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Help translating old ‘furniturese’

The interior of an 18th century desk (top) shows how valanced pigeonholes can be used to conceal an unsuspected drawer (bottom).


CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – In my line of work I spend a lot of quality time with my second favorite nonhuman companion, my computer. (My favorite, of course, is the Harley.) I am on pretty good terms with my computer, but occasionally one of us needs an attitude adjustment and that’s when I call on my friend Bob, who is a computer tech.

Bob is from Illinois and served his country in the Armed Forces so he is a regular guy, but somewhere along the line Bob forgot how to speak English. I can spend two hours with him and not understand anything he said except “Hello,” “Good-bye” and “$75.” The rest of the conversation has to do with “gigasomethings” and “megawhats” and “pixies,” or is it pixels? I’m not sure.

Sometimes when I read about antique furniture in the contemporary press I feel like I am talking to Bob, or at least to one of Bob’s close relatives. I know that every field of endeavor has its specialized language and knowing that language is part of the entry fee into the trade. However, every once in a while it seems that some auction reporter or some advertiser goes out of his/her way to use the most obscure terminology possible in an effort, I assume, to impress us with their knowledge of the subject and the language. To some small degree I am guilty of the same thing as is gently pointed out to me occasionally by an editor. But my transgressions are small in keeping with my vocabulary.

In an effort to expand my vocabulary I study things like auction catalogs and trade magazines, and here are a few of my recent finds with an explanation of the trade lingo.

The description of an 18th-century breakfast table in a recent auction catalog included “a scalloped anthemion carved apron.” I know what an apron is. I know what scalloped means but I was pretty sure “anthemion” is not what they sing before soccer matches in Greece. Turns out it means flat floral forms in a radiating cluster. The pierce-carved apron didn’t look like that, but that’s what they called it.

Then there was the tilt-top tea table “on a birdcage support raised on an open foliate carved standard with a tripodal base.” The birdcage refers to that open space with four small columns under the top surface that allows the top to swivel and tilt. “Standard” in this case means the center support. “Open” means it not a solid column but is composed of separate pieces and “foliate” means it has leaves on it. “Tripodal” means it has three legs.

A second tilt-top table had “the vasiform pedestal mounted to three outstretched legs.” In other words the vase-shaped standard was on a tripodal base – I guess. Another piece had “acanthus leaf carving set on a punched ground.” The acanthus part refers to a plant that grows only in Asia Minor and was the basis of virtually all foliage ornament in classic Greek and Roman decoration. It is doubtful that any Western European or American carver ever saw one. “Punched ground” does not refer to oil drilling. It is a form of decoration used to ornament otherwise plain flat surfaces. The surface is thoroughly and uniformly pitted in random patterns with a metal punch tool to create a textured surface. It is often used in the background around carved areas.


The late 18th-century mahogany bookcase secretary in the description.


In contrast to such gratuitous obfuscation is the use of appropriate trade terminology to economically and accurately describe an article. One of my favorites was an advertisement for the 18th century bookcase secretary pictured nearby. It was a classic piece of American Atlantic seaboard work and the seller used all the magic words in describing it. Here are a few sections of the description. See if you can follow it by looking at the picture.

  • “In three parts:” – This phrase immediately points out that this is an old piece. With an assembled height of around 9 feet, not only would it have trouble fitting in most modern houses but transportation would also be a significant problem. In the 18th century there were no high cube trucks with lift gates to move a piece like this and there were no elevators. Since large pieces had to be carried by hand and had to fit in a wagon for transportation across town or across the country, modular construction of larger pieces was almost a requirement. Twentieth-century secretaries, particularly Colonial Revival examples, while of a generally smaller scale, seldom consist of separate components and then only in two sections. The three parts in this case are the crown, which extends to the top of the doors, the bookcase unit and the slant front desk in the top section of the case containing the lower drawers.
  • “The upper section with swan’s neck dentiled molded pediment:” That sounds pretty serious and it is – but in a good way. The key word here is “pediment.” This is an architectural term that originally represented the triangular top that rises above a portico or gable. It easily made the transition as a furniture element in Italian furniture of the 16th century, moving to France in the 17th century and becoming very English late in the 17th century and early into the 18th. In furniture applications the pediment is employed above doors or drawers in both the classical triangular form and in rounded form, as is the case here. The “swan’s-neck” portion refers to the flat “S” or cyma curves of the two rising pieces of the crown. Classical triangular pediments meet in the center in an obtuse point. More baroque pediments, such as this one, leave an opening in the middle and are called “broken” pediments. “Dentiled molded” describes the block-like decorative carving on the underside of the pediment arches. This type of molding, another classical element from Greek architecture, is called “dentil” because of its resemblance to projecting, widely spaced teeth, even though the spelling is different. Dentil molding on an arc such as this is rare because of the difficulty of executing a square block on a curved surface.


Detail of the top section with broken pediment, phoenix finial, pierced lattice work, dentil molding and blind fret carving.


  • “With pierced lattice work:” – Pierced lattice work is the net-like artifact in a carved, cutout crisscross pattern that appears to be draped from the pediment arches to the base of the central figure. Pierced lattice is often associated with, but not limited to, works from the New England area in the late 18th century.
  • “And surmounted by a magnificent carved phoenix ornament:” – The carved figure, the phoenix, is a mythical bird that lives for 500 years and then rises, regenerated, from the ashes of its funeral pyre. Unusually airy, asymmetrical carvings, classical busts and cartouches rather than the standard urn, flame or spiral finials were items often found in high quality works such as this.
  • “Over a dentiled molded continuous horizontal cornice:” – The cornice is the horizontal molding at the top of a piece of furniture. In this case the lines of the cornice are uninterrupted from corner to corner and it has another decorative application of dentil molding, this time done in a straight line, the classical application, rather than on a curve as in the pediment.
  • “Blind fret-carved frieze:” – The frieze is the narrow, vertical flat panel below the cornice and above the doors. In classical architecture this is the surface most highly decorated with ornamentation, painting, sculpture or inlay. Here it is decorated with low relief geometrical carvings resembling flat fretwork, interlaced ornamental designs, recalling the theme of the pierced lattice work in the pediment above it.
  • “With eight valanced pigeonholes:” – Letter slots or openings in the fitted interior portion of a desk are traditionally called pigeonholes. The wood forming the shaped top of the pigeonholes is cut to resemble fabric, which is called a valance when draped over the tester of a four-poster bed. These wood valances over the pigeonholes were not just decorative; sometimes they were used to conceal small secret drawers suspended in the top of the pigeonholes.
  • “Centering a prospect door above six short drawers:” – The small interior locking door is called a “prospect” door. The mention of the six interior drawers, four narrow and two wide, with specific reference to their length, may be another clue to the existence of other concealed drawers behind the visible six.
  • “With two valanced pigeonholes above one drawer within prospect door.” – This is a busy piece, with another fitted interior space within the original fitted interior.

Of course, this is not the complete description but in just over 100 words the writer managed to accurately and concisely convey most of the important stylistic and construction details of the piece. Such economy of words is to be admired. Now that is what the language of the trade is supposed to do.



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