Journal

Rare Rustic Hickory Armoire

06.23.2017

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Discovering new forms within a familiar genre of antiques is always a thrill for dealers on the hunt for quality pieces. This rustic armoire qualifies as one of those rare finds that expands the horizons of known hickory furniture types, so the discovery is satisfying from both scholarly and aesthetic perspectives.

Antique hickory case pieces appear on the market less frequently than hickory tables and seating because far fewer of them were produced by the six or so original Indiana hickory furniture companies during their manufacturing heyday from the early to mid-1900s.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

We know that this armoire was made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana because it retains that company’s attractive magenta and green paper label intact on the back.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company paper label

Rustic Hickory produced furniture from 1902-1934. The armoire does not appear in their catalogs and we have never seen one on the market, so we suspect it was available only as a special order or perhaps was made in a limited production run. The 1920s Rustic Hickory catalogs did feature bedroom suites (beds, dressers, and costumers) described as “Up-to-date bedroom equipment for the summer home, in typical Rustic Hickory Construction.” Although complementary in style, the armoire was not part of the company’s catalog line of bedroom furniture.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog

Two pages of bedroom furniture from the 1926 Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog.

We are able to date the armoire to circa 1925 because it came directly from an Arts-and-Crafts bungalow-style lakeside summer home that was built in the southern sector of the Adirondack Park around that date. Upon completion of the home, the owners furnished it throughout with quality Rustic Hickory and Old Hickory furniture. The armoire had been in the house since it was built.

Although the house was relatively large with spacious bedrooms on a full-story second floor, closet space was limited. Armoires have provided a storage solution in rooms without closets since medieval times when they held everything from armor (hence the derivation of the French word armoire) to tapestries, rugs, linens, and clothing. Up until the early 1900s, most homes were built with few or no closets, so movable, free-standing wardrobe cabinets were common.

Armoire styles have changed throughout the centuries as storage needs and decorative trends evolved. This unique, rustic-style armoire has four doors, and hickory pole trim along the abutting edges of each door, between the sets of doors, and around the front, sides, and top edges of the whole case.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
There are different storage features inside the left and right pairs of doors.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
The doors on the left open to an empty space for hanging clothes from a hickory pole closet rod.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The doors on the right open to two shelves and four drawers for folded garments. The shelves and drawer fronts are made of pine.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The interior dimensions of each half of the armoire are 23” wide x 21” deep x 52” wide (the overall exterior dimensions are 51.5” wide x 24.75” deep x 61” high), so it is roomy enough to hold an array of clothing.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
Beyond its functionality, this armoire’s grand scale, warm finish, and bark-on hickory poles make it a handsome anchor piece for a rustic room’s decor. It also evokes nostalgia for the simple lifestyle that early 20th-century rusticators enjoyed at their vacation home retreats.

A Rustic Masterpiece

12.13.2016

rustic masterpiece cabinet
Although we have seen some spectacular antique rustic case pieces over the years, including those in the permanent collection of the Adirondack Museum, we can assuredly say that this cabinet stands in a class of its own. It is one of the most creatively conceived and constructed pieces of furniture that we’ve had the pleasure of handling during our career as antiques dealers.

Its stature is impressive yet not overwhelming, standing at 7’4″ high. The style is quintessentially rustic in that it echoes a form found in nature, namely an unearthed tree. The base represents a massive trunk fringed with jagged roots,

 

rustic masterpiece cabinet

 

and the beveled mirror surround represents intertwined branches.

rustic masterpiece cabinet

 

Amazingly, its tree-like character was achieved without the use of natural branches, twigs, burls or roots. Its arboreal likeness was created entirely with carved and shaped wood components that are covered with thousands of pieces of applied natural bark.

 

rustic masterpiece cabinet

 

The pine disks that top the branch-like portions of the base are painted with simulated tree rings, furthering the tree illusion.

 

rustic masterpiece cabinet

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Rustic with Provenance

06.16.2016

Finding unique, attractive and functional rustic furniture that was created in earlier eras is always a satisfying outcome of our hunt for antiques. Although all antiques have an origin story and a life history subsequent to our finding them, more often than not those specifics remain unknown to us. So it is particularly gratifying when we can trace the provenance of notable rustic furniture that we find, as we were able to do for these three tables in our current inventory.

Camp Nominigan tables

These pieces – a dining table, a game table and a coffee table – originated at Nominigan Camp, a lodge built in 1913 on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. We have a handwritten note from the previous owner of the tables stating that they were given to his mother by Dr. Mary Northway whose family once owned Nominigan.

At wilderness outposts, furniture was usually made onsite from local trees. In this case the softwoods around Smoke Lake’s Loon Point, where Nominigan (meaning “Among the Balsams”) was built, provided the furniture’s raw materials. The frames of the tables are made of bark-on white cedar poles, and the table tops are pine.

Camp Nominigan rustic tables

 

Camp Nominigan rustic tables

They are sturdily built with tight tenons, and have classic rustic style.  But before providing more details about the furniture itself, it is worth delving into the history of Nominigan Camp, their original home.

Nominigan’s Origins

Nominigan Camp was built as an outpost of a Grand Trunk Railway resort called the Highland Inn located on Cache Lake in Algonquin Park (est. 1893). The Highland Inn was built in 1908 during the height of the rusticator movement to accommodate tourists who could travel to the Park relatively easily via train from their urban residences in Montreal and Toronto. The railway and Cache Lake Station were located directly in front of the Inn.

The Inn started modestly, serving primarily as a way station for anglers and campers who went on to explore the interior of the Park.

Highland Inn

The Highland Inn, circa 1910

 

Angler at Highland Inn

A guest at Highland Inn after a day of fishing.

It quickly grew in size, however, and gained amenities such as steam heating, modern kitchens and a formal dining room serving multi-course meals.

The Highland Inn

The Highland Inn after expansion. The railroad track is visible parallel to the shoreline.

The expanded inn attracted a larger clientele who enjoyed the combination of a remote wilderness setting with the luxuries of a fine hotel.

Guests at the Highland Inn.

Genteel guests at the Highland Inn.

As more guests brought families on vacations to the Inn, the owners saw a need and an opportunity to expand its entertainment options, so sightseeing trips became a favorite pastime. The most popular was the “Grand Outing” to Loon Point on Smoke Lake, which required traveling more than seven miles from the Inn via train, stagecoach, portage and boat.

Inevitably, the human urge to “make the wilderness comfortable” transformed Loon Point from a simple camping and day trip location to the site for a new lodge which became an official outpost of the Highland Inn, named Nominigan Camp. The following passage sardonically summarizes the genesis of Nomingan, which could also aptly describe the origins of many lodges and camps built by rusticators and those who served them during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

Since it was already a beloved camping site … what was more appropriate than to put up a lodge to shelter these campers? Simple, of course – an outpost – only log buildings – but of course, we must include hot and cold running water, lighting and good meals. And there must be room to keep boats there, and perhaps a launch for sightseers who want more comfortable travel than by canoe, and good fireplaces to give cheer and… and… and… And so it was. (Northway, 1970a)

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Native Made Rustic Furniture

05.18.2016

native made rustic furniture

 

Antiques dealers who look at thousands of old objects each year inevitably start to refine categories for the antiques they encounter. Repeated exposure to and study of antiques enable dealers to move from catch-all categorizations such as “Art Pottery” or “Quilts” to informed subcategories targeting what person/group/manufacturer made the item, in what region of the country or world, and when.

The closer objects are to the specialty areas of antiques that a dealer most frequently buys and sells, the more refined the dealer’s categorization of those things becomes. While we might lump together many individual pieces of furniture within the category “Mid-century Modern” and leave it at that, another dealer might lump together all “Rustic Furniture” and call it good. Needless to say, we have learned to classify rustic furniture into many different subcategories, each with its own themes and variations.

Native Rustic Furniture

OjibwecampT

An Ojibwe camp, circa 1870 (Minnesota Historical Society)

One subcategory of antique rustic furniture that we continue to find and learn about was made both by Native Americans in the United States and First Nations tribes in Canada. For centuries, the aboriginal peoples of North America traditionally transformed materials found in nature into utilitarian objects for shelter, transportation, clothing, storage and other essentials of daily life, as illustrated in the above photo of Ojibwe bark teepees and a bark canoe.

Being adept at relying on what nature provides positioned native people to use those materials in creative ways as they adapted to living in non-Indian cultural contexts. While the following opinion of a white man who helped establish one of the first Indian crafts stores in Michigan reflects the dominant society’s patronizing attitudes towards Native Americans during the early 1900s, it does recognize native people’s finesse in working with natural materials: “The Indian’s absolute simplicity, unerring instinct, and wonderful knowledge of natural things surely give him a place among Nature’s best interpreters.” (from The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909)

Knowing where to find, how best to harvest, and how to work with natural materials such as bark and twigs, enabled native people to make a living at a time when they were struggling to transition from their traditional ways of life to a cash-based economy. During the mid- to late-19th century, a market for their craftsmanship fortuitously emerged as the rusticator movement gained momentum.

Wealthy urbanites who headed to beautiful, remote natural areas for vacations developed an appreciation for crafts that evoked pleasant memories of their escape into nature. Some of these rusticators established second homes in resort areas and sought appropriate interior furnishings for their cottages and camps, while others purchased furniture to take back for the porches and lawns of their formal homes.

Maliseet Indian Stanislaus Francis selling rustic furniture and souvenirs

Stanislaus Francis, a Maine Maliseet, sitting outside his Indian Curiosities shop, c. 1915 (Phillips, 1998)

Native people sold their goods in a variety of places – at souvenir shops on or near their reservations, at sporting lodges and camps where they worked as guides, and at itinerant encampments they set up in rusticator havens such as Bar Harbor, Maine. In these ways they either went where the tourists were, or the tourists came to them.

While small souvenirs such as beadwork, tanned hides, quillwork and baskets were produced and sold in great quantities, native people also made and sold some rustic furniture in these locations. Note the rustic settee that Stanislaus Francis sits on (and no doubt made and offered for sale) in the above photo from Maine.

Likewise, in an early 20th century article titled “Indian Industries in Michigan” (The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909) Miss Grade Travis describes a “modest little Indian workshop” in Wayagamug, Michigan filled with crafts made by a group of 50 Indians comprising Ojibwes from the Garden River Reserve in Canada and Ottawas from Michigan. She reports that furniture made by the native men were among the items offered for sale.

What then, did that furniture look like? We are familiar with four* different forms of native-made rustic furniture that evolved in the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S. and Canada during the rusticator era: Bark panel, Mosaic twig and bark, Bentwood, and Branch and burl furniture.

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Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part II

12.11.2014

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)

elm trunk and leaves

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 tree range map

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.

elm bark furniture

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

Black willow tree trunk

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.

black willow range map

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.

Indiana Willow 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.

willow desk

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.

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Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part I

10.21.2014

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

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

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.

range map of white birch

Range of white birch (usgs.com)

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.

Ernest Stowe Secretary

 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

yellow birch

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

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.

range of yellow birch

Range of yellow birch (usgs.com)

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.

Lee Fountain table

Yellow birch tree roots

Yellow birch roots growing over a rock in the Adirondacks (nationalgeographic.com)

Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

hickory tree

(photo – jeffpippen.com)

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.

range map modernut hickory

Range of mockernut hickory (usgs.gov)

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.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company wardrobe

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Not Obsolete: Five (Plus Two) Popular Old-fashioned Furnishings for Rustic Retreats

01.27.2014

We recently came across a blog post listing ten furniture pieces that, in the opinion of the author, are becoming extinct in the wake of modern lifestyles, technologies and tastes – including TV cabinets, roll-top desks, and water beds. This spurred our thinking about how furniture changes with the times – not just the era-specific styles (e.g., ornate Louis XIV or spare mid-century modern) reflected in furniture design, but also the actual pieces of furniture that in some time periods are more central to daily life than in others. Curio cabinets and ferneries were particularly well-suited to Victorian hobbies and décor, whereas sectional sofas and mudroom storage cubbies are popular today.

Much of the antique furniture we sell, however, is placed in rustic retreats where families consciously lead a more relaxed and simpler lifestyle that provides a respite from the normal bustle and patterns of modern everyday life.  So along with rustic versions of the basics that are desirable furnishings in any modern home – dining tables and chairs, upholstered chairs, rocking chairs, sofas, console tables, lamps, mirrors and the like – rustic homes often include types of furniture that harken back to earlier eras.  Here are five such pieces that prove to be ever popular for rustic retreats:

1. Game tables.  Card games and jigsaw puzzles typically happen during leisure hours with family members of all ages. There is not always room in our primary homes to dedicate a table surface to a jigsaw puzzle in progress, but having a table that is always available for and well suited to holding puzzles, board games and card games is a priority in many vacation retreats.

Habitant game table

Old Hickory game table

2. Porch gliders. Nothing quite evokes an idyllic rustic lifestyle like whiling away an evening gently gliding to and fro on a porch with a view of nature.  Rustic gliders, especially versions with seat springs and cushions, are sometimes used as indoor sofas as well.

old hickory upholstered glider

Old HIckory glider

3. Coat trees. In more formal homes, outdoor coats typically reside in a hall closet.  But free-standing coat trees, developed when houses did not have commodious closets, get a lot of use in rustic homes – in bedrooms for a favorite flannel shirt and wool sweater, in bathrooms for towels and robes, and near doors for sunhats and fishing caps, binoculars and creels, jackets and rain slickers.

rustic hall trees

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Treasures of a Rustic Summer Colony

06.26.2013

Lookout tower at Sprucewold

Summer colonies exist all across the country, usually situated on a fabulous tract of land near a lake, mountain or seaside. Unlike a resort community (Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole, Myrtle Beach) that is a regular municipality whose natural assets are available to tourists and local residents alike, a summer colony is much smaller, and occupied primarily by its owners and their guests. Usually some lands or resources are held in common and some form of a property owners’ association provides common governance and services.

We recently had an opportunity to visit an historic summer colony in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, which is not far from our gallery. Called Sprucewold, this colony is of particular interest because it was founded nearly 100 years ago as a rustic summer colony, an identity it still maintains.* The visit also unexpectedly helped us link something in Sprucewold’s past to something in our own present.

Sprucewold porch

Sprucewold’s origins go back to 1888 when a local land development company acquired land on thickly forested Spruce Point on Linekin Bay in the Gulf of Maine, and drew up the following plan for dividing it into individual lots.

spruceplanweb

But the land was not actually developed until a series of further land acquisitions, transfers, partnerships and mergers led local businessmen to begin building on their holdings in 1912.  Water, electricity and road improvements were introduced in the early 1920s, and by 1922 some of the original developers began renting cabins. A lodge was built in 1925-26 and announced to potential guests that it offered “all the pleasures of primitive living with none of the penalties.”

Sprucewold brochure

Most of the people who visited and eventually bought or built cabins at Sprucewold were from cities and suburbs south of Maine – Philadelphia, New York, Boston and the like – taking trains, boats and ferries to get to the peninsula before cars were common.

Linekin Bay ferry

Men would make the long journey on weekends while their wives and children stayed in residence for the summer.  By 1930 there were 60 cabins plus the lodge, all united by private roads, paths and ocean frontage.  After a period of decline during the Great Depression, building picked up again to complete the log cabin community in the following decades.

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