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Published January 21, 2011, 12:00 AM

Kovels Antiques: Role of comfort in furniture has seen changes

Before the 1850s, few chairs were made for comfort. Seventeenth and early 18th-century American chairs were designed with hard seats and straight backs, and few had arms. No slouching allowed. People were expected to sit up straight.

By: Terry Kovel, INFORUM

Before the 1850s, few chairs were made for comfort. Seventeenth and early 18th-century American chairs were designed with hard seats and straight backs, and few had arms. No slouching allowed. People were expected to sit up straight.

Since most people worked during the day and went to bed when it was dark (there was no electricity), chairs were used for short periods of time when friends visited or the family sat for dinner. Jobs like bookkeeping or sewing were among the few that required the use of chairs for longer periods of time.

By the end of the 18th century, chairs had padded seats, curved backs and arms. Some were large upholstered wing chairs made for comfort and to protect the sitter from cold drafts. Sometimes an event influenced chair shapes.

Egyptian Revival chairs were created to celebrate Napoleon’s victories in Egypt. The chairs had winged arms and their backs were carved with Egyptian symbols like a bird’s beak that poked the sitter.

Early Victorian designers preferred hard upholstered seats and arms for sofas and large chairs, but their chairs were curved for seating comfort. By about 1850, coil springs were invented and used with stuffing in seats. Comfort became even more important.

The 20th century saw the introduction of good artificial lighting and the invention of games, radio, television and other entertainment that required seated players, listeners or viewers. So designers stressed soft cushions, padded arms and comfort. But some designers wanted a different look for furniture, and once again comfort suffered. “High-style” included chairs in strange shapes made with hard materials like laminated wood, metal or plastic.

Q: An old friend of my mother’s gave me a jardiniere and pedestal marked “1903 Avon” and “F.H. 1011.” Can you tell me who made it?

A: Avon Works was founded in Tiltonsville, Ohio, in about 1880. It became Avon Faience Co. in 1902 and a department of Wheeling Potteries Co. of Wheeling, W.Va., in January 1903. “F.H.” refers to Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942). He was born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1902. He made art pottery for Avon in 1903. Rhead left in 1904 to become art director of Roseville Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio.

Q: I have an all-black cameo pin that, according to my family, belonged to my great-great-great grandmother in the 1870s. It looks almost as if it were made from coal. Someone told me it was “mourning jewelry” worn by a widow for at least a year after her husband’s death. How much of this information is true?

A: Queen Victoria of England went into deep mourning when her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. She wore black clothes and jewelry for the rest of her life. Fashionable women dressed in black, too. Black cameos were made from jet, vulcanite, bog oak or onyx, and it is difficult to tell them apart.

Jet jewelry is considered the best quality. Jet is fossilized wood, a form of coal that is naturally black and can be carved. Vulcanite is a manmade type of rubber. It is lightweight and molded, not carved. The color is a dark brown-black and will turn more brown if exposed to sunlight for a long time. Bog oak is fossilized wood found in bogs. It is hard and black or dark brown, but not as shiny as jet when polished. All of these are lightweight and warm to the touch. Black onyx is a form of quartz. It’s heavy and cool to the touch. It polishes to a very shiny finish. Most is color-enhanced – dyed black so the color is even. It also is used for quality jewelry.

Q: Many sellers on eBay have said that Japanese buyers are paying high prices for Fire-King glassware and buying a lot of it. Some say they think the Japanese are buying it to make copies that will hurt Fire-King’s values and collectability. Or are Japanese collectors into 1950s kitchen decor?

A: Japanese buyers seem to like the simple glass designs of the 1950s as much as American collectors do. The value of the dollar versus the yen makes American eBay items inexpensive at times in Japan. Of course, shipping must add a lot to the cost. But the reproductions you should worry about are those that have been made in Brazil since 2000.


Milk glass will yellow with repeated washings in a dishwasher.

For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s website,

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