A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Fall 2006

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A Little Gem

A Diminutive Chest on Stand, 1660 – 1675

We suppose the tangible reason for putting a chest of drawers on a stand is to save people with bad backs from having to stoop to the bottom drawer. The aesthetic reason is, simply, it makes a beautiful object. Perhaps this one was made for a guy with a good eye and a bad back.

His bad back is guesswork: his good eye is a certainty. It’s hard to imagine what could have been done to make a simple oak chest more beautiful. First, the light and airy stand with the elongated double-bine spiral turnings – so English, and so much more attractive than the tight, single-bine Dutch spirals. “Double-bine” means that there are two interwoven spirals, hard to see in a picture, but easy to trace with your fingers.

The drawers are geometrically molded, and the moldings frame a delicate design inlaid with boxwood, mother-of-pearl, and bone. So that the bone should not look too plain beside the iridescent m-o-p, the maker etched each piece with black designs. The pulls are wood, not brass, so as not to detract from the design, and, hang onto your hats, we really think they’re original, every one of them!

The front has a continuous look from top to bottom because the maker shaped the drawer dividers to fit the pattern of the drawers. Then he put the whole lot into an architectural frame: a pillar on each side and a cornice with ogee corbels along the top, one at the head of each pillar and the third in the center of the top drawer. Delicate decoration, and a total unity of design – a real turn-on!

Yes, the maker took a lot of care to get this little chest on frame just right. And it is little – the case is only 27” wide, and the overall height is 43”.

How Thomas Dennis Made A Mortise-and-Tenon, or More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about a Joint

The “seventeenth-century” joiner, Rob Tarule, explained everything that follows, and allowed me to photograph him making an exact replica of a joined and paneled coffer that Dennis had made in the 1660s.

Thomas Dennis was a joiner working in Ipswich, MA, in the 1660s. He had emigrated from Ottery St Mary, in Devon, and, of course, brought many English techniques with him.

Dennis worked with green oak. His first job in preparing the framing for the panels was to cut all the tenons, so that the thin tongues could dry and thus become the hardest wood in the frame. Two weeks later he chopped the mortices to receive them. Like all joiners, Dennis used a “draw bore” to make the joint really tight. To do this he offset the hole in the tenon by the “thickness of a shilling” from the holes in the mortice. The offset was, of course, toward the shoulder of the joint. Hammering the tapered pin through all three holes “drew” the shoulder of the tenon tightly onto the haunch of the mortise.

If the tenon had not hardened, the pin would have cut through the leading edge of the offset hole, thus eliminating the “draw.” Sometimes, if the offset was a little too much, the hardness of the tenon drew too strongly against the shoulder of the mortice and cracked it. This had occurred on the coffer that Rob was replicating, so Dennis had had to insert an extra pin for reinforcement. We see these extra pins quite frequently, and they are not, as we often think, later reinforcements for a joint that had cracked later on in its life: the cracking occurs only when the pin is hammered into the draw bore. After this, there can be no movement in the joint to cause such a crack. The third pin in a mortice and tenon is always original.

All the strength and stability of a mortise-and-tenon joint is achieved at the point where the shoulder of the tenon meets the haunch of the mortise. Dennis brought with him from England a neat method of increasing the pressure on this critical join, and thus its strength. This involved setting the rear shoulder of the tenon about 1/16” of an inch further back than the front shoulder -- a “back-cut” tenon. He also cut this front shoulder at an angle so that its outer edge was slightly pointed, and the pin could draw it very tightly and neatly onto the front haunch of the mortice. This angled shoulder was particularly effective on green oak

Here’s a picture of the replica coffer assembled, with the pins inserted but not hammered home to draw the joints tight click here. And this is the finished replica, painted to match the faint traces remaining on the original click here.

Robert Tarule is the author of The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2004, in which he traces how Thomas Dennis made a joined chest late in the seventeenth century in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Rob is a medieval historian, he has taught woodworking at Goddard College in Vermont; he has been the head of the Department of Mechanick Arts at Plimoth Plantation, and he now makes exact replicas of seventeenth-century furniture for museums, historic houses and private clients.

Cane Chairs

In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed 13,200 houses and every stick of furniture in them. Out of necessity, London rapidly developed a highly efficient furniture-making industry. It made “new” furniture appropriate to the “new” nation after the Restoration.

The Rebuilding Act of 1667 standardized housing for the new city. The standardization extended, though unofficially, to include furnishings: by 1680, according to Adam Bowett, cane chairs, long clocks, oval dining tables, escritoires and stands were to be found in almost every house. The speed of rebuilding and refurnishing was stunning.

According to the cane chairmakers’ petition of 1690, cane chairs were introduced “about the Year 1664” and by 1690, London was producing 72,000 a year. The petition also claimed that 24,000 were exported, mostly to the English colonies in North America and the West Indies, where cane chairs appear frequently in inventories after about 1680.

It’s been estimated that in the 1690s New England imported well over 1,000 cane chairs a year. At this time Boston’s population was 7,000 and the city consisted of some 700 – 800 dwellings. How many New England houses contained English chairs?

The question came to mind recently because we’ve been invited to do the Hartford Spring Show, where, as we’re sure you know, the furniture is historically been exclusively American. We will be the only English dealers in the show, and the first to exhibit there for a very long time, if not ever. Given that most Pilgrim Century New England homes must have contained English furniture, it’s seems appropriate that an “American” antiques show should as well. Come and see us there, and note how well we fit in.



























Tudor Mince Pie

I’m proposing a little mince meat for Christmas. Mince pie is a traditional Christmas treat in England, but for some unfathomable reason (it’s absolutely delicious), it doesn’t seem to have caught on much in this country. A dab of whipped double cream, or, better yet, brandy butter, and it’s nectar from the gods.

Like most of our Christmas traditions, its roots lie in medieval Europe. Christmas was a huge feast then, but only gradually did certain foods become associated especially with it: Christmas dinner was like every other dinner, only bigger. Mince pie was eaten year round, but it became one of the first Christmas dishes. For Christmas it was made in oblong earthenware dishes about 6 or 8 inches long and 2 or 3 inches wide that symbolized Jesus’ crib. The spices -- cloves, mace and saffron -- represented the gifts given by the Magi. In a largely illiterate society, people were far more adept than we at recognizing symbols and extracting their full meaning. Mince pie was as rich in significance as it was in taste.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, and I’ve certainly whetted mine, we might turn together to a book published in 1591 and charmingly titled A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for all such as delight therein. Like most cook books of the period, it assumed that cooks were experts who knew what they doing, and didn’t need pedantically precise measurements and cooking times.

For Pyes of Mutton or Beefe: Shred your meat and Suet together fine, season it with cloves, mace, Pepper, and some Saffron, great Raisins, Corance (currants) and prunes, and so put it in your Pyes.

Much lies behind this apparently simple recipe. In a Tudor nobleman’s house, the Serjeant of the Accatry was responsible for bringing the mutton of beef from the lord’s pastures. He passed them to the Serjeant of the Larder, whose Yeoman of the Boiling House boiled them as required. The Serjeant of the Bakehouse relied upon the Yeoman Garnetor to supply the flour and corn for the breads and pastries which were carried to the bakehouse by the Yeomen Pervayers.

Now, times have changed. In our house, Lisa does all that herself, unless she sends me to the grocery store when I become, I assume, the Serjeant of the Shopping Cart, but once I load the bags into the car, I get demoted to a mere Yeoman Pervayer. But whatever minor role I may play, Lisa makes an excellent Serjeant of the Larder: born to the job, she was.

Elizabethan cooking was child’s play compared to the serving, whose full ceremonial would take till next Christmas to explain. To give an instance, in the Queen’s household, which everyone tried to emulate, the serving ceremonials included an unmarried lady dressed in white silk who prostrated herself three times and, in the most graceful manner, approached the table where she rubbed the plates with bread and salt. Volunteers, please?

No, I think we’ll stick to the mince pie, pure and simple. And because we’re simple folk, we’ll follow a modernized recipe. But we’ll eat it with full medieval gusto: no change there.

Tudor Mince Pie

1-1/2 lb ground beef or lamb
4 oz suet
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground mace
pinch of saffron
2 oz raisins
2 oz currants
2 oz pitted prunes, chopped

The Glaze
1 tbsp each of butter, sugar and rosewater melted together.

Mix together all the ingredients of the pie.

Line an 8-inch baking tin with pastry. Pack the pie mixture in and dampen the edges of the pastry wall. Make a round lid of pastry and press firmly in place, cut a hole in the center of the lid, and decorate with the trimmed pieces of pastry.

Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes at 450 degrees, then reduce to 350 degrees and bake for 1-3/4 hours.

Remove the sides of the tin, brush with the glaze and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Serve cold.