Wicker Wisdoms

ABOUT DOVETAIL ANTIQUES: We specialize in antique wicker furnishings of the highest quality. Dovetail Antiques combines third generation antique knowledge with an outstanding reputation for honesty, integrity, and personalized consideration. We welcome you to experience the pleasures of the Golden Age of American antique wicker furniture.  

We have spent over 25 years passionately buying, selling, and collecting antique wicker furniture and we would like to share our knowledge for wicker through this frequently changing column. There is a world of difference between old, handmade wicker furniture, and the new wicker being offered on the market today. We hope to give the reader insight into the wonderful qualities of antique wicker furniture, through this column, which will explore the history and attribues of vintage American wicker furniture.

   

Current Wicker Wisdom

  

GREEN WICKER: Think about the positive impact of buying antique items such as wicker. Antiques don’t rely on the destruction of natural resources to obtain their materials; nor do they affect the present environment in any negative manner. The items already exist. They do not have to be produced, which involves production facilities that use large amounts of energy sources and create environmentally polluting by-products. New furniture also uses many synthetic products and chemicals that are released into the atmosphere for many years, as opposed to antiques which have eliminated the harmful fumes. Shipping also involves transportation and all its fuel consumption and pollution.

The only process needed concerning antiques may be some restoration involving trivial amounts of materials with very little energy consumption. Even though restoration of those items might include some additional finish or fabric, it would be to a minor extent and can include very environmentally conscious choices.

Another aspect of antique wicker is that it is constructed of natural organic materials such as rattan and reed and therefore, is especially a “green” choice when thinking of purchasing any furniture and decorative accessories for the home. American hand-made antique wicker furniture (circa 1870’s - 1920’s) is made with attention to detail and fine construction to last for generations. It can provide you with the comfort, appearance, usefulness, and durability, not to mention, lasting pleasure and investment value while knowing you have made a conscious decision to choose a product that gives back to the environment by recycling resources in an effort to contribute to the “greening” of our planet. Enjoy antique wicker at all levels of desirability.

Purchasing antiques is a responsible choice. Recycling translates into zero negative impact on the environment. Instead of paying the department store, the importer, the shipper, and the manufacturer in some foreign country, choosing antiques is a better option.

Antique dealers realize and make a conscious effort to re-use the products previous generations carefully crafted with pride and creativity. Antiques provide lasting pleasure and never need to be added to a landfill, but instead can be passed down for future generations to enjoy.

 

Wicker Wisdoms Archives

  

The wicker furniture industry was born on American soil, not in the Orient, as so many people believe. The confusion may come from the fact that the Rattan palm grows wild in the Far East, or it may come from the abundance of poor quality wicker furniture imported from the Far East. The rattan palm from which cane and reed are derived, grows like a vine and can reach a height of six hundred feet, growing in the jungles of the Far East.

It is important to note that rattan and reed are far superior, but are not the only materials used to make wicker furniture. Willow, natural grasses, and a man made product called fiber are among the materials used to weave wicker furniture. In future columns, we will explore their differences.

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In the 1840's a young man named Cyrus Wakefield became fascinated with the rattan that was used to pack the cargo ships and was then discarded on the docks of Boston's harbor. He began elaborate experiments designing furniture with rattan. Cyrus Wakefield was destined to become the father of the American wicker furniture industry. He established the Wakefield Rattan Company in 1855. Today, it is possible to occasionally find a piece of Wakefield Rattan Company furniture. These pieces are highly sought after by collectors.

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Cyrus Wakefield, the father of the American wicker furniture industry, was consumed with the elaborate designs he was creating out of rattan. He realized the inner pith of the whole rattan plant, (reed) had tremendous flexibility, therefore enabling him to create ornate, Victorian designs. Throughout the 1860's, the Wakefield Rattan Company cornered the market on the wicker furniture industry. Cyrus Wakefield became a very rich man, and after a generous donation to construct a new town hall, the citizens of South Reading, Mass. voted to rename their town Wakefield, Mass. in his honor in 1868. We usually have a selection of fine Wakefield Rattan Company wicker pieces available. The quality and craftsmanship attest to the Wakefield Rattan Company's high standards. Both Wakefield Rattan Company and Heywood Brothers Company pieces are rare and highly sought after by collectors.

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Wakefield Rattan Company had fierce competition from another Massachusetts furniture maker, Heywood Brothers Company of Gardner, Mass. The intense rivalry, from the 1870's through the late 1890's, encouraged both furniture designers to create and elaborate wicker pieces. Their creativity and craftsmanship were unmatched. This was the Golden Age of Wicker.

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In 1897, Wakefield Rattan Co. merged with the firm of Heywood Bros. and Co. These two giants formed the most important wicker industry of all time. For the next two decades this newly formed Heywood Bros. and Wakefield Co. all but monopolized sales of quality wicker furniture. Henry Heywood became the first president of Heywood Bros. and Wakefield Co. Realizing his great responsibility, he selected the best craftsmen, furniture designers, and businessmen from both companies to assure the highest quality and best designs. The demand for wicker furniture continued to rise. This was the "Golden Age of Wicker"!

The Wakefield Rattan Company pioneered the American wicker furniture industry and the Wakefield Wicker Society has recognized the impact Cyrus Wakefield had on their city and honored him with an historical society in his name.

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The merger, involving Wakefield Rattan Co. and Heywood Bros. that resulted in the formation of Heywood Bros. and Wakefield Co. in 1897, all but created a monopoly on quality wicker sales for the next two decades. Henry Heywood, the company president, set into motion the production of cane seat covering for electric streetcars and railroad seat at the time. He also immediately established additional warehouses in London and Liverpool, England creating an export market. The newly expanded company merger with its increasing number of warehouses and its vigorous and extensive production discouraged serious competition. Although wicker furniture was very popular at the turn of the century, revolutionary designs were about to arrive.

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As we have mentioned, there are several types of materials used in the construction of wicker furniture. We have already discussed the origins of rattan from which reed and cane were manufactured and which were used in early designs of American antique wicker furniture. However, other wicker materials should be mentioned.

Although willow, a viable alternative to reed and rattan was used to a large extent, it was not suitable to be twisted in such a fashion as reed which could create an array of ornate designs. A natural material, easily grown and harvested, willow furniture was a novel creation, especially with its newly desirable simple lines of lattice-work and more angular designs (Bar Harbor style). Willow furniture creations were strong and sturdy when well crafted, but were also given to be slightly misshapen or unable to create precise uniformity due mostly to the fact that it was a material that could not be machined (evenly) due to its woody nature. Therefore, each strand (osier) had a varied diameter the entire length. Still, many fine classic examples of willow furniture were created during the early 1900's. Also, the U.S. did not grow enough willow to supply the shops using this material at the time. It was necessary to import willow from European countries like Germany and France. With the onset of WWI, shipments to the U.S. halted and production of willow furniture declined.

Materials such as prairie grasses, native to the wetlands in the mid-west were also used in the making of wicker from around the turn of the century. During this time, these products experienced some novel interest and were fairly well received, although much less common than reed furniture. The prairie grass was praised for its natural colors, durability, and hygienic qualities. It remained fashionable for almost two decades, with production ending during WWI. Prairie grass furniture was the least successful of the natural material wicker furniture of the time and it's not very prevalent or sought after in the marketplace today.

A new material was invented in the early 1900's for weaving furniture that eventually became the most common material for wicker furniture. Commercially known as "fibre", also known as fiber, fiber-rush, fiber cord, and art-fiber, the new product was a thick string made of mechanically twisted paper. With the depleted supplies of natural materials due to the war in Europe, many American wicker factories were forced to use the inexpensive man-made material. In an effort to find a faster and more practical way of weaving wicker furniture, a mechanical loom was invented by Lloyd Manufacturing, Circa 1920, to produce fine, tightly twined strands - thinner, harder, and more uniform than other manufactured fiber. It was then possible to produce sheets of woven material which was affixed to furniture frames. One loom did the work of 30 weavers. Lloyd made two types of fiber. One, used as weaving, has a glue sizing. The other, used as spokes, was twisted around a wire core. By 1930, much of the wicker manufactured in the U.S. was made of twisted paper.

As the production of fiber furniture increased, prices fell dramatically and quality declined. Only Heywood Wakefield and the Lloyd Manufacturing Company maintained high standards. As a result, general run of the mill fiber furniture became undesirable. This is still the case in the market place today although some natural and 'original color' pieces in excellent condition with good quality design are still desirable. Reed furniture, from its fascinating and ornate designs to its more classic styling still remains the most desirable and superior in terms of quality, design, durability, and investment value.

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