The search for novelty and control of material and cost resulted in an eclectic range of materials being used during the nineteenth century.
The Regency period favoured striped figured timber, especially rosewood, calamander and zebrawood, all of which would contrast with the use of brass. From 1840 African mahogany was imported as a substitute for the expensive Central American type. Walnut remained popular in Scandinavian countries where exotic woods were too expensive. The Biedermeier style in Germany favoured mahogany in the north, and yew, cherry, or maple in the south.
The developments in using plies of wood continued with experiments in Europe and the United States. One of the most successful was the Gardner company of New Jersey, who patented a chair seat using perforated three ply.
The search for substitutes encouraged many inventions associated with the imitation of wood. The simplest was the method of mixing fine glue and sawdust or wood raspings to a paste to be put into a mould and allowed to dry under weight. Composition ornament (a mixture of whiting, animal glue, rosin, and linseed oil) was pressed into a mould and allowed to dry. It was then applied to a surface.
J.C. Loudon recommended the use of metal for furniture in his Encyclopaedia and illustrated some very advanced, as well as revivalist styles. The use of cast iron reached a high point during the mid-century. Established manufacturers turned to the expanding furniture market to supply garden seats, tables, jardinières, hallstands and other static items. Metal was also used in upholstery. From 1830 coiled springs were used and iron-framed chair backs were produced in quantity to give a flexible but strong support to easy chairs. Twisted wire for all kinds of furniture was especially popular around 1870 in the United States.
In the early part of the century a taste for tabletops of marble or stone became fashionable. British marbles and spars became popular and it was inevitable that attempts would be made to imitate them. The use of enamelled slate by E.G. Magnus was so successful that the marble industry gradually declined.
The period from 1835 to 1870 can be considered the heyday of English papier mâché (Figure 1.20). There were several varieties of papier mâché, the two main ones being pulped paper and layered paper. The first was mainly used for small-scale applied decoration, e.g. cornices, mouldings canopies and other applied ornament that could be used on furniture. The second type was used to make parts of furniture using a mould. This process produced blanks which could then be decorated. In 1825, Jennens and Bettridge took out a patent for pearl shell 'inlaying' for papier mâché. This well-known process, which was not actually inlaying, used slivers of pearl shell applied to the surface and varnished over. The important decorating process was based on a black background and an applied painted design.
During the 1850s gutta percha was introduced as a furniture material. It was a rubberlike material that could be moulded into a variety of shapes and designs. However, due to cost increases and problems with damage, it was discontinued before it could become fully established. Other organic materials such as deer antlers and other animal horn were used to produce eccentric chairs particularly. Rustic furniture was also made from logs and roots. Bamboo and its painted imitation has been mentioned above in association with the Regency style, but it was revived again in the latter part of the century for whatnots, hallstands, flimsy tables, and so on. Basketwork, wicker and rattan were all pressed into service to make furniture, but especially chairs. The distinctions between the various materials cause confusion. Wicker refers to the plaited twigs or osiers of willow; cane is the outer bark of the rattan palm used for weaving seats, whilst reed is the inner core of the rattan. Cane is also a generic name for bamboo and malacca reeds which are made into a large variety of utensils and equipment, as well as furniture. The role of Cyrus Wakefield and Walter Heywood in the development of cane and reed in furniture is important. By the mid-century Wakefield had developed the rattan used for packaging into a furniture-making material by processing the reed and the cane. Heywood introduced power looms to weave cane into a continuous web to avoid handwork; he also substituted the rattan with its pith, the reed, which was susceptible to staining (and could therefore be coloured).
The period experimented with a variety of other materials that were essentially unsuitable for furniture-making or decoration. Coal, glass, lava, liquefied quartz, ferns and even seaweed were experimented with and in some cases patented. More important developments included machine-made screws in the 1850s and the first machine-made tacks in 1860.
Innovations in upholstery related to springing, and metal frames have been mentioned. Much effort was expended in trying to find substitutes or improvements in fillings. The use of curled horsehair was standard but other ideas included plant fibres, seaweed, and natural sea-sponge. The more likely stuffings were wood-wool, shredded fibres, animal hair and flock. An interesting substitute for leather was developed in the period. Although known since the fourteenth century, oil or leather cloth or Rexine, was originally made with a linseed oil coating. In the second half of the nineteenth century it was coated with a mixture of oil and liquid celluloid (cellulose nitrate).
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