fire writing, but better known as wood burning (a.k.a. “burnt wood etching” and “pokerwork”). The table dates from circa 1910, so was created during the late 19th-early 20th century time period when pyrography reached peak popularity with artists and crafters.
Before describing this table in more detail, it is worth recounting a bit of the fascinating background of pyrography which includes pieces of history from the domains of art, science, society, and commerce.
A Brief History of Pyrography
Burning designs into wood, leather, and bone for artistic expression dates back to at least the 1st century AD. In early times designs were etched with hot implements that needed to be constantly reheated as the artwork progressed.
That inconvenient and tiresome technique changed radically in 1889 when an artist named François Manuel-Perier introduced a “pyrography machine” at the International Exposition in Paris. He had adapted a medical instrument that a French physician had invented in 1875 for cauterizing wounds. The tool had an insulated handle with a sharp tip made of platinum, a metal which was uniquely able to absorb a certain gaseous mixture that could keep the tip hot.
Within a year, a compact version of Manuel-Perier’s thermo-pyrography tool, made by Abbott Brothers Manufacturing, was being sold in England within a kit called “The Vulcan Wood Etching Machine.”
The basic necessities included in the kit were pencils with varying size platinum tips, an alcohol spirit lamp, a jar of liquid benzene, and two lengths of rubber tubing – one connected to a bellows and the other connected to the hollow platinum pencil tip.
The artist would initially heat the sharp platinum tip of the pencil in the flame of the spirit lamp, then extinguish the lamp. While using the pencil tip to burn a design into wood with one hand, the artist would then constantly pump the bellows with their other hand which transmitted benzene vapor through the tube to the platinum point which then absorbed the gas to keep the tip glowing hot.
Conveniently, in 1891, a year after Abbott Brothers introduced its pyrography kits, a book titled A Handbook on Pyrography written by a Mrs. Maud Maude was published in England, declaring that “the art has lately attracted considerable attention and is now a most fashionable art with enthusiastic feminine amateurs.”
The book, along with a series of articles Mrs. Maude penned for the U.S. magazine The Delineator in 1892, gave explicit instructions for producing pyrographic art using the Vulcan kit, thereby helping the art form became a fad as a home craft, particularly among women. It turns out that Mrs. Maud Maude was a pseudonym for Ann Maud Abbott Freeman, a sister of the Abbott Brothers who manufactured the Vulcan pyrography kit. Savvy marketing, indeed.
Additional publications encouraging the craft of pyrography as a “delightful and profitable pastime” for women followed, including the 1894 Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit by Addie E. Heron which detailed how women could make decorative objects for their own homes or to sell, and the 1903 book 300 Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Lilla Elizabeth Kelley which had a chapter devoted to pyrography filled with detailed instructions as well as encouragements such as, “If the point does not work well at once do not feel vexed.” Thus began the popular trend of adorning household objects such as small boxes, mirrors, frames, and wall plaques with pyrographic art.
Riding the wave of pyrography as a popular home craft, the Flemish Art Company was established in Brooklyn, NY around 1900 to began producing pyrographic objects commercially.
The company manufactured its own wooden objects – wastebaskets, hand mirrors, tabourettes, handkerchief boxes, wall plaques and the like – largely from basswood that they sourced “in the cold climates of Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada” which the company believed produced superior, whiter wood. Their artistic employees, many of whom were women, then hand-decorated the objects with pyrographic designs. The company’s artists also engraved metal plates that were heated and pressed onto wood to decorate some of their commercial products.
This frame (which we owned and sold several years ago), depicting a sporting woman with a tennis racket and bag of golf clubs, was likely handmade by a Flemish Art Company artist.
The Flemish Art Company also sold pyrography kits that included paints, stains, waxes and varnishes, instruction booklets, and other handy tools for do-it-yourself pyrographers.
One particularly interesting accessory was the “Flemish Art non-explosive absorbent – a cotton-like substance called asbestos” which crafters were encouraged to “place in the benzene bottle to absorb the volatile fluid make it safe and non-explosive should the bottle break.”
Although pyrography instruction books included some ominous warnings such as: “You should always have a fire extinguisher at the ready and preferably another person nearby who could help in case of an accident,” and “If a red flame issues from your vent hole, your benzene is too strong,” no one at the time understood the carcinogenic hazards of working with these materials.
Pyrography and the Rustic Aesthetic
The era of mass popularity of pyrography as a crafting activity, roughly 1890 through the 1920s, coincided with the rusticator era when city folk sought not only experiences in the wilderness, but also decorative reminders of nature and adventures in the outdoors. Not surprisingly, then, pyrographic designs have appeared on antique rustic accessories that we’ve handled over the years.
Sometimes the pyrographic designs have been simple floral or geometric etchings, such as on the edges of this frame and canoe:
The etchings surrounding a circa 1900 painting of an Indian princess (who looks very much like a Caucasian Victorian lady) on this wall plaque are more pictorial and elaborate:
Canoe paddles, both model and full-sizes, were often decorated with Native American themes.
This set of four canoe paddles included a Gibson girl etching along with the Native American portraits, which seems incongruous but was entirely typical of designs favored during the turn-of-the-20th-century era.
This set of model paddles incorporated colors in stylized Native American motifs, as well as portraits.
These souvenir model canoe paddles illustrate a specific lake landscape in New Hampshire:
This pyrography landscape scene was a large wall panel surrounded with a twig frame:
This fish is another large piece of pyrography wall art from our past inventory. Most of the wood burning work is in the geometric mosaic background texture, with some lighter pyrography details delineating the features of the fish itself:
The vast majority of pyrographic art we’ve owned have been wood, but one of the most unique pieces we’ve had was a birch bark wastebasket decorated with different pictorial pyrography etchings on all four sides:
Although the pyrography designs on these smaller accessories were likely executed by women, pyrography on larger furniture pieces were more likely done by men. There is direct evidence of this on a full-size blanket chest we once owned which was inscribed and signed beneath the lid by its maker, Thomas F. Hurton:
Pyrography-Decorated Furniture: The Center Table
This center table that we are now offering for sale is the largest piece of pyrographic work we have owned to date. It is made of tulip or yellow poplar. The clean joinery, turned stretchers, and shaping of the curved legs and apron all indicate that the maker was an experienced cabinet maker.
The table is signed (via wood burning) by its maker, H. A. Frey, in an unusual location – on the bottoms of each of its four feet.
The table is fully decorated with pyrography designs. Most of the surface is wood-burned with shading strokes that create a stippled background texture.
Standing out from the black-stained background are vivid red wild roses complete with dark green leaves and rosehips. Natural motifs such as flowers, vines, and fruits are emblematic designs of the Art Noveau era during which this table, and most antique pyrography, was created. A simple gold scallop delineating the center portion of the table adds a subdued color element that complements the striking red-on-black design.
In addition to the four wild roses on the outer edges of the table top, each of the table legs have the etched and painted rose designs on both sides of the legs so they are visible from all viewing angles.
This table’s combination of a refined furniture design with nature-themed, pyrographic embellishments echos the eclectic rustic decor that was characteristic of classic Adirondack Great Camp interiors around the turn of the 20th century. The table also creates a striking black contrast against white walls in more modern interiors that are infused with rustic elements.
(Historic illustrations and much of the background information on pyrography in this article were sourced from pyromuse.org.)