The Law of Large Numbers (LLN) says that if you do anything long enough, the average will out. Say, for example, you are flipping a coin. The average of 50-50 will come to pass if you flip the coin long enough.

The cabinetmaking trade in England in the 1770’s and 80’s began to change because of the growing middle class. The demand for furniture allowed for new entrepreneurs to depredate the middle class with furniture made by non-apprentice trained cabinetmakers. In a way, the LLN dictates that the care put into something diminishes as demand rises and that there is a quality level that is inevitably achieved by this demand. It is neither the best nor the worst on average, but it can be superb and it can also be quite poor.

As individuals, what we know is determined by our concentration on a subject. I know very little about cooking, but the LLN will say that a man of my age and background knows an average, quite probably more than I do. I exist as part of that average and yet I still know next to nothing about cooking.

The key to modern living is based on the LLN. Almost everything we have, food, energy, transportation is designed on an average. What is most interesting, as happened to the English cabinetmaking trade in the 18th century, is that the large numbers keep getting larger and that they necessarily change the equation.

Think in terms of the men who founded the country. Could they have imagined writing a document that was appicable to 300,000,000 people? I don’t think so. Our future will be determined by how well we understand the changing formula of the LLN and how it drives us. It doesn’t have a political ideology and it has nothing to do with sentiment. It just is. The only variable that might affect it is education. That should be our first priority.

I think the human spirit wants uplifting and so when I think of a time when that was happening, it was under the adverse conditions of WWII. Winston Churchill gave a speech whereby he took the fall of France, Holland and Belgium and noted that when history looked back on England, they would call England’s resistance to Hitler its “finest hour”. It was a brilliant speech and it clearly dismissed the moment for the glory of what Britain could and would be. Churchill was ignoring the facts and calling upon the future.

The English cabinetmaking trade at the end of the 18th century was not bereft of great cabinetmaking firms. However, the demand placed on the trade by the new middle class was calling for a different business approach, one which understood this demand. Some of the larger firms like Seddon and Gillow produced furniture of different levels of sophistication. No doubt, however, the LLN was debasing the standards of the trade by the vast opportunities that were opening up from this new demand. The standards within the trade, where it most mattered, were in decline.

The problem then is that the LLN, i.e. the burgeoning world population, is having a deletorious affect on standards of all kinds. Poor products are being made that elude detection, think salmonella in eggs and Chinese sheet rock and cat food. Churchill’s rhetoric resonates as spiritual and it is a path taken by some societies to deal with the LLN and the subsequent decline in standards. In truth, however, it is only each and every individual that can confront a descent into mediocrity. The only tool that each individual can have is education. In the end, it is our greatest challenge.

The clarity that comes with truth is often not what we wish for it to be. I was thinking of how many times I have been offered a piece of furniture that once belonged to Queen Victoria and virtually every person offering me this furniture was promoting the spurious provenance as a reason why I should buy it. They invariably had no provenance or documentation to back up the claim. When I pointed this out, the sellers told me that the dealer they bought the piece from was “honest”. Hmmm…, no clarity there.

Queen Victoria was not known for her furniture. Her reign was known for a lot of things including a number of Great Exhibitions, the most magnificent of which must have been the first in 1851 when Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was built in six months. I would love the opportunity to go back in time and see one of those exhibitions, they must have been absolutely magnificent.

If clarity does not come with the truth, what does the truth avail? When the truth works against us as in the case of the non-provenanced Victorian pieces, our core values are threatened. “Do you mean I can’t tell when someone is being honest?” No, in this case, you could not. No one likes being wrong, but this is fundamental and it threatens us. I would have to ask the next question which is the truth over rated or under appreciated? I would say the latter because it is welcome only when it is convenient. Hmmmm…., no clarity there either.

We can’t really help ourselves from doing it. Indeed, it is probably a sign of intelligence. Man works at understanding by grouping and classifying. With people, we usually start with color, ethnicity, religion and work our way through a litany of things that necessarily work for us such as birth signs, hair color, height or town of origin. It is fundamental to our way of thinking and clearly helps us to interact when we find traits that are held in common.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1783), the Swedish scientist and doctor, was the first botanist to use binomial nomenclature to describe a plant figuring that it was simpler and more effective than one name or, more likely, ten. This name would be the final classification of a hierarchy of names that included the Kingdom, Class, Order, Genera and Species. Furthermore, he realized that the sex organs of a plant were pivotal in creating a classification. He revolutionized the system of taxonomy, or the naming of things, making it far easier for scientists to communicate.

In the furniture world, classification is far more subjective than we would like to believe. Part of the problem lies with the fact that the making of something is an individualistic human endeavor outside the realm of nature. Quality has levels, but some levels might seem far too subtle to mention because of a general inconsistency even among the very top makers. It would be, instead of a quality distinction, a question of modus operandi. Such anomalies might even stump Linnaeus in classifying English antique furniture.

The negative aspect of classification arises in stereotyping which is inherent in all human classification. The moment we say, for example, that all English people have ruddy cheeks, we are eliminating all those English people that do not have ruddy cheeks. Indeed, this very simple logic is one good reason why the framers of the Constitution in this country chose America to be a secular state–there was no choice of whose God it was that America would be aligned with. The framers, even though most of them knew of Linnaeus, knew that there were some things that could not be classified.

John Fiske is a dealer in Ipswich, MA who, with his wife, Lisa Freeman, sells early oak. John has had other careers and one of them shows in his writing. It is superb. Every month, he expresses his opinion in The New England Antiques Journal and it is worth the price of admission. This month, he has written on what it is we are all searching for which is a small topic for John. One of these days he will take on a man sized topic like, what is the meaning of life? Oops, I think that is what he means be searching for the essence of things.

The Renaissance must have been an interesting time to be alive. I wouldn’t want the average sanitary arrangements they had, but I would like to see the world in a state where the belief in God answered all questions. The vast number of questions that faith can’t answer doesn’t reassure me that God exists, but would I have felt that way in the mid-16th century? I probably would not have–it is easier to believe in an unclear, faith based explanation than in no explanation at all. We always need answers no matter how ridiculous they might seem to be. It qualified, at that time, as essence.

Essence, however, is ultimately the distinction of what man is, his raison d’etre. This is why Midas was such a fool thinking that gold was the answer to his questions. That story could be updated, but perhaps it has been in the updated Gordon Gekko whose materialism is, ultimately, boring. One of my great pleasures in life has been in seeing what people have collected in life. Their collections reveal who they are. If you want to know what core values someone has, see what they esteem most in their life. Power, influence, money and even faith are tools, they are not essence.

John felt compressed for space in the two pages allotted to him in the NEAJ. I know what he means. Our greatest gift on this planet is the chance we have to ask the question why, to really get to the core of a question. Antique furniture, particularly furniture made before 1850, is extremely revealing of a culture, a time period, one that is so different from today that it is hard to imagine. The values of that era, the dedication to quality and the focus on function, almost seem extravagant. Why did they lavish so much attention to what was just a seat or a table? These are good questions and the answers might be as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.