From the remotest periods of antiquity down to the present time, wood has been largely employed in the manufacture of all the principal articles of furniture. In this particular but little change has taken place within the memory of man, and even the lapse of centuries has effected comparatively few modifications.
In the course of a series of articles on “Gains and Losses in the Use of Wood,” that appear in the Timber Trades Journal, the writer, touching upon the use of wood for furniture, says that glass has been introduced in the panels of certain furniture, to the displacement of wood, and a light and elegant character of design has taken the place of the old heavy-wooded fittings, which, of course, has somewhat interfered with the bulk of wood used in the manufacture of a given quantity of furniture. This is at best but a minor loss, and, had it not been for a solitary loss of some moment, we need not have singled out the detail of furniture for notice.
We here allude to the discontinuance of the use of wood in the important item of bedsteads. This article in the old days of “four-posters,” capped with heavy cornices, and furnished with head-boards, foot-boards, and lathed bottoms, was a host of timber in itself. These gave way to the more elegant half-headed bedsteads, with their circular cornices, a style that existed to the end of the long career of wooden bedsteads. Practically speaking, this style of furniture has been swept away, and its place has been occupied by brass and iron.
This trade of metal bedsteads, concentrated as it is in and about Birmingham, finds employment for hundreds of men, and the works have assumed the proportions of large factories and foundries. The old wooden bedstead makers, with their great stocks of American birch, scantlings, their great posts of mahogany, their busy lathes, and their veneer and polishing shops, have all disappeared, and the annual loss on this head in the consumption of wood, a change that has occurred during the last twenty years, is enormous.
We have dealt with this note as if wooden bedsteads had ceased to be made; but this is not the case, as there is still a shadow of the business pursued in reverence, so to speak, of old customs, which are hard to die.
Our next note is that relating to Machinery. At first glance the question naturally presents itself, “What has this subject to do with wood?” Our answer is, follow our notes, and it will be found that, if not to-day, in old times it was almost exclusively associated therewith.
The earliest forms of machinery were water and wind mills, water and wind being the only motive powers known to our ancestors. These mills, with few exceptions, were used for the grinding of corn, and the machinery, with faint exceptions, was constructed of wood; the making and repairing of the same were in the hands of very ancient craftsmen, “millwrights,” a class, as the name bespeaks, who operated in wood, for the title “wright” referred to wood only, as that of “smith” referred exclusively to iron.
Entering an old water-mill we should find the great shaft of oak—the word “shaft” again implying a bar of wood, as the “shaft” of an arrow, the “shaft ” of a rake, hoe, spade, or hammer; this was borne in a socket of hardwood, and plated on the wearing parts with iron, a system reflected in the wheels of common carts.
The waterwheels were of wood, so were the great and small spur or cog wheels, which conveyed the motion to the various parts of the mill. The buildings themselves, from the treacherous character of the ground at the mouth of the mill dams, were largely of wood, stone or brick being indulged in only in the case of their belonging to some wealthy abbey.
Windmills, as we know to-day, were largely built of wood, the machinery of the same being identical with that already described. The millwright was an important man in the land, for every lordship had its water or wind mills, the latter being the form adopted where water, as in level or lowland districts, could not be obtained with a suitable fall for giving motive power.
This rude and primitive machinery served every purpose of our ancestors down to the middle of the last century, when the founding of large objects in iron became the order of the day. This was brought to the fore by the application of motive power to certain trades, notably to that of spinning cotton, when Sir Richard Arkwright, that marvellous man who made a fortune of seven millions of money out of a manufacturing trade, rode over the country buying up sites for water-mills; on these, great mills of brick and stone were erected, and fitted up with powerful water engines largely constructed of iron.
It is but a step from this to the period of Watt and the steam-engine, when wood as a factor in machinery was altogether discarded. Such is the arbitrary manner in which iron occupies the field of machinery to-day, that the bare mention of wood in connection therewith is like turning to a long-forgotten page of history; it is a fact, nevertheless, that wood under the heading we are now reviewing, has lost in point of consumption to an enormous extent.
Under the same heading we have a lighter class of machinery, which in old times was largely constructed of wood: we allude to that of spinning and weaving, or, taking a wider sense, that associated with the manufacture of textile fabrics. Time carries us back to the day when our grandmothers and their daughters, or spinsters, occupied the intervals of household labour with spinning, the spinning-wheels, as we know, being wholly of wood.
Contemporary with these by no means distant days, the weaver, with his wooden frame or machine, was to be found in every village. The writer’s grandmother spun the linen for her wedding sheets, and these were woven to her order in a quiet little Lincolnshire town; as the work of her hands they were treasured through her married life, their last office being that of her shroud.
The part played by wood in this old machinery is depicted by Hogarth in the illustrations of the “Idle Apprentice,” where the details of an old weaving machinery are faithfully given. The same part played by wood is traceable in the old hosiery frames, one branch of which has developed into the modern lace-machine, as it is traceable in the printer’s and hosts of other trades, the record of whose movements is that of discarding the use of wood until, as in the present hour, it is a material unknown and forgotten.
The old millwrights, with their saws and planes, have passed away, and the great family of smiths, with their files and hammers, have usurped, their place, at, we may venture to say, the expense of wood.
With the modern development of woodworking machinery, wood played an active part; the early deal frames, circular saws, and timber frames being of this material in their heavy parts. The same was the case with mortising, tenoning, and moulding machines. It is but as yesterday that all this came to an end in England—a change that utterly extinguished a promised revival of the old craft of the millwright.
On the Continent, and more especially in America, where the disparity in the cost of wood and iron is greater than in England, wood still plays a part; but we are of opinion that it is only the work of a little time to change the present order of things in favour of iron.
The Furniture Gazette (London) – Sept. 25, 1880