The Press Back – the art of chair decoration without carving

Story and photos by Fred Taylor

The carving of 17th century "Sunflower" chests explains a lot about the ins and outs of New England Colonial carving at the time. They highlight the real world priorities of the period and the fact that decorating an otherwise perfectly fine plain chest was a luxury that few could afford to buy or had the time to produce. But since the Sunflower chests all had certain constants such as panel size, stile design and trim dimensions it was actually possible for the turner and the joiner and the carver to stockpile basic elements of the chests for use when the demand arose.

Dragons – Of course the other main movement of the period, the "creature feature" worked its way into the press back theme book. These two dragons are about to mix it up.

While that is not exactly production line work, it is the beginning of an industrial mindset that reached into deeper and firmer ground with its roots as the next two centuries rolled by in Colonial and Federal America. The urge to decorate plain surfaces appears to be a universal human trait that appeals to the "art" in all of us no matter how deeply buried.

The replication of effort in difficult tasks in the cabinetmaker's shop is what allowed large true sets of chairs to be turned out in the 18th century. By the early 19th, entrepreneurs like Lambert Hitchcock really did produce furniture in an assembly line manner with each worker performing the same task repetitively on endless lines of chairs. Even the decorations were "by the numbers" with stencils producing the same cornucopia thousands of times on the crest rails of thousands of chairs.

By mid century, J. H. Belter had nearly 100 German woodworkers and carvers in his factory located next to his rooming house in Manhattan, and the Meeks brothers had a new factory close by and even had an outlet in New Orleans. But even with all the labor and all those tools and factories, it was still relatively expensive and time-consuming for Belter to turn out a parlor set in "Rosalie Without the Grapes" or for Meeks to order up a five piece "Stanton Hall" set. But the desire for decoration was still there and as long as somebody could afford it…

Cheap – This chair has a shallow pattern that required single pass of the die on the birch crest. This was simply a decorative touch and made no real effort to look hand carved. This would have been a very inexpensive chair at the time.

By the turn of the 20th century things had changed both in society and in the factory. Despite some ups and downs, the decades after Civil War were prosperous and America's population was growing both in numbers and in wealth. And those wealthier citizens were willing to pay for a little decoration in their lives – within reason.

The mail order catalog phenomenon was in full swing and was the primary furniture distributor of the period and price was the key. How could Sears or Larkin produce decorative furniture to compete with the intricate carvings of the mid century? No one wanted to pay all that that much nor wanted to wait all that long.

Larkin – A design with a little more depth and texture but still a fairly simple look is shown in this Larkin chair that was given in 1908 for 25 cents and one Larkin certificate or in a set of four for five certificates with no cash.

As it turns out, they didn't have to. In the very late 1800s along came a process that could produce elaborate designs on chair parts for a cost of next to nothing. The technique even had a lot of people thinking the chair was hand carved.
The process? The steel die stamp.

Hand chased – The Holy Land scene on an otherwise severely plain Mission style chair was first pressed, then followed by hand chasing that removed background material and left visible tool marks to enhance the notion of hand carving.

A design with sharp edges was etched into a metal plate. That plate was mounted on a roller and under great pressure was passed over a waiting chair crest rail that had been precut to shape and steam bent to match the curve on the roller. The result was a perfect impression of the etching that was literally pressed into the wood giving the effect of a three-dimensional carving. Thus began the great era of the "press back" chair in American furniture.

In the simplest case, a rather shallow design was pressed into the waiting crest and without further ado was mounted to a chair ready to be finished. That allowed a mail order house like Sears to offer a dining chair in 1902 for 63 cents that had "handsome carving" on the back. Other chairs were enthusiastically – and erroneously – described as having "rich hand carving," "beautifully turned and carved back," or simply a "richly carved back." Maybe the catalog writers didn't know about "the process."

Here a few examples of press back chairs along with a few that are combinations of pressing and hand chasing and a few that are not press backs but are from the same period.

HW – The Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. offered this chair around 1900 that showed a good deep design with stiles topped by Victorian era "honey dipper" finials.

 

Face – Of course the "face chair" movement was a prime beneficiary of the press back technology. Mythological creatures could now be instantly transferred to chair backs without all that tedious carving.

 

Windmill – The outline of these happy cloggers may have been pressed but the main work was indeed hand carved.

 

Not pressed – At first glance this may appear to be a press back candidate but the bottle nose dolphins are true carvings applied over the quarter sawn veneer on the crest.

 


Visit Fred's redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in PDF format. His book, How To Be A Furniture Detective, is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

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