Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • April 29, 2014

Perishable Goods

Go on to Google and look for Belter furniture. Just click on “images” and an entire page of Belter and Belteresque objects will appear. Search for Wooton desks and you will also be rewarded with many score of objects. Now try Gardner & Co. veneer chair seats or something along those lines. In fact, try any and every combination of chair, chair seat, veneer, plywood, and perforated that you can think of, with or without adding Gardner, and see what comes up. Not much, most likely. Go through a similar exercise with eBay. Considerable success with Belter, tolerable response to Wooton, but little or nothing for Gardner. What does this mean? 

Very little, of course, without some sense of context. All three of these names—Belter, Wooton, and Gardner—have become prominent in the canon of innovative furniture produced in the United States during the nineteenth century. John Henry Belter patented and produced a form of up-market plywood furniture, mostly seating pieces, notable for extraordinarily elaborate piercing and carving. Although Belter’s documentary trail is slight, objects manufactured by his firm and competitors in the years between roughly 1845 and 1865 are abundant today, even surprisingly so.

William S. Wooton introduced his patented Cabinet Secretary desk in 1874. It met with immediate success. Although the object bore some visual resemblance to so-called quarter-cylinder desks common at the time, having what appeared to be two doors below a section that opened upward, the desk actually opened side-to-side to reveal an intricate and complex private world of drawers, shelves, pigeonholes, and other accommodations for the proliferating paperwork of business. Wooton’s timing was felicitous; over the next decade or so, his desks were purchased by the rich and powerful around the globe. Like Belter furniture, Wooton desks inevitably fell out of fashion but by the end of the twentieth century both had become cult objects of sorts, collected, restored, and exhibited.

In the 1870s, Gardner & Co. enjoyed international acclaim for its innovative three-ply veneer chair seats and derivative products. The company’s line grew from a relatively simple object, patented on May 21, 1872. This was a three-ply veneer chair seat, initially intended as a replacement for worn-out cane seats. Before the advent of Gardner’s new product, old cane seats had to be manually removed and new ones manually woven in their place, a process that could take a few hours. Gardner’s replacement seats were attached in a matter of minutes with a handful of brass-headed tacks. The principals in the Gardner firm swiftly recognized that their three-ply material could be bent to various shapes and extended into great sheets. The result was an impressive range of chair types and settees, all outfitted with seats and backs of perforated plywood.

Gardner & Co. figure prominently in the documentary record. The firm exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876; the Philadelphia Free Library’s Centennial collection has a photograph of that installation, illustrated and noted in various Centennial publications. Gardner & Co. were also present at the Paris exhibition of 1878, displaying their products to a far wider international range of potential customers. After 1872, advertisements for Gardner products appear frequently in trade literature, some of it generated by the firm, other by agents carrying their goods. Quite by accident, while looking for something else, I came across an advertisement for Gardner seats in an Australian newspaper. So the world knew of this product.

A few Gardner & Co. trade catalogs survive, exact number unknown. The 1884 catalog provides images of well over one hundred different products but since many of these came in different sizes, the actual number was significantly higher. Furthermore, many of the settees could be special-ordered with designs or texts requested by the purchaser, so the total number was higher still. If that were not enough, this catalog indicated that specialty catalogs were available, for railroad seating, for instance. Testimonials from satisfied purchasers are scattered throughout the text of the 1884 publication, indicating sales to churches, Sunday schools and parsonages; music halls; the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Honor; and the state of Alabama.

Years ago I tried to follow up on these testimonials but churches had moved, lodges had folded, and music halls closed down or refurbished but the state of Alabama still had the chairs mentioned in the testimonials. But all in ruinous condition. And this brings us back to our initial wonderment about Gardner products. All evidence indicates exceptional international success yet only a handful of objects still survive. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the product simply did not endure. It really wasn’t much good. 

Plywood chairs are commonplace today, arguably a different form of testimonial to the appeal of Gardner products. But few if any of today’s chairs are only three-ply. The Gardners had a good idea but practice demonstrated that three-ply was too thin and did not hold up to prolonged use. There may well have been issues of glues, finishes, or unanticipated effects of the perforating that also undercut product durability. Whatever the cause, the average Gardner chair encountered on the secondary market today is a rather sorry affair of split and separated plywood, unattractive to behold and no easy matter to restore.

In his classic text, Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion distinguishes between two types of historical facts he labels constituent and transitory. The latter are short-lived, without creative force or energy. The former are just the opposite and “form the core of historical growth.”[1] It is not entirely clear where Gardner chairs fit into Giedion’s dichotomy. They could be considered transitory, for the material objects apparently truly were short-lived, probably to the dismay of a great many buyers. On the other hand, the idea behind the seating could be termed constituent, for it later generated impressively numerous progeny. In the end, perhaps, a high grade for the idea, at least in the abstract, but a failing grade for its execution. 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 


[1] Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 389.  

 

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