An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 267

Clinton Howell Antiques - Jan.1, 2024 - Issue 267

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

And a Happy New Year! If you stayed up late to see the New Year in, I hope that your celebration was fun. The morning after is always so silent in New York City, up until about ten AM, I kind of wish that every morning could be like that in this city. As a deaf person, I really enjoy hearing silence which may sound a little odd, but there is peace and serenity in silence that encourages thought. The absence of sound--deafness--does not. I often think about how deaf people coped in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution. The amount of ambient noise was probably a lot less than there is today, but ambient noise was not the problem for deaf people back then--they just couldn't hear--did they just go into their own worlds? None of the histories or books that I've read about the 18th century mentions the deaf. In googling, I have found that a man, John Townsend, a deaf educator, created the Townsend Ear Trumpet in 1800. By the mid-19th century, there was an electrical aid developed by Miller Reese Hutchinson, which he called the Akouphone. Of course, today the technology is pretty amazing, so I, fortunately, can thoroughly enjoy the lack of ambient noise this Jan. 1.

The nineteenth century was a fertile era of invention. Mankind has always looked for ways to make life easier, but with the introduction of steam power and, eventually electrical power, the plethora of patents that were filed was extraordinary. In the furniture field, steel coils and springs were introduced and numerous patents were filed as to how to use them. Mechanical furniture, always of interest, shortened the chaise longue into a fold away chair and, of  course, the bed hidden under sofa cushions would only be a matter of time. (That was a patent in 1925.) It wasn't just furniture that was being patented--Thomas Edison was all over every new invention, claiming patents on so many things that many people think he invented things he didn't, such as the radio. (He actually wasn't a proponent of the radio and said it had no future.) He held over a thousand patents at his death.

One of my uncles attended boarding school in New Hampshire and his younger brother told me that his brother figured out an alarm system for himself that would essentially turn on a kettle, close the window and do a number of other things which I forget. The point was that this uncle never stopped inventing methods for making things work. It was a part of his DNA to design labor saving ideas. Indeed, his pragmatism was behind his business which was making the electrical lines for overhead cranes as well as automated walkways which every airport needs. I went through Minneapolis this summer and thought I fell into a shopping mall between gates--which indeed it was--they didn't have enough walkways. One of my brothers is looking forward to flying himself, not in an airplane but in the small flying units that are being developed as I write this. That will come to pass.

The desire to make things better likely began with art and cave paintings, as it is thought that it was a method for directing others to where game was to be found. Art has a long history as being informative in all kinds of ways. This may not be labor saving, but it is story and it's story that every single one of us wants to be engaged in, whether we know it or not. Graffiti is a great expression of story and though not easy for everyone to recognize, we understand the raison d'etre. The story, more aptly, the history of furniture, reflects mankind in a more subtle fashion, but that story is there, as well, just as it is with all decorative and/or functional objects. At times, I feel as if each day is like a single frame from a movie that is never ongoing, and that each frame reveals something that is of the moment, seemingly uninteresting, but which is actually part of a continuum that is fascinating. Ring in the New Year, same as the old year, but somehow quite different.