Ornamental Hinges

I am not at all sure that the hand-forged hinges which were placed upon the outer surfaces of our early furniture may properly be called "ornamental," but to distinguish them from the plain hinges used on drop-leaf tables, desk lids, and cupboard doors—locations where they were hidden from sight—let us use this term. H, HL, or butterfly hinges certainly appear to us as ornamental features when found upon the doors of cupboards, and they are always to be preferred to the hidden butt hinge.

Of these "ornamental hinges" used on our early furniture, there is no great variety to illustrate or describe.

The butterfly is our earliest style of hinge. It was made in a variety of sizes and the iron of the spread ends was usually much thinner than the central section. Butterfly hinges were used in many locations on our early furniture, and, not only in exposed positions, but on the tongue-and-groove points of our earliest drop-leaf tables. They were fastened with hand-wrought nails clinched or riveted. Original butterfly hinges on any piece of early American furniture are considered an evidence of great age, and, Fig. 16. Butterfly while dates are dangerous, we might feel rea-Hinge sonably sure that a piece thus equipped was made prior to the year 1750. We shall note in our travels that furniture possessing original butterfly hinges is not often encountered.

H and HL hinges were extensively used throughout the eighteenth and, to some extent, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century chiefly on the doors of cupboards of various sorts. They were hand-forged and usually show marks of the hammer. The ends were sometimes cut into ornamental fleur-de-lis or circles, as in our illustration. Apparently the iron hinges were nearly always originally applied with nails, but toward the end of their time, cut nails and screws were sometimes employed. Fig. 17. h Hinges

Ornamental Hinges

the rat-tail hinge

The rat-tail hinge was commonly used on Pennsylvania and New York cupboards throughout the eighteenth century. It seems not to have been at all used in New England, unless in western Connecticut. The rat-tail hinge was sometimes applied with hand-forged nails, but often with rivets headed over iron washers at the back of the door. One advantage of the rat-tail hinge was that the doors could be removed by simply lifting them from the pins.

HL Hinge.
Rat-tail Hinge

Strap hinges were used to some extent on doors of cupboards, but never enjoyed the popularity of the H and HL varieties in this position. Innumerable variations of the strap hinge were used to fasten the lifting tops of chests. Their

Fig. 19. Strap Hinges longer ends were usually formed into round or spear-point designs.

All of these hinges were hand-forged, and were usually thinned down toward their edges and ends. They may show on their surfaces broad marks of the hammer, but these hammer-marks are incidental to the process of hand-forging, and not intentional or made with any idea of ornamentation. Many of the modern iron reproductions, especially those produced by factory methods, are frightful. Hinges described in catalogues as "real colonial style" will, very likely, be coarse, clumsy, with thick edges, and battered with the hammer until their surfaces are a continuous area of mars and dents; or the flat surfaces may simply receive a few coy and scattered wallops with a ball hammer; in either case the result is like nothing ever turned out by an old-time blacksmith.

There are small forges which produce very fair ironwork; but, when I want any hinges or ironwork reproduced I take a genuine sample to one of our Connecticut country blacksmiths, and he will give me exactly what I want. Most of these men are clever and ingenious, and their work is turned out by exactly the same methods used one hundred or two hundred years ago. Thus we obtain ironwork which is simple and right, and with no silly "artistic" or modern touches.

drop-leaf table hinges

The hinge used at the joints of our earliest drop-leaf tables was the butterfly. Gate-leg and butterfly tables old enough to be constructed with the tongue-and-groove joint were often equipped with the butterfly hinge, fastened with nails. Screws seem never to have been used for such fastening.

Succeeding to and overlapping the period of the butterfly came the hand-forged rectangular table hinge. This hinge was frequently, but not always, made—as was the butterfly— by cutting thin sheet-metal into a doubled pattern of each end-section. The doubled pattern was then folded upon itself over a pin and firmly welded, forming one end-member of the hinge. That this method was much used is very apparent when we examine old broken and rusty hinges, for the two layers of iron have often become separated, or we can see, on the side edges of the hinge, the line of the weld. The welding and hammering frequently caused the ends of this hinge to thin out and spread a bit, not like the ends of the butterfly, but enough so that the hinge did not remain exactly rectangular. This sort of table hinge was nearly always fastened in place with square-end wood screws, and the metal was sometimes reamed out for the reception of their heads. This hinge seems usually to accompany the rule joint on the drop-leaf tables made after 1725. We should hardly expect to find it on many tables made before this time, but, as has been remarked, "when we date we guess."

The rectangular table hinge was used throughout the last three-quarters of the eighteenth century and the entire nineteenth century. As time went on, this hinge showed a progressive refinement similar to that of the wood screw, and such hinges on a piece of furniture made late in the eighteenth century are likely to be exactly rectangular and to exhibit fewer marks of handwork. After the first quarter of the nineteenth century, these hinges quite supplanted H and HL hinges on cupboard doors, with a corresponding loss in the attractiveness and interest of these pieces.

Early in the nineteenth century, heavy cast-iron rectangular hinges came into vogue. They were thick, clumsy, heavy, and brittle, but we often find them on the furniture of that time. I have never seen them originally used upon any furniture which could be placed within the confines of the eighteenth century.

The staple hinge, also sometimes known as the clinch or cotter-pin hinge, was used in many locations on our early furniture. It was very commonly placed on the lids of six-board chests, sometimes on the lids of desks, and on cupboard doors. It seems to have been little used on drop-leaf table joints.

This hinge was constructed merely of two iron cotter pins hooked together, their ends being forged into long sharp points. The pins were thrust into holes bored slantwise through the opposing edges of the boards and the sharp ends clinched back into the wood. This hinge was a sound me chanical device; it could be produced quickly by any blacksmith, and it enjoyed a wide use.

However, for some reason its employment seems to have declined through the last half of the eighteenth century and, by the end of the century it was quite obsolete. We should hardly expect that any piece of furniture equipped with staple hinges could be dated as of the nineteenth century.


There seems to be a widespread but erroneous feeling that casters are a comparatively modern device, and that no piece of early furniture ever originally possessed them. Casters equipped with leather rollers were used upon English furniture early in the eighteenth century. Later in the same century a great variety of casters was turned out, with plain cast and decorative brass sockets and brass or iron rollers. Some of the sockets were square; others were round, hexagonal, or octagonal. In Empire days many of the heavy pedestal tables were supported upon large and ornate cast-brass animal-paw feet, with casters set into the underside. Casters are most certainly old devicc*, and on heavy pieces of furniture their presence is often decidedly convenient.

We have many records of the early importation into the Colonies of casters along with brass furniture-fittings and hardware. A great many American tables and sofas, particularly those of the type known as Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and Duncan Phyfe, were originally fitted with casters. Casters which frankly show by their method of application that they have been added some time after the piece was finished are often found on chairs, desks, chests of drawers, lowboys, highboys, and all sorts of furniture. These later additions


P. THr UNDI R SIDF OF AN \UTHENT1C SM\LT ST\ND Note chamfered edtje and hand-forged nails cannot be dated and prove nothing as to the age of any example.

In general I may observe that it is seldom wise to attempt to determine the date of any piece of furniture on the basis of easily removed attachments, such as brasses, casters, superficial pieces of trim, and the like. Such elements are quite liable to have undergone changes and replacements during the life of the piece of furniture on which they appear. It is best, therefore, to judge the date, or period, of a piece of furniture on the basis of its style and structure, and thereafter to decide whether the hardware is correct and in keeping with the character of the piece.

Chapter IX


IF WE are to collect early American furniture we may very well give careful thought to the matter of just how age, use, and wear have affected genuine examples. Each piece carries its own record, easily read and understood. Any piece of old furniture, either varnished, painted, or in the natural wood, which is quite intact and unrestored, exhibits a pleasing aspect of completeness and sincerity. The colors of all its surfaces are consistent and right, and the effects of wear and discoloration show in exactly the right places. Such a piece may be turned over, examined from every angle, scrutinized with the greatest care, and yet not a single detail will cause the slightest suspicion or doubt. A hundred experts may look it over, but not one will have any criticism: the piece is "right."

COLOR AND TEXTURE OF OLD SURFACES A careful study of the color of the hidden and unfinished surfaces of old furniture is most interesting. The backs of chests of drawers and highboys were intended to be placed against a wall, and so were left in the natural wood. Age has darkened their surfaces to an even brown color; it may be a light brown or a very dark brown, but, in any case, an even shade of brown. The back of the upper section of a highboy has become the same shade of brown as the back of the lower section. All the boards forming the back of a chest of drawers will show the same uniform shade of brown.

If we examine the inside and unfinished surfaces of a

THE WORN SIDE-STRETCHER OF \LTHE\TIC BL TTERTI Y T\BLE Note rhac the stretcher is almost intact under the lu^er end ol the '\ing highboy, we shall probably observe that the wood is a much lighter shade of brown than the outer surfaces of the back because the inner surfaces were not so greatly exposed to light and dust. However, on these inner surfaces we shall find the same evenness of color and texture. If a chest of drawers has four drawers, they shall all show the same shade of brown on their unfinished inner surfaces.

It is surprising how some woods—such as tulipwood and basswood—when used in locations where they were but little exposed to the light, as in drawers, will after a century or more still appear light in color and as new as if they had been made within the past decade. Therefore, if all other details of an old piece are right, while the basswood or tulipwood sides, backs, and bottoms of the drawers look very new, do not for this reason suspect the piece and pass it by. Pine, however, becomes darker with age—to a greater degree in exposed locations, but to a considerable degree in any location.

If an entirely original tavern table is turned upside down, the inner, unfinished surface of the frame and that portion of the top enclosed by the frame will show not only the same shade of brown, but the same texture and "bloom," and "feel." We can plainly see that the top is the original top and its enclosed under surface along with the inside of the frame has been aged by the same elements of time, dust, smoke, and moisture. The under side of the top outside the frame may be smeared with paint, or stained by grease, or marred by the marks of many scratched matches, but the surfaces inside the frame have by their location escaped these marks.

The backs of original looking-glasses often show a shade of brown which is almost black. When unfinished wood is thus slowly darkened by time, a strange, dark opacity of surface is produced, and any grain or figure in the wood is obscured. This appearance is difficult to describe; but when we are familiar with it, we can recognize it at once—and also easily recognize the efforts of the unscrupulous to treat new woods with stains and dyes so as to simulate age.

When any entirely original piece of genuine furniture is cleaned off with varnish remover, it still exhibits on all of its outer surfaces this same consistency of color. A maple chest of drawers which has been painted black shows, on "cleaning off," a shade of color on its surface different from that on a similar chest which has been painted red. But both will appear with an even and consistent coloring on their surfaces after the "cleaning off." The matter of color is one over which the furniture-faker usually stumbles. If he makes his reproductions of new woods, his efforts to age either the exposed or hidden surfaces with stains and dyes and acids are not at all plausible or convincing, if we are familiar with genuine old surfaces.

If the faker attempts to use old wood only he has great difficulty in finding a sufficient quantity of wood of even color; and if he tries artificially to bring all the various surfaces to the same color, he does not obtain uniformity, and again stumbles. We often hear, in these days, of marvelous, secret, overnight methods of changing new furniture into "genuine antiques." Some of these fraudulent products do sell to the gullible, but they do not confuse the expert.

Any collector who wishes to become familiar with the intricacies of color and texture of old surfaces—particularly hidden, inside, and unfinished surfaces—should avail himself of every opportunity to examine such surfaces on old furniture which he knows to be genuine.

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  • sean
    When were rat tail hinges used?
    8 years ago

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