May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
The airy elegance of the late Victorian wicker dressing stand opposite, made by the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company of Gardner, Massachusetts, exemplifies American wicker design at its best—exotic and imaginative while still remaining functional. This mirrored table brings together many of the stylistic techniques that ultimately endeared wicker to the general public: graceful cabriole legs, plied-reed detail weaving, intricate beadwork, and a profusion of the coiled tendril-like embellishments known as curlicues. One of the few forms of furniture developed in this country that did not rely heavily on existing European or Oriental designs, antique handmade wicker has enjoyed a nationwide renaissance over the past twenty years.
The lingering confusion about the origin of factory-made wicker furniture stems from the fact that the principal materials used in its manufacture—reed and cane—come from the rattan palm, which grows wild in the Far East. However, the wicker industry was born on American soil. It was on Boston’s waterfront in 1844 that a young grocer named Cyrus Wakefield observed a huge quantity of rattan being discarded on the docks after having served as dunnage aboard a clipper ship returning from the Orient. Wakefield examined one of the long flexible poles and decided that furniture could be made from this strange material. During the next few years he began constructing crude chairs and tables.
Before long he was importing whole rattan from China and using the glossy outer skin, or cane, to wrap his hardwood frames and to make chair seats. As he built up a business, Wakefield used not only the cane but the reed—the inner pith of rattan, which until that time had always been treated as waste. In the mid-1850s he and his family moved to South Reading, Massachusetts, where he established the Wakefield Rattan Company, the acknowledged granddaddy of the wicker industry (it is some indication of his success that South Reading was later renamed Wakefield in his honor).
By 1879 Wakefield was running advertisements claiming “Two Million Dollars Worth of RATTAN FURNITURE has been sold by the Wakefield Rattan Company and its popularity increases every day.” But success attracts imitators, and soon the company found itself competing with another Massachusetts firm, Heywood Brothers. The increasingly intense rivalry between the two manufacturers served to refine existing styles and create flamboyant new ones. In a turn of events more surprising in that era than in our own, the all-out competition came to an abrupt halt in 1897 when the two titans merged to form the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company. Their first joint trade catalogue, issued in 1898, included the now-classic and extremely rare wicker dressing stand.
By then wicker had found favor all across America. The well-publicized studio decor of many artists of the period—including James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase —delivered a clear message: Wicker inspired creativity. The public followed the art world’s lead.
Consumers of the day seemed to find in wicker’s fluid serpentine lines an underlying sensuality that was romantic and even a bit naughty. In her 1881 book How to Furnish a Home , Ella Rodman Church recommended a wicker chair for the bedroom as “a chair in which one can lounge in wrapper and unbound hair before the fire.” Illustrators of romantic novels and magazine stories placed voluptuous women in wicker settings, and the material even had a tenuous association with the world of prostitution. Owners of plush Oriental-style Victorian brothels were known to rely on wicker’s exotic aura to lend the appropriate ambiance to their establishments.
But wicker was not restricted to the bedroom. An 1877 Wakefield Rattan Company ad promoted it for “Sitting and Dining Rooms, Library, Office, Piazza and Lawn.” Our Victorian forebears happily bought wicker music stands, reception chairs, bookcases, étag res , piano chairs, and china cabinets. Since wicker was light, armchairs, rockers, and tables were often moved outside on a warm spring day or placed on porches for the entire summer season. If a rain shower should come along, no one was terribly concerned: wicker’s durable, water-resistant nature was well publicized by manufacturers. To this day the best way to clean wicker is with a wet cloth, as the moisture feeds the reeds and restores their natural elasticity.
Versatile and practical as it is, in recent decades antique wicker furniture was prized more by individuals than by those final arbiters of taste—museum curators. The first major museum exhibition dedicated to antique American wicker furniture opened in April at the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.