A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

MARCH 2016

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Seeing the Light

Not content with just reading and writing about history, John often gets the urge to re-create it.

A couple of years ago, he experimented with reading by candlelight and found that it took two candles placed very close to a book that had to be set at a very uncomfortable angle to his chair. He simply could not read by candlelight with the book in his lap. Not easy at all.

John's curiosity about lighting was again ignited (pun not intended) by our recent purchase of a Scottish wall box for holding fatwood. Fatwood is a resinous splint from a pine tree, often from the stump where the resin had collected most thickly. There was no native pine in England, so the British holders for fatwood splints (known as "poormen," or in Scotland, "puirmen") are always Scottish.

We have a poorman in the inventory, so John tried it out. He found that fatwood gave much more light than a candle -- in fact, more than the two candles he had needed for reading. This intrigued him: fatwood provided everyday lighting in the cottages of the poor, whereas candles were for the rich, or for special occasions (the poorman has a candle holder as well). Hmm, food for thought: Surely cottages weren't lit better than mansions. But it was difficult to keep the splints burning evenly for much longer than a few minutes.

In early Massachusetts, Francis Higgenson was a big fan of fatwood splints, or "candles," as he called them. Francis was the pastor of Salem in the 1620s. He was an early settler, who wrote a series of letters home enthusing over the wonders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- hoping to entice more settlers.

"Yea," he wrote, "Our pine trees that are the most plentiful of all wood, doth allow us plenty of candles, which are very useful in a house. And they are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven into little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moisture of turpentine and pitch, that they burn as cleere as a torch."

"Candlewood" is the usual American name for fatwood, and here in Ipswich we have a Candlewood district. In 1658, Robert Kinsman purchased a farm in Candlewood: the farm, we assume, was on land that had been cleared of white pine, but we hope that a few stumps remained to light his long winter evenings.

A conundrum: In researching the (very few) recorded American fatwood holders, John discovered that most of them, as well as many continental ones, held the splints horizontally, whereas poormen held them vertically. A quick strike of the match showed him that fatwood did actually burn better horizontally than vertically. Could the Scots have been wrong for all those years?

The servants shown in this hilarious woodcut are doing their pre-dawn chores lighting their way around a sixteenth-century Scandinavian house, using fatwood splints held in their mouths to light their way -- horizontally, of course. John being John, he had to try this as well! It worked, but his splint was so much shorter than theirs that his moustache and eyebrows came perilously close to being singed unless he walked forward very, very slowly. (The woodcut is from Olaus Magnus, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, [1555]).

The peacock in a Tudor feast staged by the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts

The peacock being served in medieval France (from our New Year's card)


This is a misleading title, but we just couldn't resist the word "peechykin." How did you pronounce it when you first saw it? "Peachy kin" or "pea chicken"? It should, of course be "pea chicken," because it refers to young peacocks, not peachy relatives. And this essay is a follow-up to our New Year's greeting card, which pictured a peacock being served at a feast.

Peacocks were often the center piece of a major feast, and we've often wondered what they were like to eat. Now we know: in his 1542 book, Dyetary of Helth, Dr. Andrew Boorde wrote that "yonge peechykin of half a yeare of age be praysed, olde peacocks be harde of dygestyon." Dr. Boorde was not the only one to express reservations. In Dyets Dry Dinner (1599), Henry Butts came down on them a bit harder, complaining of their "very harde meate, of bad temperature, & as evil juyce. Wonderously increaseth melancholy, & casteth, as it were, a clowd upon the minde."

Bang goes the chance of a peacock appearing on our menu.

Both the quotes are from Peter Brears, All the King's Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace (1999), Souvenir Press

Incoming Antiques

You need patience and an unflappable sense of humor to be an antiques dealer these days. Nothing to do with the business itself, but everything to do with the regulators and legislators who haven't a clue about what we do, but feel that they have to regulate it in some way. They just have to protect good-hearted Americans from the dangers of antiques!

We love elephants, but preventing us selling a 1650s enclosed chest of drawers with ivory inlay will not save a single one of them -- though we did take a closer look at the ivory in question and decided that it was actually bone -- we promise you, it's bone!

And we get a double whammy, because we import stuff from England. A few years ago we had a saga concerning an iron eighteenth-century toasting fork that had to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration because it was a fork and forks go into our mouths -- and you can't put an imported thing into your mouth unless the FDA says you can. We might mention that the prongs formed the points of a triangle with two-and-a-half inch sides, and that only a lifelong politician would have a mouth big enough to accommodate them. And check out the handle -- it's not whalebone (which is almost as problematic as ivory): we promise you that our very close inspection revealed that it was made from a human femur -- no problem with human bones!

And then most recently, we got into a hassle over importing a seventeenth-century woodman's ax, because it was a dangerous weapon. The genius who wanted to protect us from it had apparently forgotten that you can buy an ax in any hardware store in the country, and that if you really wanted to behead your neighbor, you wouldn't have to go 3,500 miles and 350 years back in time to find the means to do so. The ax has just sold -- ironically as a belated Valentine's gift. It's a beautiful ax, and far better suited to reach someone's heart than to take off her head!