A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Summer 2007

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Who's for Coffee?

We’re early birds, and we need our morning coffee, dark roast, black, no sugar. So there was no way we could pass up this coffee grinder when we had a chance to buy it. It produces a perfect grind, but far more slowly and quietly than the buzzing electric thing we normally use.

If we’d been alive when the grinder was made, we might have been at the forefront of society, instead of living in a rural backwater as we do. Coffeehouses were all the rage in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Coffee was renowned for stimulating the intellect and for provoking serious discussion. It was explicitly contrasted with the befuddling effects of beer and wine. Coffee houses were similarly set in contrast to taverns: they were bright and clean, furnished with bookcases, comfortable chairs and tables, and mirrors and paintings in gilded frames hung on their walls. Taverns, by contrast, were dark, dirty and dingy.

Modern science was born in coffee houses: Christopher Wren, the architect, Edmund Halley, the astronomer, and Isaac Newton, the physicist, all argued their theories with fellow scientists in coffee houses. Coffee produced the theory of gravity – think of that, without coffee we’d never have known which way to fall. In 1680, the insurance business began in Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House (Lloyd’s of London is still one of the world’s largest insurance markets); so did the stock exchange: a 1695 broker’s ad reads, “John Castaing at Jonathan’s Coffee House on Exchange Buys and Sells…all Stocks and Shares.” Adam Smith wrote the first treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations, in the British Coffee House; commerce, democratic politics, journalism, all the institutions of modern life began in London’s coffee houses. Starbucks, eat your heart out.

Mind you, the coffee must have been pretty awful. It was taxed by the gallon, so coffee houses had to make their day’s supply in large, measured vats, from which they would heat up cupfuls upon demand. Starbucks certainly has the advantage here.

Our grinder, of course, was used in the home, and is hard to date precisely – the form changed very little between about 1700 and 1740. The wood is lignum vitae whose colors range from a light chestnut to a rich chocolate. And it’s been wonderfully patinated by the myriads of hands that have turned it. It’s in three parts: the lowest is a bowl for the ground coffee, the center holds the mechanism, and the top is reversible – the finial helps press the beans onto the grinder when in use. Miraculously, the detachable handle has survived.

The grinder was made to be beautiful, and to disguise its function when not in use. This leads us to speculate that it was not a kitchen piece used by servants, but that it was kept in a family or public room where it was used by the master or mistress to make coffee directly into one of those elegant, silver coffee pots that were so much in vogue at the time.

Quiet, Intimate Tables

As we all know, after the Restoration, the pleasures of private, intimate life spread rapidly across the country. The massive pre-Restoration furniture, made to make a public statement, gave way to smaller, lighter, multi-purpose forms that could be moved easily wherever they were wanted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in tables. As we’ve recounted in Living with Early Oak, the desire for personal conversation while dining led to “oval” (as they were called then) or “gate-leg” tables (as we call them now) replacing the long refectory tables where the seating displayed rank, and did nothing to facilitate conversation.

Besides these dining-size gate-leg tables, miniaturized versions proliferated. Made for one or two people at the most, they must have been used for cards or chess, for needlework of correspondence, or as somewhere to rest wine glasses during a quiet drink at the end of the day. Possibly, they were even used for that new-fangled drink, coffee. These small tables are usually 3” or even 5” lower than the larger gate-legs used for dining. A point to ponder is that, while table heights varied, the seats on backstools did not, they’re all close to 18” high: so the same chairs must have been used at tables of heights from 31” down to 26” (which is about the lowest we’ve seen them.) At any rate, many small gate-legs were made, and many have survived. They’re popular today, because their versatility is as welcome now as it was then.

We just acquired two very interesting examples. One must be one of the tiniest, or at least, the narrowest, ever made – its top board is only 6 ½” wide and 28” long. It has nicely molded plank ends, a plank stretcher, and crisply turned gates.

The other is slightly larger, and more conventional in form. What is striking about it is that it is made entirely of cherry, and, as you’d expect, it’s acquired a wonderful color over the years.


A Woman of Choice

“To all dispersed sorts of Arts and Trades,
I write the Needles prayse (that never fades)…
So Maids may (from their Mistresse, or their Mother)
Learne to leave one worke, and to learne another.
For here they may make choice of which is which,
And skip from worke to worke, from stitch to stitch.
Untill, in time, delightfull practice shall
(With profit) make them perfect in them all.”

So wrote John Taylor in The Prayse of the Needle in 1611

Women found their voices in the seventeenth century. In the previous century, powerful women like Good Queen Bess herself and Bess of Hardwick had broken the masculinity of the Middle Ages, and seventeenth-century women took advantage of the opportunities that they’d opened up. Mary Beale was the first professional woman painter, Aphra Benn the first professional woman writer (she wrote the first English novel as well as many plays), and all over the country, girls and women turned to the needle as a means of creativity and self-expression.

This English picture, worked in silk and wool on canvas in about 1640, shows a young woman in the seat of power: she is choosing her own husband. Two hopeful suitors approach from the left, thinking, respectively, "ILE WAIT THE TIME," and "I HOPE WEL." The thoughts running through the heads of the rejected suitors on the right are "ALYSE [alas] I CANOT," and “NOT LOVE BUT DOLOR."

The lady sits in front of a manor house whose windows are represented by pieces of applied mica. Window glass was extremely expensive, and the huge windows of houses such as Hardwick Hall were a public display of exceptional wealth. To her contemporaries, the mica windows would have signaled clearly that this was a wealthy woman indeed. We have to wonder how closely the girl who stitched the picture identified herself with the lady she portrayed.





Of Swords and Forks

July 4th, 1776, marked the moment of greatest difference between America and Britain. As a British-American, I am particularly pleased that since then my two nations have drawn closer together, overcoming most of the differences between them. Most, but certainly not all. Oh no. Two major differences still divide us: the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road and they use their forks upside down. Or vice versa if you’re looking from the other side of the pond.

I’m not quite sure how the driving-side difference emerged. Brits, of course, claim a historical justification for driving on the left – when two strangers met on a forest path, they each kept their sword arm toward the other, thus passing on the left. And so it has remained to this day, though I don’t see many drivers waving their broad swords out of their windows as they drive down the crowded High Streets of little English towns. Although, come to think of it, that would be a particularly British way of expressing road rage, wouldn’t it?

The fork difference is more explicable. Forks reached Britain in the late seventeenth century. Before then, diners used their fingers or the points of their knives to convey solid food from trencher to mouth. For liquids, of course, they used spoons. Stout English yeomen viewed forks as sissy, appropriate only for effeminate Frenchmen and Italians. But there was no stopping progress and eventually forks reached England. When they arrived, they not only kept English fingers clean, they also changed the shape of knife blades -- pointed went out, and rounded came in.
In America, forks arrived even later. They didn’t become common until well into the eighteenth century. But early eighteenth-century knives, which were almost all imported from England, had the new rounded ends, which made them useless for sticking into juicy chunks of steak and venison. So colonial Americans had to use their spoons to carry solid food to their mouths.

When forks finally hit these shores, Americans naturally used them like spoons, to scoop rather than spear. The Brits, on the other hand, used them with the prongs pointing down like the fingers of the hand they replaced. In this position, they speared chunks of meat just like knife points, rather than scooping them up like spoons.

I recall hearing that General Eisenhower, after spending much of WWII in England, used his fork in the English manner when he returned. This was shown on a news reel, and his “bad table manners” became a point against him in his Presidential campaign. Good job he didn’t drive on the left as well – that really would have killed his chances.

Now, isn’t that a whole lot of useless information to clutter up your minds as you eat your Fourth of July burgers – with your fingers, of course. I, on the other hand, dyed-in-the-wool Englishman that I am, shall use a fork – defiantly upside down.