By the middle of the 19th
century the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the factory system
was overtaking furniture production. The old style hardware arrangements
of Federal beds and Empire beds was very time consuming. Exact holes had
to be drilled and nuts implanted in exact places. Everything had to be
done so skillfully and individually that it just didn’t fit the new
A new type of bed fastener
using downward facing iron mortise and tenon joints had been developed in
the 1820’s but the idea of interlocking metal pieces did not receive
wide-spread attention until mid century. By then the hardware had gone
through another evolution and resembling square cast iron cleats with
enlarged square heads protruding from the end of the side rail. These
cleats engaged another cast iron device, attached to the headboard and
footboard, which had matching square holes atop a slot. When the cleats
entered the square holes, their shafts slid down the slots and the
downward pressure held the bed together.
The visible part of the
hardware, the protruding cleats, didn’t reveal the true ingenuity behind
the hardware. When a wooden cover is removed from the end of a Victorian
side rail the real secret is revealed - the horseshoe. The cleats actually
are part of what looks like a horseshoe with the end closed. This “D”
shaped appliance was then inserted in a race cut into the side rail by a
mechanical drill with the top side flush to the rail and the cleats
extending beyond the end. When the wooden cover was applied nothing was
visible, or accessible to tear bed linens, except the cleats.
Some versions of the same idea
merely drove cast iron spikes with the enlarged square heads directly into
the side rail but this was not as reliable or sturdy a system as the
horseshoe arrangement although it did use less metal.
In any event, here was the
perfect factory adaptation for making beds. The hardware could be mass
produced from molds in a foundry with each horseshoe and each receiver
turning out identical. The horseshoe could then be installed in a race
that was perfectly cut every time by a mechanical drill press.
that it was covered by a piece of wood cut by a circular saw and nailed
over the hardware with fasteners (nails) cut by machinery.
By the mid 1800’s, cast iron bed hardware became the norm. The most prevalent in the Victorian era was the “horseshoe” seen on the lower right. This appliance was installed in the side rail (top) in a circular groove, the race, and was covered by a small board. The exposed ends of the horseshoe engaged the fitting on the left which was implanted in the head and foot posts. A variation of the horseshoe was the straight spike, center, which was driven into a pilot hole in the siderail.
Three layer plywood came into
use around the turn of the 20th century primarily as drawer bottoms and
mirror backs. This early version of plywood employed a nice face of
walnut, mahogany or maple for interior drawer use but it was not
substantial enough to be used for structural surfaces.
Early in the 20th century the
idea of “lumber core” plywood became the norm in the manufactured
furniture industry in America. This new “wood” started with a solid lumber
core of an inexpensive wood such as gum or poplar which was very nearly
the thickness of the anticipated finished panels. In some cases oak was
used even then as the core on better grades of furniture. Then cross bands
of veneer, also of an inexpensive wood, roughly 1/20 inch were applied to
both sides of the core with the grain running at a ninety degree angle to
the grain of the core.
Finally the piece was finished
off with the application of another layer of cheap veneer on the bottom of
the panel and a layer of face veneer, usually mahogany or walnut, on the
top surface with the grain running in the same direction as that of the
core. The resulting five layer veneer sandwich was now stable enough to be
used as a table top, dresser top or drawer front. This lumber core plywood
was the foundation for most American furniture manufactured from 1920 to
1960. Non structural elements like the sides and backs of case goods and
interior drawer dividers and dust covers continued to be made of three ply
material while some high grade manufacturers used as many as eleven plies
in curved applications like bowfront drawers and doors.
The development of lumber core plywood early in the 20th century is the basis for most furniture produced since then. It starts with a thick solid core of an inexpensive wood. Four additional layers of veneer, with their grain patterns at right angles to each other finish the construction, producing an extremely stable flat surface.
The word “rococo” is derived
from the words for the rocks and shells used to build the garden retreats
of Versailles in the 18th century, “rocailles” and “coquilles”. This
elaborately decorative style progressed to furniture in the form of
elegant carvings of flora and fauna, graceful curves in frames and a
general air of opulence.
Rococo is the form most
usually represented as being the “Victorian” style and was produced longer
than any other style in the century.
One of the main designers and
builders in the rococo style was the New York cabinetmaker John Henry
Belter who trained in Germany where he learned the technique of
lamination. He glued together as many as sixteen very thin strips of
rosewood and oak to make a surface strong enough to withstand the
elaborate pierced carvings that were his hallmark. His chairs and sofas
were surrounded by a halo of carved, flowing vines, leaves, flowers and
While Belter’s work
represented the top of the scale in rococo furniture, quite lower scale,
inexpensive versions were being produced in factories all over the country
with shallow machine carvings and clumsy lines.
One of the most recognizable forms of the rococo period is the Victorian balloon back chair, named for its resemblance to a hot air balloon. Chairs and sofas in this style are still being produced today.
The main woods of the rococo
style were walnut at the lower end of the scale and rosewood at the upper
This is an elegant example of Rococo styling by J. and J.W. Meeks. They used lamination to produce a background stable enough for the elaborate pierced carvings. J. H. Belter was also a master of this technique, often being credited (erroneously) with the concept of lamination. (Flomaton Antique Auction).