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Mr. Knapp's oddity: A new joint
One of the first things to be looked at
when trying to determine the age of a piece of antique furniture is the
type of joinery used in the construction of the piece. Knowing the history
of the technology of various periods goes a long way toward explaining
clues about the age of furniture and none is more important (or accessible)
than the type of joint used to secure a drawer.
Mostly what we see are dovetails of a sort. The interlocking dovetail
joint came into general use in the William and Mary period in the late
1600s and very early 1700s, and for the first time allowed the construction
of reliable drawers, a device with extremely limited use or convenience
until then. Before this innovation most furniture consisted of simple
boxes called coffers or some type of open shelving arrangement, and cabinets
with shelves behind doors such as the old court cupboard.
As useful as the dovetail joint started out to be, it did have a serious
drawback it was hard to make by hand and of course everything of
that period was made by hand. By the end of the 18th century some progress
had been made in furniture technology. Rotary saws were on the horizon
and all nails were no longer made one at a time by a blacksmith. The early
1800s saw lots of advancement in machinery for woodworking and by the
Civil War mechanized furniture factories were on line but the dovetail
drawer joint was still a hold up.
While the joint had been refined and perfected it was still too difficult
to be made by a machine. Some progress had been made by the use of jigs
to help guide the hand powered saws in their cutting but essentially the
dovetail was the last hold out of hand work in a machine era.
Several inventors were hard at work on the problem in the 1860s and most
concentrated on trying to duplicate the handmade dovetail using a machine,
that is until Mr. Charles B. Knapp of Waterloo, Wisconsin applied himself
to the task. He did some creative thinking and solved the problem not
by duplicating the dovetail joint but by inventing another type of joint
entirely that was at least as good as the dovetail and could be made by
machinery. The joint he came up with has several colloquial names
scallop and dowel, pin and scallop, half moon and all describe
the new joint which looks like a peg in a half circle on the side of a
drawer. If you look at much old furniture you undoubtedly have seen this
unusual looking arrangement and wondered what the heck it was. Now you
know it is a Knapp joint.
And by knowing that, you also get some very valuable information about
the age of the piece on which you saw the joint. Mr. Knapp patented his
first joint making machine in 1867. In 1870, he sold the rights to an
improved version of the patented machine to a group of investors who formed
the Knapp Dovetailing Company in Northhampton, MA. The investors proceeded
to make further refinements in the machine and actually put it into production
in a factory in 1871 where it proved to be a technological miracle. Where
a skilled cabinetmaker could turn out fifteen or twenty complete drawers
a day, on a really good day, the machine, on any day could turn out two
hundred or more and run more than one shift if required. The drawer department
had finally caught up with the rest of the factory.
By the mid 1870s, the great factories were in full swing turning out late
Victorian creations consisting mostly of Renaissance Revival and Eastlake
furniture. While not all the great factories used the Knapp machine, particularly
those of Grand Rapids, most of the eastern factories and other midwestern
areas were faithful customers of the Knapp Company. Over time maintenance
on the machines became a chore but they were still a better alternative
to hand work.
At the very height of its greatest popularity and use, the death knell
of the Knapp joint was being sounded by a new movement afoot in the furniture
design industry. It had nothing to do with the soundness or the economy
of the Knapp joint. Like so many things, its demise turned on sentiment.
That sentiment was the beginning of the Colonial Revival the resurrection
of things in style during the era of the founding of our country. And
a round, technical looking, obviously machine made drawer joint just did
not fit that image. At about the same time, machinery that did simulate
the handmade dovetail was perfected and by 1900 the Knapp joint had completely
disappeared from the American furniture scene.
So now you know that a piece of furniture with those odd little drawer
joints was made between 1871 and 1900 without a doubt.
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