Big and Little History in Three Parts

Part II

What I was able to see in my new found passion were tangible objects still surviving today that directly related to and part of real history. But the London College of Furniture was nothing, if not thorough, about all that we should learn. We also had other courses to do with timber technology. In this class, we delved into botany, entomology, chemistry, hydrology, mycology—it was all on the table since all of these can affect furniture at some point or another. Of these, botany interested me the most in that I was fascinated why the primary show woods (surface timbers) in English furniture—oak, walnut and mahogany—became known to cabinet makers. Why not maple, teak, yew, sycamore, beech, elm, chestnut, etc.? </p> <p>The questions kept coming as you might imagine. The answers were not always logical, either. For example, the 18<sup>th</sup> century carvers were said to have preferred mahogany to walnut, but every carver I have talked to says that they are both good to carve. Apparently, thanks to the research of John Cross and Adam Bowett, the real reason for the switch to mahogany surfaced as being caused by stiff taxes being assessed on walnut from France. Economic theorists would enjoy the consequences of that action and would no doubt use it demonstrate the function of government overreach. In this case, it introduced an entire new timber to the English cabinetmaking world.</p> <p>There is more, of course, if you allow your mind to roam. There is the understanding of trade routes and the influences they had on taste. There is the history of tools and craft as well as the history of machinery and even metallurgy. All of these relate to the creation of furniture. Of particular interest to me was understanding the chemistry of finishes such as lacquer, varnish, paint, shellac, wax, and oil. Frankly, I realized after about ten years that it was the history of mankind and virtually all knowledge that I was studying, not just the history of furniture. To  put things in perspective,  I was doing the work that I could have done earlier, only now there was a context to it.


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