Review by Barbara McLean Ward
Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past

Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, eds. Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2007. x + 245 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., index. $65.00.

In 2002 UCLA’s Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies brought together scholars of American and Western European furniture to ponder the question that forms the subtitle of this book. A grant from the Chipstone Foundation helped to fund the cost of printing the color plates, and the J. Paul Getty Museum provided support for the conference. The scholars represented are not all furniture specialists; many study furniture and interior decoration as depicted in eighteenth-century literature or are historians who consider furniture and material culture key documents for the study of the past. The result is a volume that includes a broad range of approaches, from articles that concentrate on close physical examination of objects, such as Carolyn Sargentson’s “Looking at Furniture Inside Out: Strategies of Secrecy and Security in Eighteenth-Century French Furniture,” to those that depend almost entirely on documentation about furniture rather than the objects themselves, such as David Porter’s “A Wanton Chase in a Foreign Place: Hogarth and the Gendering of Exoticism in the Eighteenth-Century Interior.” Both approaches can be valuable, and the volume gives furniture scholars much to ponder. For the Americanist, intriguing issues arise from comparing the objects that we typically study with the information provided here about French furniture and interior decoration.

The book is broken into four parts: “Mapping Meaning Globally”; “Diffusing Furniture, Fashion, Taste”; “Making Meaning in the Domestic Interior”; and “Forms, Function, Meanings.” The three essays in the first section chronicle the use and popularity of exotic motifs, designs, and materials in England, France, and the French colony of Saint Dominique. Madeleine Dobie explores the possibility that the “attention to the Orient and under representation of the colonial world” in French furniture “are at least in a loose sense, structurally linked” (p. 13). She concedes that the number of objects made with colonial raw materials that employ imagery inspired by objects from China, Persia, Japan, and Turkey is small, and that the use of tropical American woods is just as often associated with pastoral imagery. Dobie asserts that “in the 18th century the incentive to overlook colonial conditions of production was strong, as it meant turning a blind eye to slavery along with the vicissitudes of plantation agriculture, notably lasting ecological evils such as soil erosion, drought, and flooding” (p. 32).

While Europeans were becoming critical of slavery by the middle of the eighteenth century, it is difficult to believe that they had a twentieth-century understanding of the relation between agricultural practices and the destruction of delicate tropical ecosystems. Dobie does not discuss the popular conception of the American colonies as idyllic societies existing in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “state of nature,” a phenomenon that should have led her to explain, rather than dismiss, the use of pastoral and natural imagery in eighteenth-century French furniture. Nonetheless, American readers will be interested in the provincial furniture, particularly from Rochelle, and the connection of the merchants in this region to West Indian trade.

“Mahogany as Status Symbol: Race and Luxury in Saint Dominique at the End of the 18th Century” by Chaela Pastore discusses how, until the late eighteenth century, most West Indian mahogany imported by French traders was immediately reexported to England. Eventually, craftsmen in the French coastal cities that were most directly involved in trade with the French West Indies began making mahogany furniture like that illustrated in Dobie’s essay. Pastore documents the ownership of mahogany furniture in Saint Dominique by white inhabitants—artisans and shopkeepers as well as merchants and planters—through newspaper advertisements for the sale of furnishings owned by people preparing to return to France following the massive slave insurrection of 1791. Interestingly, in a discussion that in many ways mirrors Kathryn Norberg’s article later in the volume, Pastore also finds widespread ownership of mahogany furniture among mixed-race women. She asserts that “luxury became cheap first because it was given over to the new rich, and second because it slowly became available to free men and women of color. But, most egregiously, luxury spun out of control when it became attached to slave ownership” (p. 45). Thus, slave ownership became part of the growing moral debate over luxury in France.

David Porter’s “A Wanton Chase in a Foreign Place: Hogarth and the Gendering of Exoticism in the Eighteenth-Century Interior” also deals with connections between Chinese taste and excessive luxury. Porter begins with a discussion of William Hogarth’s disparaging attitude toward Chinese style and Chinese goods in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) and demonstrates how Hogarth’s works and contemporary popular literature equated the taste for Chinese exoticism with female vanity. He asserts that while Hogarth believed in the power of aesthetic experience “unconstrained by classicist pieties,” he “rejected the Chinese taste as an alternative to classicism. . . . out of a sobering recognition that to grant the validity of the Chinese taste would be to legitimate a regime not only of female aesthetic self-determination, but also of the autonomy of female desire more generally conceived” (p. 59).

Section 2, “Diffusing Furniture, Fashion, Taste,” focuses on the role of individuals in the dissemination of taste and includes essays on a Parisian upholsterer, provincial New England globemakers and cabinetmakers, and Parisian courtesans.

Natacha Coquery explores the business of Mathurin Law, an upholsterer who plied his trade on the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, through the business records of the six years leading up to his bankruptcy in 1788. Coquery’s findings will be familiar to readers conversant with works on American craftsmen, in that she shows that Law served a wide clientele, from artisans to aristocrats, and that a large portion of his business was devoted to repairs and maintenance. Her contribution here is in demonstrating that Law disseminated fashion not just through the sale of lavish furnishings and textiles but also by renting furniture in the latest style to those who wanted to remain at the height of fashion. By providing stylish goods in a wide price range, he helped to disseminate the latest design ideas to a broad audience.

David Jaffee explores the careers of provincial New England artisans, most born in rural areas, who learned their crafts in coastal urban centers and then returned to the backcountry. His work is largely based on previous research; his contribution here is in showing how these urban-trained “cultural entrepreneurs” recognized the market for refinement among the rising village gentry. These urban-trained artisans responded by providing furniture that combined knowledge of the latest styles with the aesthetic preferences of their clients. Producers and consumers thus participated in “processes of integration and creolization” (p. 92).

In “Goddesses of Taste: Courtesans and Their Furniture in Late-Eighteenth-Century Paris” Kathryn Norberg transports us to pre-Revolutionary Paris at a time when the homes of the celebrated courtesans of Paris were the subject of broad curiosity and auctions of their belongings were attended by thousands of people who paid to tour the courtesan’s rooms in advance of a sale. Paris’s courtesans were all performers, most in the opera, and as such their activities were well known to the general public through the popular press, and their lavish homes and apartments were chronicled in period engravings. It is difficult not to think of today’s “MTV Cribs” as Norberg describes the critique of the excessive luxury of the courtesan’s furnishings by one segment of society, concurrent with the prurient adoration of their belongings by other segments of society. In the final analysis, Norberg does not really assert that the courtesans were trendsetters but notes that “it is still a measure of the development of fashion and luxury that models of elegance were found even on the fringes of society, among the marginal and the unpedigreed” (p. 110).

Although the title of section 3 is “Making Meaning in the Domestic Interior,” the real focus is on how style and goods unified the French elite and helped to create a French national identity. Using the logic of the essays earlier in the volume, this helped to focus the moral debate over luxury on the upper class and fueled the class conflict of the French Revolution.

Donna Bohann’s essay, entitled “Color Schemes and Decorative Tastes in the Noble Houses of Old Regime Dauphine,” begins with a description of the French style in the seventeenth century that was characterized by harmony and the extensive use of a single color or color scheme. Bohann finds that in the frontier province of Dauphine, noblemen followed the prevailing Parisian fashions. Dauphine was the scene of class conflict over taxation in the late seventeenth century that resulted in two classes of nobility. The old nobility remained exempt from taxation while those ennobled after 1602 were subject to taxation. As a result, Bohann suggests that “in Dauphine the world of goods might have been even more vital to the world of the nobility, as they struggled to define themselves in the eyes of their local community by other than traditional means” (p. 125). She concludes with the provocative suggestion that “perhaps the market was transforming Dauphinois elites into Frenchmen; perhaps the world of goods promoted a national identity” (p. 126).

This theme is echoed in “The Joy of Sets: The Uses of Seriality in the French Interior,” in which Mimi Helman explores the vogue for matched sets of furniture in eighteenth-century France. The uniformity of these sets, and of French interior decoration in general, created a national style in which “spaces designed according to a shared decorative vocabulary . . . were legible and comfortable to negotiate” (p. 147). She brings four perspectives to bear on the question of why repetition was so pronounced in mid-eighteenth-century France and sharply contrasts preindustrial and postindustrial attitudes toward matched sets. While today we see sets as the product of mechanized production, in the eighteenth century the task of creating sameness presented the artisan with a technical challenge. Similitude was costly to create, because any mistake could ruin the set. She suggests that the uniformity of the French style created familiar formulas that solidified the bonds between participants engaged in common social rituals. Her treatment here shows how important it is in material culture studies to look beyond our postindustrial views and understand objects and their production within their original contexts.

Mary Salzman’s “Decoration and Enlightened Spectatorship” focuses on the language of seduction as portrayed in two decorative paintings by Jean-François de Troy. Salzman explores the symbolism in the paintings that relates to proper social deportment and the rules of polite courtship in French society.

The essays in the fourth section, “Forms, Functions, Meanings,” each focus on single furniture forms. Ann Smart Martin examines the tea table in colonial America, Dena Goodman takes a close look at the eighteenth-century French secretaire, and Carolyn Sargentson examines the elaborate locking mechanisms on Parisian case furniture, using as her primary objects a secretaire made circa 1785–1790 and a jewel casket of circa 1775. These essays explore issues of how furniture can help us to understand how people defined themselves through the objects that they owned and how the introduction of new furniture forms—or mechanisms to make them more private—can help us to understand the underlying needs of a particular society.

Martin calls the tea table “the most culturally charged” furniture form in the English colonies. The tea table, she asserts, is a form full of paradoxes. Sturdy, yet sometimes able to be folded, it “signified wealth and breeding if owned by the right people” (p. 169), but if the wrong sort gained possession of it, the indulgence in the luxuries surrounding tea drinking—the acquisition of costly porcelain and the neglect of duty and work in favor of the seductions of teatime—could lead to dissipation and ruin. A symbol of gentility, the tea table was also appropriated in the colonies for political action. It was the first feminized object in America; women presided over the presentation of tea and the parties that it occasioned. “Throughout England and the colonies, the table’s meaning thus teeters depending on when and who and where” (p. 169). Martin’s essay explores all of these themes and raises provocative questions about the origins and function of the tea table in colonial society.

Dena Goodman notes that “the creation of the secretaire signaled a new authorial need for a personal surface on which to write, as private persons shifted from dictating their letters to a confidential secretary to penning them themselves” (p. 183). Dictionaries of the eighteenth century, she notes, demonstrate a fundamental transformation of the word “secretaire” as a name for someone whose job it was to write letters to the name for a specific piece of furniture. The other type of eighteenth-century writing furniture, the bureau, was a working desk that was reserved exclusively for men, while the secretaire was a personal desk used by both men and women. The bureau was open and flat and could accommodate both the owner and his clerk, whereas the secretaire was an intimate object, large enough for only one person, with concealed writing surfaces, drawers, and other storage spaces hidden inside the desk that could be locked. Gradually, the secretaire, an object for the leisure writer, became associated with women. “As the bureau was the mark of a man who had moved up in the world, owning a secretaire showed that a woman was both literate and leisured enough to engage in correspondence.” (p. 188). Goodman notes that the “secrecy of the secretaire was, at bottom, the secrecy of letter writing itself” (p. 194). The increase in the popularity of the secretaire was a sign of the desirability of privacy and the autonomy of the individual. The existence of locked drawers could unnerve a jealous husband, for instance, in a theme played out frequently in French literature.

The final essay in the volume and, to my mind, the best, is Carolyn Sargentson’s “Looking at Furniture Inside Out: Strategies of Secrecy and Security in Eighteenth-Century French Furniture.” Sargentson examines the tension inherent in the existence of locking furniture, largely by exploring in detail the ingenious and complex locking mechanisms found on a secretaire attributed to Guillaume Benneman of Paris and made circa 1785–1790 and a combined jewel casket, secretaire, and writing table made by Jean-Henri Riesener in Paris circa 1775. What I find most fascinating about this article is the close reading of the objects themselves, and how the questions Sargentson addresses are the questions that arise from her detailed examination of the furniture. Why did craftsmen expend so much energy, and patrons so much expense, on the creation of elaborate locking mechanisms—mechanisms that required an intimate knowledge of a specific piece of furniture and its hidden spaces? Sargentson discusses the dynamic and protective role of furniture in households “whose harmony appears to have been dependent on ideals of trust and confidentiality” between husband and wife, master and servant (p. 226). High-performance locks and mechanisms were “empowered actors in the drama and performance of safeguarding spaces and possessions . . . acting as guardians of protected spaces even when the house or key holder was absent” (p. 226). Sargentson notes that in some cases the release of these locks could produce so much force that persons unaware of their operation could be startled or even injured. Some pieces, once opened, could be closed only by their owners. The owner then could easily detect any violation of his or her secret space. She concludes that “[r]ather than these objects simply being part of a linear progression toward more specialized function in furniture, toward the design of smaller more mobile objects . . . and part of a development of writing furniture forms in general . . . they must also be read as having had the potential to be active players on the domestic stage” (pp. 232–33).

Here, in fact, is the conclusion of all the articles in this volume: furniture matters, because furniture helps us to order our lives. These thought-provoking essays will, one hopes, inspire more scholarship in this vein. The best works, those like Sargentson’s, not only explore references in literature and painting to furniture as a social agent but involve detailed examination of the physical attributes and ingenious construction of eighteenth-century furniture forms. When these studies are the result of the work of scholars with a thorough knowledge of the objects, they can help us to ask questions—the questions that the objects themselves present—that will allow furniture to tell us even more about societies of the past.

Barbara McLean Ward
Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden
Tufts University

American Furniture 2008