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Wicker's Enduring Charm
by Bob Brooke

 

It’s 1895, and as you approach the wide, sweeping porch of a late Victorian country home you notice several striking, white wicker armchairs. As you enter the home, you see a wicker and hickory chair sitting in the parlor.

Wicker has a long and interesting history, beginning in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians wove the first wicker from palms, willows, rush and other materials, into simple boxes, baskets and stools. Although all classes of people owned wicker, it was only the important Egyptians with enough wealth to afford spacious tombs, who had it buried with them to use in their afterlife.

Early Wicker
The Romans also used wicker. It played a role in nearly every function of the empire, from taking part in the cultural gatherings of great rninds to assisting with the day-to-day activities of individual households. Until Roman times, the usual wicker pieces had been boxes, baskets, and stools, but by then wicker furnishings included chests, flexible chairs, divans and reclining chairs.

While the art of making larger, more complicated pieces eventually disappeared from Rome, wicker continued to be made in England and Europe.

Meanwhile, the Chinese began fashioning loosely woven peacock and fan-back chairs out of wicker. Europeon traders noticed them and brought many of these chairs back to their home ports aboard clipper ships. These exotic chairs added a hint of the mysterious Orient to gardens already furnished with locally made wooden and wicker seats.

These same ships carried ballast of rattan to keep their cargo from moving while on the open seas. Once the ships were in home port, in order to gain access to the merchandise in the holds, the crews had to empty the rattan onto the docks, where they just left it. And there it stayed until someone disposed of it. One of the men who usually helped clear the Boston docks in 1844 was a grocer named Cyrus Wakefield.

Cyrus Wakefield
Wakefield decided to recycle the rattan by using it to make furniture. He went on to create a more ornate style of wicker that was so popular he founded the Wakefield Rattan Company in South Reading, Massachusetts, in 1855. Later the grateful citizens of the community honored him by renaming their town Wakefield.

Wakefield first used the pliable, shiny rattan to wrap around wooden chairs to make outdoor furniture. Then he began to split the outer bark of the rattan into strips called cane, to weave into seats and backs for indoor chairs and settees. Finally, he discovered that the porous substance under the cane could be made into reed to weave wicker with a more absorbent surface than rattan that would take paint and stain.

But Wakefield wasn’t the only person to realize wicker’s potential. Both J & C Berrian and Topf of New York City were in production by the late 1850s, using wooden frames wrapped with cane and ornamented reed.

As the1850s ended, Wakefield and others gradually switched from rattan to reed because reed tuned out to. be more flexible in forming and more receptive to paints in decorating.

As production advanced, wicker furniture manufacturers wrapped flat reed with strands of cane were made of that reed which were wrapped with strands of cane. They used round reed for the back and arms of both chairs and settees, intricately weaving it to form links, circles, and scrolls.

Wicker was hardly new to the 19th century, It had been native to American Indians when the Pilgrims landed, bearing their own wicker baskets and infant cradles.

Over the years Heywood Brothers Company of Gardner, Massachusetts, gave Wakefield strong competition, helping to satisfy the growing market for wicker furniture. After the two companies joined forces in 1897, they began to outsell all the other wicker manufacturers.

America’s Romance With Wicker
Comfortable, flexible, informal, masculine or feminine styles, wicker adapted itself to any situation or location. Not only did it feel right in gardens and on porches, by the 1860s, it had found its way into homes.

America's romance with wicker furniture had reached its peak in the 1880's when American manufacturers began to use new machinery to weave and shape rattan, bamboo, willow, and other materials that would come to be called wicker.

Wicker Designs and Ornamentation
While the British were still making wicker chairs with functional, skirted styles, woven the same tight way as baskets from about 1850 through the 1890s, American manufacturers had been producing ornately styled wicker made up of open-work patterns. Until then, wicker had been left in its natural color or lightly stained. But by the 1890s, painted wicker had become popular.



Wicker for the home was elaborate, trimmed with as many curlicues, scroll work, beadwork, shell designs, rosettes, garlands and loops as possible. Homeowners could purchase not only accent chairs but sets in matching designs—one or two chairs and a settee, a chair and rocker, or two side chairs and a center table. Furniture retailers also offered accessory pieces like sewing baskets on long decorated legs, baby carriages, cradles and high chairs, music stands, whatnots, and waste baskets.

The incredibly ornate decorations can be identified loosely under artistic classifications such as shell, motif, heart-shaped, or open-weave back panels for chairs, settees and rockers, stick-and-ball styles, classic serpentine for chair backs and rolled for chair arms and backs. The fancier the decorations, the more the Victorians seemed to like the wicker, and manufacturers adapted each other's styles with flair and imagination.

Gradually, Victorian fussiness gave way to the clean lines of the Arts and Crafts style as the 20th century dawned. Definitely not a light feminine look, this style utilized a tightly pulled, over and under weave, creating solid panels on backs, arms and aprons. For a few years several companies made the transition between the two styles by applying scrolls to the edges of smooth, tightly woven pieces. Consumers soon required upholstered seats and backs on their wicker chairs because when wicker dried out, it tended to catch on clothing. This forced manufacturers to raise prices for their pieces.

The answer was to return to the open weave, but to continue with the plain, over and under pattern instead of elaborate Victorian fancywork. Designers then rounded the angles and gently curved various straight lines, resulting in a style called Bar Harbor. Resorts like the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego ordered them by the dozens and set them on their verandas.

Keeping up with the continuing trend, theaters like the Casino and Broadway in New York City decorated their box seating sections in white wicker. Even the various modes of transportation softened the ride with wicker. Luxurious steamships, including the Queen Mary, and the smaller but no less luxurious yachts coaxed their passengers to relax in cushioned wicker. For many years trains pulled private cars and club cars outfitted with wicker.

In 1917, a Michigan man, Marshall Lloyd, developed and patented his Lloyd Loom that wove flat sheets of wicker. As costs kept rising, manufacturers began to lean toward the machine-woven wicker and experimented with an artificial reed called fiber, a combination that produced cheap, quick wicker furniture. This allowed the expensive, tightly woven, over and under patterns to be made economically and quickly, which were then easily fastened onto wooden furniture frames. The sheets were ideal for the Art Deco designs that were all the rage in the 1920s, creating wicker radios, lamps and case furniture as well as the usual chairs and settees.

As the Great Depression dawned at the end of the 1920s, wicker went out of style. But years later, it came back into fashion and today is as popular as when Victorians sat on it on wide porches in the summer.

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

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