Mechanical Library: Some (Mostly) American Furniture Books

In my last library post, I promised the second half of this cubby. So here we go. These books are mostly about furniture from the United States, and from this country before it was the United States. (We have many more books in that broad category, some of which have been covered in previous posts, and others that are to come.)

First up is “The Furniture of Our Forefather,” by Esther Singleton, first published in 1900; ours is the 1908 version from Doubleday, Page & Co. It includes furniture brought by colonists, as well as later work built in this country. Of interest is the provenance of many of the pieces – the inventory of Leonard Calvert, the first “proprietary governor of the Province of Maryland,” for example; and “Inventory of Mr. Gyles Mode” of Virginia, “worth reproducing because the articles are valued in pounds, shillings and pence, instead of tobacco which is customary, and this is more satisfactory, as the latter commodity was not constant in value.” This is mostly high-style furniture – the stuff of museums.

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Next is “The Cabinetmaker’s Treasury,” by F.E. Hoard and A.W. Marlow (Macmillan, 1952), which includes techniques and offers plans for many pieces of early American furniture. But as Chris wrote years ago in a Popular Woodworking post, the authors must have cornered the market on 3″-long screws “because that is the primary way they join everything (except the chairs). No dados. No sliding dovetails. Fewer mortise-and-tenon joints than I would prefer. The lowboys in the book are all screwed together. Screw the web frames together. Then screw the web frames to the sides. Don’t forget to screw the partitions!” So maybe don’t run out to add this one to your library. It’s followed by “The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American. Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece” by Albert Sack. Chris must have acquired this at the same time as “Cabinetmaker’s Treasury,” as in the same post he wrote:

The Fine Points of Furniture” seems a bit of a gimmick at first. Sack shows photos of three different pieces of furniture. They’re all the same form (chest on chest, for example). But one is labeled a “good” design, one is labeled “better” and the other as “best.” Then he offers some commentary under each photo explaining why.

Sack insults the piece labeled as “good” designs, and I was getting a complex at first because I kind of liked the “good” designs. They were usually simpler and less ornamented. Sack reserved “better” and “best” for pieces with elaborate carving, vigorous turnings and aggressive lines.

But after 300 pages of the stuff, I began to see things Sack’s way. The “good” designs started to look clunky and less refined. I was exercising my eye for 18th-century design.

Again, these are high-style museum pieces (particularly the “best” examples).

Wallace Nutting’s classic “Furniture of the Pilgrim Century” (volumes one and two) are, in Chris’s word, flawed – mostly because what Nutting lionizes as exemplars of a form are not what Chris likes – too high style, I suspect (Chris’s love for the vernacular will come as no surprise to most of our followers). But these volumes should be in every library of the serious furniture student and maker. They’re available for little money, and offer hundreds of images of period work. (Our copies were published in 1965 by Dover – reprints of the 1924 versions from The Old American Company.)

Harold L. Peterson’s “American Interiors: From Colonial Times to the Late Victorians – a Pictorial Source Book” (Scriber’s, 1971) is a lot of fun to page through – it presents period illustrations and paintings that include interiors (from single chairs to fully outfitted rooms). A lot of guesswork is involved in determining sizes and joinery of course – and what’s presented may or may not be faithful – but it’s a fun puzzle and a good resource beyond surviving furniture.

Jeffrey P. Greene’s “American Furniture of the 18th Century” (Taunton, 1996) is an old favorite of Chris’s, and I’m pretty fond of it, too. It’s not only a well-researched looks at the styles of the period, but includes techniques, notes on joinery and exploded drawings of some representative pieces. It is considered a must-have by many furniture makers (including us) – though not everyone agrees (do they ever?).

I will almost certainly never build a Queen Anne flat-top high chest – but I like seeing how it goes together.

Next we have a trio of books with measured construction drawings: Lester Margon’s “Construction of American Furniture Treasures” (Dover, 1975 – a paperback reprint of the 1949 Home Craftsman Publications book); the Toolemera reprint of Frederick Bryant’s “Working Drawings of Colonial Furniture” (originally published in 1922 by the Manual Arts Press); and V. J. Taylor’s “The Construction of Period Country Furniture” (Stobart, 1978), which also includes the techniques for building the 28 included pieces.

Nestled alongside is “Made in Western Pennsylvania: Early Decorative Arts, a 1982 exhibition catalog from the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.”

Now we’re into our small “country furniture” collection, with Aldren A. Watson’s classic “Country Furniture” (Norton, 2006 – paperback reprint of the 1974 hardback edition) – his illustrations are gorgeous. It’s followed by a 1969 Winterthur Conference report, “Country Cabinetwork and Simple City Furniture,” edited by John D. Morse (UP Virginia).

Next is a gift from the Saucy Indexer. Suzanne Ellison found a copy of “Old Amana Furniture,” by Marjorie K. Albers (Locust House, 1970), which shows pieces from the religious colony that settled in Iowa (it’s where Handworks takes place this year, Sept. 1-2).

One of my favorite books lives in this cubby: “A Craftsman’s Handbook” by Henry Lapp (1862-1904). It’s “an exquisite reproduction of a rare notebook, illustrated in watercolor by Amish furniture maker Henry Lapp” – and it really is exquisite. At the time of publication (1975 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art), Old Road Furniture Company was making reproductions of the pieces shown in Lapp’s notebook, as evidenced by a flier tucked inside the book (and the internet tells me the company is still in the Lapp business, among other designs).

Seed and nail cabinets from Lapp’s notebook (I’m a sucker for casework containing little drawers).

Another small book was hiding alongside Lapp: “Utility Furniture: The 1943 Utility Furniture Catalogue with an explanation of Britain’s Second World War Utility Furniture Scheme,” by Jon Mills (Sabrestorm 2008), is a facsimile edition of a 1943 catalogue for those who needed and could prove their need) during the privations of WWII.

Next are a couple books on important makers: Samuel A. Humphrey’s “Thomas Elfe, Cabinetmaker” (Wyrick, 1995) and “John Shaw: Cabinetmaker of Annapolis,” by William Voss Elder III and Lu Bartlett (Baltimore Museum of Art 1983 exhibition catalogue).

Then we have a handful of “comprehensive” furniture guides, one old, one new(ish). “Furniture of the Olden Time,” second edition, by Frances Clary Morse, “provides a separate history for each species of furniture, from the time when the first example is known to have existed in the United States to the latest date before this book is originally published” (Macmillan, 2017). Then it’s “An Encyclopedia of Furniture” (Quantum, 2004), a pictorial romp through furniture time from “pre-1600” to the end of the 20th century. We also have a ex-library copy (I now it’s ex-library because it’s a hardcover binding atop a paperback) of Edward Lucie-Smith’s “Furniture: A Concise History” (1979, Thames and Hundson).

Three to go.

First is “The Furniture Bible,” by Christopher Pourny (Artisan, 2014) , which gives a brief overview of furniture history, but is mostly about restoration and good stewardship. It’s followed by John Gloag’s “A Social History of Furniture Design: from B.C. 1300 to A.D. 1960” (Bonanza, 1966) and, finally, “Music in the Marketplace: The Story of Philadelphia’s Historic Wanamaker Organ,” by Ray Biswanger (Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Press 1999).

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.


This is the 10th post in the Covington Mechanical Library tour. To see the earlier ones, click on “Categories” on the right rail, and drop down to “Mechanical Library.” Or click here.


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