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CLASSIC WICKER FURNITURE
By Heywood Brothers
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1982 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
On March 17, 1897, under the front-page headline "Two Large Firms to Merge," the New York Times reported: "The Wakefield Rattan Company will be merged with the firm of Heywood Brothers & Company, thus effecting one of the most important consolidations of capital yet made in New England." Less than a month after this article appeared, the two leading manufacturers of wicker furniture in the world were incorporated and formally joined forces to create the now-famous Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company. The merger was a consolidation of furniture designers, master craftsmen and shrewd business minds from each company and not merely the "consolidation of capital" reported in the Times. Thus the first joint catalog of 1898—1899, reprinted here, in which each company contributed designs and shared in the actual labor, is of special significance. It is this catalog which marks the true beginning of the most famous of all wicker-furniture companies, for when these two giants of the industry combined forces they produced some of the finest handmade wicker furniture ever made. Not only a beautifully printed catalog, this initial collaboration between the two companies resulted in an extra treat for the public in the way of color illustrating the true tone of the "fancy colored reeds" referred to throughout this issue. On this, the eighty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company, it seems fitting to bring back the premiere issue of this rare trade catalog—one that is painstakingly accurate in presenting the fantastic line of furniture which the company offered to the general public during the golden age of wicker.
While a large part of the public still clings to the misconception that most wicker furniture was made in the Orient, a growing awareness that this is an American-born industry is finally taking hold. Although wicker furniture actually dates back to ancient Egypt and was produced through the centuries out of necessity and from readily available materials, the "industry" per se has its roots in Boston. It was on the waterfront of this great city, in 1844, that an enterprising young grocer named Cyrus Wakefield happened to observe a huge quantity of rattan being dumped out on the docks after having served its purpose as dunnage aboard a clipper ship on its return voyage from the Far East. Fate seemed to take over from that point on; soon after examining one of the long, flexible poles, Wakefield decided that furniture could be made from this strange material. Although he had virtually no experience in this field, he began experimenting by making numerous pieces of crude rattan furniture during the next few years. Eventually he quit the grocery business and decided to import whole rattan from China to meet the growing demand in America for split rattan or "cane" (the glossy, outer skin of the rattan vine which was employed in weaving chair seats). While building his jobbing trade Wakefield continued to experiment not only with rattan but with reed—the inner pith of the rattan vine which, up until that time, had always been treated as waste. He soon found that reed was more pliable than rattan and began stepping up his furniture-making experiments by using this newly discovered material. Finally, in the mid-1850s, he and his wife moved to South Reading, Massachusetts (later renamed "Wakefield" to honor the philanthropic endeavors of its most civic-minded citizen), where he quickly established the Wakefield Rattan Company.
Throughout the Civil War years Cyrus Wakefield continued to refine the art of making wicker furniture at affordable prices. By this time increasingly ornate Victorian designs (which were made possible by the use of the elastic-like reed) had become a sensation as porch and garden furniture. In the meantime one of the oldest furniture manufacturers in the United States, Heywood Brothers and Company (established in 1826), looked at the new wicker furniture industry with more than a passing interest and by the early 1870s began producing their own line of wicker products from their factory in Gardner, Massachusetts. Within a few years Levi Heywood, founder of the company, realized that wicker was more than a mere fad and stepped up production by adding such specialty items as perambulators, cribs and five-piece suites.
In 1873 Cyrus Wakefield died of a heart attack and his nephew and namesake, Cyrus Wakefield II, took over the management of the firm. By this time the Wakefield Rattan Company and Heywood Brothers and Company were the two leading manufacturers of wicker furniture in the country and proved to be intense rivals for a quarter of a century—a competitiveness that encouraged experimentation, improved existing designs and lowered prices. Strangely enough, the two companies had much in common: by the mid-1880s both firms were being managed by second generations (Henry Heywood took over as head of Heywood Brothers and Company when his uncle, Levi Heywood, died in 1882); their rates of growth during this period were remarkably similar; each firm employed Irish and Italian immigrants to fill their all-important labor forces and they were making closely related products toward the end of the nineteenth century.
When the two firms were finally incorporated in 1897, the newly formed Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company was destined to all but monopolize the wicker-furniture industry. One of Henry Heywood's first acts as president was to establish two new warehouses in London and Liverpool, thereby creating an export market and expanding the total number of warehouses to eleven. This, coupled with the fact that the new company had huge factories in Gardner and Wakefield, Massachusetts, as well as Chicago and San Francisco, discouraged serious competition.
Although this was the first trade catalog to be issued by the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company, some older wicker designs can be found in the 1898 issue. For instance, the Lady's Reception Chair (number 6013 A, page 52) and the Couch (number 6238, page 144) are representative of designs employed by each company during the 1880s, yet they were carried over into the 1898 joint catalog because they were exceptionally strong designs that had enjoyed healthy sales in earlier catalogs. In this way each company felt they were contributing their strongest designs at the time of the merger. On the other hand, some of the newer designs in the catalog, such as the Lady's Armchair (number 6545 A, page 25) and the Round Table (number 6377, page 174), caught on quickly and not only survived the turn of the century but were still being produced as late as the First World War.
The 1898 catalog opens, appropriately, with a long line of the most popular of all wicker items—the rocker. In the Lady's Rocking Chair (number 6092 B, page 6) we see the rolled serpentine arms and back, a design that began to appear in the 1880s and came into its own throughout the 1890s. A variation on the rocking-chair theme was the Lady's Comfort Patent Rocker (number 6315 BPR, page 30). Now called "platform rockers," these pieces were heavier than their traditional counterparts but required less room than a standard rocker since the powerful spring mechanism eliminated any drastic rocking motion.
While many of the designs employed in making the wicker armchairs (beginning on page 63) were also made as rocking chairs, some of the newer designs were merely awkward experiments and soon removed from the line. The Lady's Arm Chair (number 6509 A, page 73) and the Large Arm Chair (number 6512 C, page 87) are prime examples of this overindulgence. By contrast, the Large Arm Chair (number 6195 C, page 85) is a study in simplicity. This particular design (introduced by the Chinese at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition as the "hourglass chair" because of the hourglass design under the seat) is a variation on one of the few lasting designs in this field to come out of the Orient. The only other piece of wicker in the entire catalog that was not developed in America is the Beach Chair (page 109), which was actually based on a sixteenth-century French hooded wicker chair called a guérite.
Other chairs worthy of special attention in this section are the Morris Chair (number 6257, page 101) with its adjustable back, plush cushions and "Aladdin Slipper" legs; the unique square-backed Conversation Chair (number 6260, page 105); the Adult Cabinet Chair on page 108, intended for invalid use and very rare today; the Posing Chair on page 113, which is a good example of the "photographer's chairs" used as props in Victorian photography studios; and, finally, the Piano Chair (number 6372, page 117), complete with adjustable seat and wooden beads worked into the back.
While some of the newer designs offered variety, many of the established pieces (such as the Tete-a-Tete on page 133) can only be called classic in design. This also holds true for the Child's Table Chair (number 6310½ S, page 163), complete with wooden shelf; the Standing Crib on page 173; the Round Table (number 6409, page 180), illustrating the popular "birdcage" design at the bottom of the legs; the Music Stand (number 6440, page 199), which was used as the official logo for the newly formed company and appeared on each bill of sale; the Fancy Cabinet (number 6444, page 200); and the elaborate Dressing Stand which appears on page 201.
By the time the firm of Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company was incorporated, the public had fully accepted wicker furniture on all fronts—the porch, the garden, the sitting room and the bedroom. Not only had wicker's three-dimensional, airy quality won the public over, but its sheer adaptability seemed to suit the age. If anything, this catalog should serve as a visual record of wicker furniture at its peak—both in popularity and in the superior hand-workmanship that is illustrated in the following pages.
Pacific Grove, CaliforniaApril, 1982 RICHARD SAUNDERS
Excerpted from CLASSIC WICKER FURNITURE by Heywood Brothers. Copyright © 1982 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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