Moorish fretwork furniture

Moorish fretwork furniture

Paul Tucker

Twist ornamentation on furniture has been in existence for centuries, but not until the nineteenth century could it be mass produced by machine. These ropelike spiral turnings were often called “barley twist” for an English confection made with barley sugar in a similar shape. (1) Climbing vines, seashells, and animal horns may have been the initial inspiration for this decoration.

In the United States the furniture manufacturing centers in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, were vigilant in using the latest materials, methods, and styles. In Cincinnati alone half a dozen companies were making parlor tables with spiral or barley twist legs.

The first United States patent for a mechanized spiral turning machine was issued in 1856, (2) and no fewer than fifty more were granted before the end of the nineteenth century. None of these patents went to George Hunzinger (1835-1898) of New York City, whose name is virtually synonymous with the outrageous and fanciful turned furniture made at the time, (3) although in fact he made only a fraction of the work attributed to him. By contrast, two of the most inventive makers of spiral furniture are hardly credited at all. They are Moses Younglove Ransom of Cleveland and Merklen Brothers of New York City, whose distinctive furniture is invariably misattributed to Hunzinger.

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Ransom was born in Cambridge, New York, and moved with his family as a young man to Cleveland, where his father operated a lumberyard and planing mill under the name C. S. Ransom and Company. On October 28, 1884, Moses Ransom patented his version of a spiral molding lathe, and his father’s company began to include “Interiors” among their offerings. This first patent was for a machine that made very thin barley twist strands, which were then woven into screens resembling woven willow screens. The result was Ransom’s Moorish fretwork (see Fig. 2).

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Ransom’s second patent (see Fig. 1), granted on September 15, 1885, protected his most important ideas on how these turned strands could be assembled into panels to be used in fretwork, grilles, and furniture. In addition to smooth spiral strands, Ransom made twisted strands that resemble an auger bit, but they were not as popular or durable as the smooth spirals.

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The intricate geometric patterns of Ransom’s screens followed the Moorish design rules set down by Owen Jones in The Grammar of Ornament (1856). These rules provided designers and furniture makers with an artistic link to the exotic East. The nineteenth-century preoccupation with orientalism provided a strong design influence well into the twentieth century.

By far the most extensive example of Ransom’s Moorish interior design work is found in the Amelia S. Givin Library in Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania. There Ransom’s screens were used to make partitions in the library and as door panels in the Moorish style interiors. One of these door panels is illustrated on the contents page of this issue.

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Articles in trade journals and newspapers indicate that Ransom was well known as an art furniture maker, although there is very little documentation of his actual furniture work. An advertisement in a trade journal in 1896 identifies Ransom as the maker of a display in the John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. (4) The display was partitioned entirely with Moorish fretwork panels. The tapered open twists and interwoven spirals of the fire screen shown in Plate IX also appear on an umbrella stand that was part of the Wanamaker display. (5) Small brass plates on the fretwork panels in the Givin Library, on the fire screen (Pl. IX), and on the folding screen shown in Plate XI all invoke the patent of September 15, 1885. Although it appears that Ransom made Moorish fretwork from 1885 to 1898, his furniture work was apparently limited and concentrated toward the end of his active period. In 1898 the American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, announcing the apparent demise of Ransom’s furniture making, noted that although his furniture was of the highest quality, the maker unfortunately did not have the patience to run a furniture manufactory. (6)

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Ransom had many interests besides woodworking. He was an active organizer of the Ohio Volunteer Army before the Civil War and served as a lieutenant in the First Ohio Artillery during it. After the war he was an officer in the Grand Army of the Republic. He was one of the founders of the Cleveland Yacht Association and organized and participated in many boat races. (7) His third patent, issued on October 16, 1888, was for a method of building boat hulls.

The final chapter in Ransom’s colorful career was to prospect for gold in Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of Argentina, where miners bound for the gold rush in California had discovered gold dust. He bought the one-hundred-foot schooner Joseph F. Loubat, fitted it out as a luxurious yacht, and filled the hold with steam engines and gold-dredging equipment of his own design. He left New York with a crew of fifteen in October 1896 and limped home two years later having failed in his quest. It was his financial undoing and marked the end of C. S. Ransom and Company.

Valentine Merklen Sr. (d. 1893) and his family came to New York City in 1872, after their native Alsace passed from France to Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. A woodturner by trade, Merklen quickly found work for himself and his sons in the booming furniture trade. In 1879 six of his eight sons opened their own shop, making faux bamboo furniture, and in 1882 they branched out into twist furniture. Four years later they were making exclusively their popular “spiral furniture.” (8) The association of the Merklens and Ransom was probably established by way of Ransom’s New York City office. As early as 1885 the Merklens incorporated Ransom’s Moorish fretwork into the back panels of their chairs, and over the years they found many interesting ways of using the woven spiral panels in their furniture (see Pls. I, II, IV, VII). Variations on the spiral chair shown in Plate III could be found in doctors’ offices across the United States. The wooden balls at the ends of the arms were replaced with brass spheres, which were connected to a battery under the seat. Patients sitting in the chairs grasped the brass knobs and felt the “therapeutic effects” of electric current passing through them. (9)

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The table shown in Plate V incorporates another design element characteristic of the Merklen firm–cast metal brackets (Pl. Va), feet, and other decorative elements made by the company’s full-time sculptor (see also Pl. X). (10) These were often grotesque dragons, bats, walruses, birds, and more fanciful creatures.

The Merklens held at least half a dozen patents, most of which were for machines to produce elements of spiral furniture and the thin Ransom-type spirals used in the woven panels. However, they also applied for patents on their furniture designs and ornamental metal brackets. Not all Merken furniture designs were fragile looking. The library table shown in Plate VI is massive. The wooden balls grasped by huge bronze talons are the size of softballs. All Merklen Brothers’ claw-and-ball feet incorporate wood, not glass, balls.

In addition to tables and chairs the Merklens made cheval mirrors, umbrella stands, coat stands, hat racks, mirrors, and the ubiquitous Victorian pedestal (see Pls. VIII, X), all with outrageous spiral turnings. In its tribute to the firm in 1893, the American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer stated:

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For twelve years Merklen Bros. have manufactured twist work exclusively,

turning out original, unique and artistic pieces and enriching the

furniture product of their adopted country. The Merklen boys have

developed genius in this particular class of woodturning, and while they

have had imitators since, none have approached them in ideas,

originality or excellence of workmanship. Merklen Bros, have no foreman;

they never employ a designer, and the writer is not aware that they ever

put a working drawing on a trestle-board, but, nevertheless, each season

they evolved a very large number of patterns all with the Merklen

characteristics, and each season’s offering easily surpass those which

preceded. (11)

The attribution of Ransom and Merklen pieces is complicated by the fact that neither marked their work. The Merklens had no catalogue, relying exclusively on their traveling salesmen. Some of the Merklens’ furniture can be found alongside Ransom’s Moorish fretwork in the catalogues of some of the larger furniture retailers, such as the one issued by Paine’s Furniture Company of Boston about 1890. George Mertz’s Sons of Port Chester, New York, made some of Ransom’s spiral moldings into the early twentieth century, (12) but this kind of interlaced work, so fitting for the orientalism of the late Victorian period, had no place in the decorative arts of the new century.

The author is cataloguing existing examples of Moorish fretwork and would welcome any information readers might contribute. His e-mail address is pktucker@adelphia.net.

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(1) Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) had several pieces of spiral-turned furniture in her sitting room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight (illustrated in James Norbury. The World of Victoriana: Illustrating the Progress of Furniture and the Decorative Arts in Britain and America from 1837 to 1901 [Hamlyn, London, 1972], pp. 14-15, Fig. 9).

(2) J. Anderson, J. McClaren, and J. Bryant. Lathe for cutting fluted moldings, United States Patent 16,108, issued on November 25, 1856.

(3) For more about Hunzinger, see Barry R. Harwood. “The furniture of George Jacob Hunzinger,” The Magazine ANTIOUES, vol. 52, no. 6 (December 1997), pp. 832-841.

(4) Clipping from Upholsterer and Interior Decorator, 1896.

(5) Ibid. shows a photograph of the umbrella stand surrounded by Moorish fretwork screens, which the author of the article says depicts an installation in one of the Wanamaker stores.

(6) American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, February 5, 1898.

(7) Cleveland Leader, July 14, 1875.

(8) American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, supplement of January 7, 1893, contains a history of the Merklen Brothers and their business.

(9) Ibid., August 20, 1887, gave the following report: “While looking over the new patterns, Mr. Valentine Merklen asked us if we would like to inspect the ‘Merklen Electric Chair.’ Of course we said yes, but half expected some electrical trick was about to be practiced upon us. Not so, however. A spiral arm chair has been fitted up with a neat receptacle, which is also ornamental, beneath the seat of the chair for holding the battery. Wires run up through the back post and through the left arm connecting with an electrical apparatus in the arm. On the end of each arm is a brass ball, the left-hand one being connected with the electric attachment. You seat yourself in the chair, grasp a ball in each hand, gradually draw out the one on the left, and a current of electricity immediately begins to go through the system. The current can be mild or strong at the will of the operator, as it is under his control. The chair has been designed perhaps more especially for physicians as they are now using electricity in their practice to a large extent. It will undoubtedly have a big sale when its merits are known. Some furniture dealers have already placed orders for it.”

(10) Ibid.

(11) See n. 8.

(12) See George Mertz’s Sons Port Chester, N.Y., Manufacturers of Patent Turned Wood and Metal Art-Mouldings, Machine Carved Wood Mouldings, Twist Mouldings, and Turned Spindles (George Mertz’s Sons, Port Chester, New York, 1903).

PAUL TUCKER, a carpenter, is on the board of the Amelia S. Givin Library in Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania. He is writing a book about Moorish fretwork and its place in late nineteenth-century culture.

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