Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Introduction

This book is designed as a reference guide for the collector of Eldred Wheeler furniture. It covers the company’s output from its inception in 1977 through 2004, and also strives to record the company’s early history (during its first 15 years). So many people and events helped shape Eldred Wheeler over the years that omissions are a certainty. Even so, I hope that this guide provides insights into how a vision was made reality by a group of very dedicated, hard-working individuals. This is the story of building a small American company, and the delights and frustrations, successes and failures, that accompanied the adventure.

Over the past century there has been a growing understanding and appreciation of 18th century American furniture design. While there were a few pioneer collectors of American furniture in the early 1900s, it was the publication of Wallace Nutting’s three-volume Furniture Treasury between 1928 and 1933 that helped spark America’s interest in furniture from its cabinetmaking past. Nutting’s books were a landmark source of information on American furniture design, and enabled antique collectors, as well as furniture companies, to understand the design features of early pieces. As “early American” design gained in popularity throughout the 1930s, and as the scarcity of fine 18th century antiques became apparent, there developed a growing market for accurate reproductions. Nutting founded a company devoted to the volume production of many of the items illustrated in his Furniture Treasury. He strove to craft a product that was accurate in both design and construction, and his pieces are highly collectable today. At the time, numerous other companies also began producing early American reproductions. However, their products varied greatly as to their design and construction accuracy.

Over time, efficiency and mass marketing considerations led even the premier furniture companies to fabricate what might be termed “production furniture in the 18th century style.” Manufacturers made increasing use of narrow-width, glued-up boards; plywood-based veneered surfaces; opaque masking finishes; mechanical drawer glides; and machined dovetail and dowel construction. While these pieces were fairly accurate in design, they were far removed from their 18th century counterparts in terms of their construction methods and quality. Individuals impassioned enough to search out authentically constructed reproductions could order limited numbers from a few specialty woodworking shops. Many of these small shops were located in the East, and pieces from some of the more prolific, such as Margolis in Connecticut, are eagerly sought after today.

Premier companies such as Kittinger, Baker, and Kindel had made formal mahogany reproductions for decades. For the most part these were mass-produced pieces, but the companies’ close association with historical groups, such as Colonial Williamsburg, helped assure a high degree of design accuracy. Less formal, “country” pieces were primarily produced by a large number of furniture companies that marketed their wares to individuals trying to achieve a “colonial décor.”

In the mid 1970s there emerged a growing interest in handcrafted 18th century American furniture. While there was continued interest in high style formal pieces, there also developed an enthusiasm for “country high style” pieces made from cherry or maple. In response to these two trends, a few small shops specializing in authentic country high style cabinetry sprung up in New England. One of the more notable craftsmen in this category was Douglas Campbell, of Denmark, Maine. In his catalog, he offered a limited number of pieces, accurately constructed in maple or cherry. He also offered to build selected pieces in tiger maple (tiger maple was hard to obtain, occurring in less than 1% of harvested maple trees). Douglas’s offerings immediately caught my attention, since tiger maple was my favorite wood. Over the years, my wife and I had little luck in finding—or affording—antiques made of this prized wood, and Douglas’s reproductions offered us a viable alternative. While we never purchased one of Douglas’s pieces, it was his concept that inspired Bill Wheeler and me to form Eldred Wheeler. Our goal was simple: to handcraft significant quantities of affordable, historically accurate pieces that would elicit the same excitement in their owners as comparable antiques.

Someone once observed that for something to become collectable, enough of it must be available for it to be collected. Having handcrafted thousands of pieces over the last 27 years, Eldred Wheeler furniture and accessories are increasingly finding their way into auction galleries and antique shops. This development has spawned a growing number of collectors who are interested in obtaining discontinued or early production pieces. These items typically fetch prices that are significantly higher than when originally sold, or, if still produced, when purchased new from the company today. The demand has grown to the point where fake Eldred Wheeler pieces occasionally surface.

The primary goal of this guide is to provide a record of the various forms crafted by Eldred Wheeler over the years. Undoubtedly there will be omissions, since we kept few production records, especially in the early years. Also, Eldred Wheeler routinely accepted custom work and special orders, so there are a large number of pieces that were never pictured in the company’s literature. While the primary focus of this guide is the collector pieces depicted in the catalogs, it provides enough information about construction techniques, markings, and designs to help in the identification of specialty items.