Great Furniture of the Old West

By Robert Reed
 It was not just one style or one element that contributed to the great furniture of the Old West.
The distinctive nature of Old West furnishings came from such far reaching sources as the historic Spanish Colonials and Native Americans to the Eastern elite and progressive creators of Arts and Crafts.
 It was a grouping of many such principles to form, when combined, a rather unique and attractive vogue.
 “The raw data of the western ranch vernacular has been reworked, edited, abstracted, compressed and turned into a flexible architectural vocabulary,” notes “Rancho Deluxe” author Alan Hess.
 “The cowboy style is not simply a historical re-creation, it is a great work of the imagination.”
Some of the very earliest furniture of the Old West was, of course, very basic. Many settlers from the early 17th century represented frugal lifestyles of the Iberian Peninsula, which bordered both Spain and Portugal. Small settlements in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas saw the most fundamental of furnishings of chairs, chests and tables. Typically whatever wood could be found in the region was put to use.
 Chests, for example, were soundly made but not elaborate. It was not unusual for settlers to simply mount six boards together with the use of pegs and dovetail joints to construct a chest. Sometimes the chests were decorated with carvings or paintings of animals, birds, plants or simple geometric designs.
 Such chests were found in most of the households of 18th century western regions, even when other surroundings were considered meager. In 1776, priest Fray Francisco Dominguez wrote in “The Missions of New Mexico” that in the interior of Indian homes “they usually have…some kind of chest, either plain or painted.”
 Throughout the 18th century and into the early 19th century the furniture of the Old West reflected the culture of previous centuries. Some was imported from foreign lands, but much was crafted from native woods using methods from distant generations. Primitive chairs used splats or spindles to link the stretchers and rails much has they had the century before.
 By the second half of the 19th century an alternative clearly loomed for furnishing fashion homes of the Old West. Thanks to industrial expansion in the East and Midwest, Westerners also had the choice of ordering the latest furniture direct from the factory.
 Suddenly, with the completion of the coast-to-coast railroad, furniture manufacturers in 1870s locations like Grand Rapids, Mich., had clients in the Golden West.
 Initially “a handful of wealthy Californians, at great expense, commissioned prestigious New York decorators to outfit their mansions,” observe Brad and Brian Witherell, authors of the comprehensive “California’s Best: Old West Art and Antiques.” “An opulence was created there that would continue throughout the 19th century.”
 At one point in the latter 19th century leading furniture makers were manufacturing pieces especially for the growing market in California and other parts of the Old West. Major makers included Berkey and Gay, Phoenix Furniture Company, and the legendary Herter Brothers. Many California firms established themselves as master agents for quality Eastern-manufactured furniture before developing their own regional operations.
 In 1874 a San Francisco newspaper reported on the lavish decorating of the mansion of Milton Latham. According to the account the library alone was “furnished with classic severity, but with perfect taste including a gilt rosewood table.” The table and a number of other lovely marquetry items were directly from Herter Brothers.
 Gradually furniture makers in the West were able to produce their own wares. The more successful went from merely stenciling their “local” name on prize pieces, to manufacturing their own.
By the latter 1880s a statewide California directory noted that there were 18 furniture manufacturing establishments in San Francisco alone. It added that furniture from that city was “sold all over the Pacific slope and for novelty of design, perfect finish, durability and cheapness, cannot be excelled.”
As the 19th century neared a close on the West Coast some serious California furniture makers had stepped to the forefront including J.P. Goodwin and Company, J.B. Luschinger, W.J.T. Palmer and Company and Charles Plum and Company.
 If the time and price were right that fall, front desk, marble dresser, or roomy bookcase could be produced right in the Old West itself.
 But furniture of the Old West remained in touch with nature, too. Among other things there was the often elaborate use of steer horns and antlers. Primarily they were used on chairs and couches, but at times they were added as ornamentation to tables, sideboards and other pieces as well. Most better homes had at least one or two antler chairs on display from the 1890s into the early 20th century.
Historians attribute the use of horns and antlers in part to the German immigrants who drew on designs once popular in Europe to craft regional pieces. One significant contributor was Wenzel Freidrick of Texas who used the abundant supply of such items to supplement his furniture making. Among the notable pieces was a hall tree with 32 individual steer horns. Freidrick was in the company of those who also used cowhide and goatskin to upholster hand-made furniture.
And yet even in the early 1900s, with options ranging from antlers to mahogany, furniture of the Old West was not clearly identified.
 “An unmistakable Western style in furnishing was slow to develop, at least in part because most settlers in the frontier West hoped to recreate the comforts they had left behind,” note documents in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. “By the turn of the century a Wyoming ranch house was likely to be furnished with Mission Oak furniture. It was sturdy and stylish and available by catalog from Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck.”
 By the same token homes might also feature locally crafted twig or rough pine furniture as well. More and more frequently seen were leather-covered cushions on chairs and couches, and more and more colorful Navajo rugs were being hung on walls rather than left of floors.
 In the stylish homes of the Old West occasionally could be found glass-fronted cabinets and other pieces which clearly reflected the Arts and Crafts style which had swept the eastern half of the United States. The distinctly Eastern taste of dark wood, sometimes starkly mixed with lighter natural woods, also began to present.
 Wood finish soon became a major part of the appeal of a new line of western-based furniture manufacturing, which began in 1929. In California furniture retailer Barker Brothers contacted the Mason Manufacturing Company and expressed an interest in a line of Spanish-styled furniture. Mason moved to produce a line, which they called Monterey.
 Monterey furniture with its “old wood” finish, ornate wrought iron and floral designs was a major success in the 1930s. In 1932 a Barker Brothers catalog boasted “the charm and versatility of Monterey furniture definitely belongs in California homes.” And from corner cupboards to club chairs it certainly seemed to for more than an entire decade.
 A number of other firms also followed the remarkable style form soon afterwards with regional-sounding names like Coronado, Del Rey and Imperial. Even Sears and Roebuck had a “follow line” known as La Fiesta.
 And finally there was the extraordinary work of Thomas Canada Molesworth in Cody, Wyo.
Operating as the Shoshone Furniture Company, Molesworth took the use of antlers to an art form.  Likewise he blended the use of natural woods to further advance the Arts and Crafts movement. Gnarled pine burls and leather cushions joined the antler decorations in unique chairs. Carved animal figures adorned the beds while fiber-rush twigs dominated tables.
 Whole rooms fell under the Molesworth influence from simple bark-covered work tables to custom-loomed carpet inserts.
 “Each room was a landscape,” remark Wally Reber and Paul Fees in the study “Interior West, The Craft and Style of Thomas Moles-worth.” “A unity of art and furnishings… that all worked together to enhance the Western experience of their owners and guests.”
 Molesworth, Monterey, rustic, Spanish influence, Native American, natural wood, and even Grand Rapids all served somehow to be part of the eclectic yet romantic great furniture of the Old West.

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