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Common Sense Antiques

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The Antique Detective: Horn Furniture






The multiple boards used in the drop front of this maple desk are a clue to its 20th century origin. The fitted interior is nicely done. The real clue is the label with the modern name of "Townshend", not the Colonial cabinetmaker name of "Townsend".











News Article







As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, April 2007

Q. Do you have any information on a cabinetmaker from Vermont named Townsend? I have a desk that came from a house in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) that was built in the 1700's and I want to confirm that the desk is also from that period. The desk has a paper label with the name in a drawer. Thanks.

A. I immediately jumped on this one since the name "Townsend" is a very famous one in American furniture history. The Townsend family consisted of two brothers Christopher (1701-1773) and Job (1699-1765) and their sons John (1732-1809) and Edmund (1736-1811) respectively. The family worked in and around Easton's Point, Newport, RI from the 1730's to Edmund's death in 1811. Their work is featured in many important reference books about American furniture including the newly issued version of the Winterthur Book "American Furniture, Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles", Joseph Downs, Schiffer Books. More biographical information on the Townsends is available in "American Cabinetmakers - Marked American Furniture 1640-1940" by the renowned William C. Ketchum, Crown Publishers.

      However I could find no reference to the Townsends or any other 18th century cabinetmaker named Townsend working in Vermont. After I received pictures of the desk I realized that he and I both were chasing the wrong Townsend. The label in the drawer reads "Townshend" with an "h", not Townsend. That opened up a whole new area of exploration since there is a town in Vermont named "Townshend" that was founded in the 1700's.

      The history of Townshend, Vermont began in 1753 with a charter from King George II and is an interesting tale but not for here. While researching Townshend, Vermont I came across a reference to Townshend Furniture Company. A little further digging turned up an address and phone number for the company and within a few minutes I was talking to Steve Lott who, along with his wife Susie, currently owns Townshend Furniture Company on RT 30 in Townshend, Vermont.

      Steve told me the company was founded after World War II by a veteran who had an interest in mostly maple Colonial Revival furniture which was produced by the company until the 1960's when it was purchased by Steve's family. Steve confirmed that the paper label found in the drawer of the drop front desk was indeed from his company and was used by his predecessor in the 1950's and 1960's but is no longer in use.

      That pretty well puts a definite date on this particular piece. There are other clues such as the multiple board construction of the drop front lid that indicate 20th century construction as well as the machine made dovetail joints in the drawers (not shown) but it was not necessary to delve further into the piece to confirm its relatively recent vintage.

      However, that doesn't mean the desk is not a fine piece of furniture. It is a very useful form, well made from solid maple in traditional styling. It will be around for all long time and should become a family keepsake. 

Q. While searching for information concerning the origin of the terms used for dovetail joinery I came across an article you had written mentioning the "Knapp" joint. Indeed we have a piece of Eastlake furniture that incorporates the Knapp joinery in the drawer construction. I didn't know that name previously.

      I wonder if you might know the origin of the term "pin" as used in the dovetail joint. Does it come from the avian source "pinna" or "pinion", to denote a section of a bird's wing and would match the ornithological designation of the tail? Or does the term "pin" come from the Old English word "preen", which became "pin" or "peg" around the 14th century and in one meaning can be an article used as a fastener?

      This interest stems from a woodworking class I am taking on joinery and the teacher challenged us on finding this answer since he has been unable to himself. Perhaps you can direct me to a proper reference source and I will continue my pursuit. Thanks for your time.

A. That's a stimulating question that has not been asked of me before. I know of no direct reference to this particular subject in any of the literature. (The writer is referring to the parts of a dovetail joint that provide the interlocking effect that makes it such a good joint for a drawer. The "tails" are the protruding sections of the drawer side and the "pins" are the opposite protrusions on the drawer front.)

      While I can't find a direct reference I do (naturally) have an opinion. I believe the reference is to neither of the ones suggested, avian as in wing or Old English as in fastener or peg. I prefer to believe that it refers to the Old French term "pignon" meaning battlement, derived from Latin meaning pinnacle. Pignon (the modern term is pinion) today refers to interlocking gears as in a cogwheel which a battlement very much resembles - as does a dovetail joint.

      But that's just my opinion. I would love to hear anything further on this subject from anyone who has an idea or a fact.

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