A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Summer 2006

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Thoroughly Modern Kate: A Literate Woman

We have just acquired an unusual little notebook from the late seventeenth century. The more deeply we read it, the more interesting it becomes. We enjoy exploring outwards from the objects that have become our antiques because no antique is an object unto itself: it is always a document of the culture that produced it.

The covers of the book are decorated in long stitch, just like the drawers of the sewing caskets that young girls made in the second half of the seventeenth century. It seems a good bet that a young girl made it to fit in such a drawer. Inside one cover is written "My Dear Lady died ye 29 of october (1685)" in adult's handwriting, and then, just underneath in a less assured hand, “My Dear Lady died the 29 of october 1685”. We think that this was a daughter copying her mother’s hand, and that what we are afforded here is a glimpse of three generations of women, the grandmother who has just died, and the mother and daughter. The stitching and the writing are both part of the education of a modern young woman in the closing years of the seventeenth century.

We think we know her well enough to call her Kate. She is growing up to be a very different woman from her grandmother. Her grandmother may well have been a skilled needlewoman, but Kate is literate as well, which her grandmother probably was not. We note, incidentally, that Kate has been taught “the” instead of the older “ye” used by her mother. Literacy was spreading rapidly among women of the upper classes. Writing diaries and letters was a new social accomplishment. A personal notebook such as this was a new possession of this new generation. It was certainly not, however, something her grandmother would have owned.

Kate wrote with a quill pen, which had been made from one the five outermost feathers on the left wing of a goose. Her servant had pulled them in the spring when the feathers were newly grown and at their strongest. He chose the left wing because its feathers would curve away from Kate’s right hand as she wrote. Collectors are unlikely to find one of these pens, because the tannic acid in the oak gall ink that Kate used ate the quill. Cutting a new pen was a frequent necessity until the steel nib appeared in the nineteenth century and instantly consigned quill pens to oblivion.

Kate sat at a writing table with her pen, ink and notebook to write her brief memorial to her grandmother. The writing table was a brand new form of furniture produced for the new literate woman. It is the first “feminine” form of furniture. Alongside it, the very masculine scrutoire emerged: it was packed with drawers and pigeon holes for all the documents that a man needed to conduct his business. The writing table was a simple flat surface for writing letters or diaries only. The difference between Kate’s cultural, personal literacy and the business, official literacy of her father was inscribed in the furniture itself – and so was the gender of the user.

It is culturally significant, here, that Oroonoko, the first novel written in English, was published in 1688 just as Kate was growing up, and that it was written by a woman, Aphra Benn. Benn also wrote plays and was the first woman in English history to earn her living by writing. The literate woman, such as Aphra Benn was and Kate was becoming, was a new social figure of the period. Notebooks, writing tables, novels, and literate women may be commonplace today, but were they all brand new in Restoration England.


Ink-Decorated Chest of Drawers

This chest of drawers is unusual, first for being decorated with brush and ink, and then for being decorated so unusually. Rare though ink decoration is, there is something appropriate about it, for the ink would have been made from oak just like the chest itself.

Painted decoration on early furniture is typically of two sorts. Either carved decoration is painted to add color and contrast, or paint is used as a substitute for carving. Much carved furniture was originally painted, but little original paint survives (though more on this side of the Atlantic than in the UK). The use of paint to emulate, or substitute for, carving was far more common in New England than old England. The painters generally followed the forms and motifs of the carvers fairly closely, though they developed them further. Seventeenth-century painters did not copy the grain of the wood like their descendents in the next two centuries.

The ink on this chest is of neither type. The ink was brushed directly onto the surface of the oak, and the decoration is a contradictory mix of careful compass-drawn curves, and loose, freehand forms filling the spaces between them. Almost child-like.

Of course, carvers used compasses to lay out many of their designs – lunettes, guilloches and rondels, to name just a few. But no carver produced a compass-drawn design like the one on the drawer fronts (though I did when bored in geometry class at school. I called my designs propellers, but it would be anachronistic to use that name here.). The circles on the drawer centers, however, do bear a faint resemblance to carved decoration, but I think that’s only because they’re round.

The sides of the chest are inked with forms that look like nulled arches set inside each other, or perhaps they’re lunettes, or, more likely, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the conventional carved patterns. Some were drawn with a compass, others were freehand. The decoration on the rail comes closest to carving – it does look like lunettes. But we must note, of course, that geometrically molded chests like this were never carved, anyway.

The chest was clearly made by a professional joiner. But the decoration…? Was it a hobby project by the owner? It certainly looks home-done, though we’ll never know for sure. Whatever. All we know is that the chest itself is a right little beauty.



Strongly marked regional differences in furniture are a sign of relatively isolated communities where local styles could develop with the minimum of outside influence. The roads were notoriously bad in seventeenth-century England. But though travel was difficult, people and goods moved around the country much more freely than we often imagine. So much English furniture, unlike its American counterpart, lacks a clear regional signature.

Some people certainly spent their lives in their birthplace, as they do today. But many did not. In 1676, for example, the rector of Clayworth, a village in Nottinghamshire, made a list of its inhabitants, and in 1688 he made another. His first list contained 401 names, his second 412.The population of the village appears pretty stable. But, and it’s a very interesting but, 244 of the people on his 1676 list were not on the 1688 one. Some, of course, had died, and he had buried them in the church yard. But there were 254 newcomers to the village in 12 years. Approximately 60 percent of the villagers were immigrants. Clayworth is a perfectly ordinary village, and we have to assume that what happened there happened elsewhere as well.

Furniture moved around as well as people. Carting furniture was common enough to merit a regular tariff. In 1694, for instance, the Justices of the Peace in Ipswich set the rates for carriers based in the town. From Ipswich to London the rate was 5 shillings per hundredweight for solid, compact goods, but 8 shillings per hundredweight for pictures, chairs, couches, squabs, looking glasses, tables, stands, and “other cumbersome goods of the like nature.”

(The OED defines squab as a young pigeon, a short fat person, and, more relevantly, “a sofa, ottoman or couch [1664], or a thick or soft cushion, esp. one serving to cover the seat of a chair or sofa [1687]. The Justices of Ipswich, however, thought squabs and couches were different.)

When people and furniture moved around as freely as they apparently did, tastes and styles moved with them, and regional differences in furniture necessarily became diluted. England was rapidly developing a national style, and , by the eighteenth century, such regional differences as there were remained only in the most country pieces.

Both instances are from Michael Reed’s excellent book, The Age of Exuberance 1550-1700.