Published: May 17, 2011
For much of its history, the exotic gumbo that is New Orleans has dominated the popular perception of the duly-named “Big Easy” and much of Louisiana. The vernacular has often been obscured by the lusty and ornate in most aspects of the culture, including furniture and architecture.
Now a big, lusty study of the furniture of Louisiana has been published, and in an exhaustive analysis of the furniture, its makers and owners and its influences, that mythology is dispelled.
Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735‱835 , published by the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), is a meticulous and highly detailed document of the furniture of early Louisiana. The project entailed nearly 40 years of research by scholars, and objects are drawn from 80 private and 40 public collections. In the course of their research, scholars examined thousands of objects in Louisiana and up and down the length of the Mississippi River valley and as far east as the Carolinas, identifying the makers and techniques, the owners and influences. The subject matter is huge; its ordering is masterful.
The genesis of early Louisiana furniture relates largely to the political landscape. The earliest settlement in Louisiana was a French trading post at Natchitoches on the Red River, established for trade with the Spanish in 1714; New Orleans was not founded until 1718 by French explorers, trappers and traders.
Louisiana was ceded to Spain after the French and Indian War, and Britain gained control of Florida, which stretched to the east bank of the Mississippi. At the same time, the Acadians were driven from Nova Scotia by the English after the Seven Years War; some returned to France, while many others migrated to Louisiana at the invitation of the Spanish, who wanted to forestall any further incursion by the British. The English were a presence, as were Belgians, Germans, Africans and St Dominguans.
New Orleans was a stopping point on the triangle trade between England and Europe, the west coast of Africa, and finally Havana and St Domingue. The immigrant influx was exotic, assimilation prevailed and the social system that resulted was relatively fluid. Each group brought with it its own traditions and culture, styles and techniques and social and culinary practices. Although the catalog has a convenient glossary, it is a good idea to keep a French dictionary handy.
Furniture of two distinct periods and styles are examined: Louisiana colonial, based on French, French Canadian and French Caribbean examples, and Louisiana Creole, a mixture of American Federal and neoclassical French styles, described as a blend of sophisticated French with frontier reality. Acadian encompasses the relatively simple early and rural forms brought to Louisiana from the French Canadian maritime provinces by émigrés. The term retardataire is used throughout the catalog to describe the use of earlier techniques and styles in a later time, based on later settlement and some insularity.
Early in the colony, furniture was made most likely by carpenter-joiners; outside the urban areas, many householders made their own furniture. Furniture and household articles were also made on plantations. Techniques varied from group to group, but one common element, due to the climate, was the inclusion of a batten or other device to retard warping. The climate, in the way of heat, humidity and hurricanes, along with wear and tear and devastating fires, compromised the survival of much Louisiana furniture.
In Louisiana and throughout the French colonies, the armoire was the most significant piece of furniture. It appeared in Louisiana as early as the 1720s, made with the French models in mind, according to the catalog, because the makers were born or trained in France or had emigrated from French settlements in Canada or the West Indies. Furnishing Louisiana examines 117 armoires and groups them according to style and maker.
The construction of the oldest example, a colonial walnut armoire found in Natchitoches, attests to its mid-Eighteenth Century genesis with 16 fielded panels with stepped edges, side panels, straight legs, arched doors and bolection moldings. The interior houses three shelves and a belt of two drawers. The grain of the central panels is horizontal, while it is vertical on the upper and lower panels. Its exceptional size, 100 by 63 by 25¾ inches, suggests use in a public building or church.
Slightly later, 1770‱790, a colonial cypress example made with 12 recessed panels, straight rectangular legs and interior shelves indicates its rural origins. It retains traces of the original sky blue paint and is said to have always been at Magnolia Plantation in Natchitoches Parish and was probably made there.
Creole armoires are characterized by recessed panels, and the examples cited were made by craftsmen who were one generation or more removed from immigration and whose creations reflect their assimilation. Those armoires made between 1790 and 1815 were given cabriole legs; legs were turned in the Federal manner after 1815. The chosen woods were cherry, walnut or mahogany, with cypress as secondary. Creole armoires, because they are later and more information is available, are able to be grouped by maker(s).
Seven examples are attributed to Celestin Glapion, who was born into slavery in 1784 and manumitted in early childhood. Free men of color (gens de couleur libres) like Glapion were rich and poor, educated and uneducated, slave owners and former slaves. It is not clear how or where he trained. His armoires are distinctive for their form rather than their decoration, made with single panel doors with deeply mitered joints and swagged skirts.
A Creole armoire in the Federal manner with plum mahogany recessed panels with stop fluting and set off with oblique graining and stop fluting on the stile on reeded, baluster legs and brass feet on a wood ball dates to 1820‱835. It came from the Laurel Hill Plantation, but was destroyed in a fire in 2004. A very similar example with silvered brass pulls was given one of the salvaged feet from the Laurel Hill example.
The Louisiana Purchase affected the immigration of skilled Anglo American craftsmen, who introduced finished interiors, butterfly joints and inlay.
A group of Creole armoires is attributed to the Butterfly Man, so named for his introduction of the double dovetail or Dutchman technique to Louisiana. Butterfly group armoires have single-panel doors flush with their frames; their skirts are scalloped and spurred. When inlay is present, it is complex. One mahogany example is in French rococo form with bookmatched door panels, notched cabriole legs, Anglo American inlay and West Indian-influenced flush panels. The owner’s initials are inlaid in the frieze and emphasized with a tasseled jabot. There is also barber pole inlay and inlaid vines emanating from vases.
Acadian armoires are an entirely different kettle of fish. Made with vertical panels, usually of softwood, such as cypress, they were small and functional, generally painted, but with little or no decoration. Joints were straight, not mitered; legs were straight and tall. One small cypress example, circa 1790‱820, has bec de corbin molding, a single board cornice and brun d’Espagnol paint.
A section given over to lagniappe includes the one-off pieces, such as a Creole walnut single-door armoire with deep skirts, a high-style Creole cypress example on four-way tapered legs that retains the watermarks of a 1927 flood and a vernacular white pine armoire with unusual grain paint.
As case furniture is required for storage and safekeeping in any household, tables, chairs and beds are also essential. The earliest examples of Louisiana tables known to date are three walnut refectory tables from the 1734 Ursuline convent in New Orleans made between 1734 and 1753.
Each has a mortise and tenon construction with H stretchers and square chamfered legs. Two have detachable tops, one of which is a single board nearly 130 inches long and 24 inches wide, and the other comprises two thick planks measuring 143½ by 24 inches. Six trough drawers on each table appear to have been added when the bishop took possession of the convent. The third example is smaller, 128 inches in length, and later, 1750‱824
A pied de biche example, circa 1750‹0, in walnut has two tongue and groove boards on the top, a skirt decorated on all sides, cloven hoof feet and extended knees. Like many pieces of Louisiana furniture, the table was made with a batten to prevent warp.
Slat back chairs were a Louisiana mainstay, and the rush or corn husk seats of early Creole examples were usually lower and wider than those on East Coast examples. An early Acadian example that was probably made of mixed hardwoods by an amateur using hand tools suggests Canadian influences. The back stiles have been whittled to effect a backward cant.
Campeche chairs were highly popular in Louisiana and throughout the South. They were usually imports from Mexico and Spain, although some were reproduced in Louisiana.
Few upholstered examples have endured because of the hazards of the hot and humid climate. One exception is a colonial upholstered chair of red bay and beech that is the sole surviving example of the form and the oldest in the Lower Valley catalog. Its elements and construction suggest that it was most likely made by an émigré French cabinetmaker.
A major loan exhibition, “Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735‱835,” is planned for early 2012.
The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum and research center for the study and preservation and publication of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South area. It was established in 1966 by collectors General and Mrs L. Kemper Williams to keep their collection intact and available. Today, it comprises seven historic buildings, including the Williams residence, on Royal Street in New Orleans. The Williams Research Center of HNOC is located in a former court house and police station a few blocks away.
Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735‱835 by Jack D. Holden, H. Parrott Bacot and Cybele T. Gontar, with Brian J. Costello and Francis Puig, is published by the Historic New Orleans Collection and is available from HNOC and major booksellers for $95.
Historic New Orleans is at 533 Royal Street. For information, www.hnoc.org or 504-523-4662.
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