Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Preface

It took me almost 22 years to finally write this book. The thought of writing it first crossed my mind in 1983, when a Pennsylvania publisher asked me to consider putting together a manuscript. He even offered to pay an advance to help defray the cost of photography and artwork. I seriously considered the project, but with several new products in the works and the company still settling in after its move to Hingham, I just could not afford the distraction.

I was again tempted in 1988, a year after Bill Wheeler and I sold Eldred Wheeler to Chartwell, Ltd. My employment contract with Chartwell would expire in a little over a year, and I wondered if I would be asked to continue with the company or would find myself looking for my next career. Worrying that the company’s early history might be lost forever, I set about dictating a narrative on our years in Hanson and Pembroke. Over the course of several days, I managed to fill more than a half-dozen 90-minute tapes, and Lois Parlee, our office manager, dutifully began transcribing them. However, after reviewing the first twenty pages of output, I quickly realized how much effort would be required to convert my ramblings into a readable book. Much to Lois’s relief, I put the project on hold as I became preoccupied with other activities around the plant.

I resurrected the tapes again in 1990, hoping that time had improved their content, and persuaded Lois’s successor, Betty Landry, to resume the task of transcription. After reviewing the preliminary output, I came to the same conclusion as before, and reluctantly stuffed the tapes into a file cabinet, where they were soon forgotten.

The inspiration to try yet again didn’t surface until the fall of 2003. While cleaning out my garage, I ran across a box containing the tapes I’d dictated fifteen years earlier. Not remembering exactly what was on them, I decided to give one a quick listen before deciding whether to keep them. The first part of the tape described Bill’s efforts in locating our first production site, in Hanson. It went on to describe the hiring of our first employee, and the hurdles we faced in transforming a former drug store into a woodworking shop. As I listened to my ramblings, I couldn’t help but reminisce about our adventures in starting Eldred Wheeler. In hindsight, most of our challenges seemed minor, in some cases almost comical, but I remembered how real they were to us at the time. The tape reinforced the role that luck, or maybe fate, played in determining how Eldred Wheeler ultimately evolved. After reaching the end of the tape, I was intrigued with the idea of putting together an Eldred Wheeler collector’s guide: a book that would not only capture the company’s early history and showcase some of my favorite pieces, but would also provide a pictorial identification guide and production record for the variety of pieces we produced over the years. More importantly, being semi-retired, I finally found myself with enough spare time to undertake the project.

My first goal was to locate and catalog as much historical information as possible. I decided to describe Eldred Wheeler’s history through a series of loosely linked vignettes, based primarily on the tapes and my personal recollections. After more than twenty years (and my memory being what it is), I worried that my historical narrative might well end up more fiction than nonfiction. To keep it as accurate as possible, and as a sanity check, I decided to have a few “old-timers” review relevant sections of the draft manuscript. While the history and favorite-pieces sections were relatively straightforward to write (though allowing for a bit of literary license), creating the pictorial guide and production record was much more challenging. It was important that these two guides be as accurate as possible, because collectors would rely upon them to help determine authenticity and rarity.

Fortunately, a thorough check of my files uncovered a large number of old photographs, catalogs, advertisements, and magazine articles. Dave McCarthy, the owner of Eldred Wheeler at the time, had been after me for years to write a book, and in anticipation of doing so he had saved many of the company’s early files. When I told Dave of my intentions, he immediately handed me a large box filled with early customer and dealer correspondence, old price lists, and several business plans from 1978–87. Jesse Meyer, an independent contractor who had followed the company from its inception, had saved a copy of nearly every catalog, and he kindly volunteered to let me use any issue I was missing. Dave McCarthy also offered to search the company’s computer files for historical production records. Finally, Tony Trase, Eldred Wheeler’s current owner, generously provided access to the company’s current files and encouraged me to use any material I felt was relevant, including both historical and current photographs.

Armed with close to twelve hours of tapes, an open invitation to pore over Eldred Wheeler’s files, and a pretty imposing pile of papers, photographs, computer printouts and company pamphlets, I began the task of piecing together 25 years of Eldred Wheeler’s history.

The book is divided into three primary sections: the company’s early history, the design process (using prototypes for illustration), and an authentication guide. An appendix includes a pictorial guide and a production record.

For the history section, I have elected to concentrate on Eldred Wheeler’s first fifteen years. I was most closely associated with the company during that time and, as such, feel most comfortable discussing these years. Also, this period is historically important, since it was during those years that Eldred Wheeler refined its core cabinetmaking capabilities and discovered and developed its target markets. Additionally, a large number of the company’s current products were introduced during this time frame.

Eldred Wheeler’s design process has evolved over time, but it has always been a team effort. I felt that stories describing the creation of several prototypes might be the best way to illustrate this point. Since I still retain a large number of the original prototypes, I selected twenty of my favorites to picture and describe. Full-page color plates are dedicated to each of these pieces.

The authentication section describes a variety of ways to help decide whether or not an item was made by Eldred Wheeler. Obviously, there is a good chance that a piece is authentic if it has a label, brand, or is depicted in the Pictorial Guide. Equally convincing is associated documentation, such as an original receipt. However, there are numerous instances where the above authenticators are not present and other indicators must be relied upon. To help in these instances I have described (and illustrated where necessary) a variety of production guidelines, construction techniques and design idiosyncrasies that are characteristic of Eldred Wheeler furniture.

The Appendix includes guides that attempt to catalog all core product offerings from 1978 through 2004. The Pictorial Guide illustrates only those pieces that were pictured in the company’s catalogs or promotional flyers, or in relevant museum brochures. Measurements are included to aid in identification. The Production Record outlines both the time frame the piece was offered and the approximate annual quantities produced. The choices of wood and finish we offered are also noted. Unfortunately, all production information prior to 1994 was purged when a new computer system was installed in that year, so estimates from 1978 through the early 1990s are based largely on personal recollection and on information contained in two early business plans.

I have tried to make this book as comprehensive and accurate as possible. However, as noted above, records during the early years were few and I have discovered that even recent information is at some times sketchy. This has necessitated drawing much of the history from personal memory and, wherever possible, cross-checking with current and former Eldred Wheeler employees. Stated production quantities are estimates, but they are probably as accurate as anyone can hope to derive from the available data. I apologize for any inaccuracies in my recollections, and also regret that time and space prevent me from including everyone who contributed to the success of Eldred Wheeler over the years.

 

Emmett W. Eldred

West Falmouth, Massachusetts

October 2005