Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Antique Secretary

Suzanne G. Beyer sent me another incredible story about her family.  I hope you had a chance to read the first story she sent me a few weeks ago, The Bracelet.

The 1820 American Federal Secretary now sits in my dining room in Bothell, Washington. For four decades, this elegant antique was prominently displayed in the main parlor of my grandparents’ home in Cavendish, Vermont. I stood upon a dark red, blue, and gold Persian carpet and faced a bay window that overlooked lush, rolling hills.

I can just hear my mom, the daughter of a Vermont Senator, asking permission from her British-born mother to sit at the Secretary to write her report for school. I also envision straight-backed ladies in long skirts and high-necked silk blouses bedecked with a broach, dipping fountain pens into the ink well and carefully penning each letter in a journal.

I discovered an essay my mother wrote in 1924, tucked in one of the drawers of the Secretary.

It began, “This summer President and Mrs. Coolidge spent their vacation in Plymouth, Vermont. Plymouth is a hamlet which is situated among the Green Mountains. In this little Village, President Coolidge spent his boyhood days.”

Her letter represented finding that pot of gold.

The antique Secretary stands at six feet tall, with two doors, each with 12 diamond-shaped panes of glass on the top half. A small key securely locks this upper portion. On these narrow shelves, which once held books, are displayed wine glasses, china cups, blue and white Dresden plates, a souvenir plate of Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace and various candleholders. What adds to history for me, however, is my mother’s neatly penned essay, which remains stored in the Secretary. Mom shook hands with President Coolidge when her family was invited to a gathering during the president’s hometown visit.

“We have always lived in Vermont and had always wanted to see this president,” she wrote.

Mom went on to describe him.

“Coolidge impressed me as a very quiet man. He is of medium height but slender in size and has red hair. I had always pictured him as a larger and stronger man.”

She continued, “I also was very much impressed to think that a man like President Coolidge, who lived in a little village and had very few advantages, could become the President of the United States.”

Mom wrote her essay on the desktop, below the paned windows, that unfolds and rests on two sliding side supports. A burgundy-colored felt material covers the writing surface. The ink and pen wells are stored at the back of the desk.

Three graduated drawers, with brass pulls, are located below the desk. This is where I store candles in all colors, napkins for every occasion, place mats, and inherited fancy silverware; not the journals and notebooks of the early 19th century. At the bottom, a valance skirt, with French bracket feet, complete the Secretary. Three brass finials, the center one portraying an eagle, used to top the piece, however, are now missing with several moves of the Secretary.

The Federal period, from 1785 to 1820, was a time for cabinetmakers to create their finest furniture, following the lines of neoclassic England and Europe. This was a period of formality and elegance. Craftsmen refined the furniture using inlays and veneers, creating a lightness and delicacy to their design, unlike the bulky furniture of Colonial times.

Scott Daniels, owners of Heritage Woodworking says, “The Federal period was kind of the first era in American built furniture where craftsmen considered style and design in furniture.”

He continues, “It was really the first time in American history that the population (some of them anyway) could afford a more elaborate piece of furniture.”

Fancy veneers like burl walnut or tiger maple were used and the furniture was built from woods like mahogany, walnut and cherry. Craftsmen used brass for hardware instead of iron and as Daniels says, “Fancy brass Chippendale pulls were very popular.”

“The Federal pediment on furniture was styled after Washington D.C. architecture and other state buildings and court houses at the time,” says Daniels.

He adds, “If you look at buildings form the same time period many of them resemble Federal period furniture and vice versa.”

Daniels indicated that most desks had a finial with an eagle and some had a bust of a president or founding father. It sounds like craftsmen blossomed during this time, enjoying a stage to show off their art, skills and talents.

Although I admire the tradition of meticulously penning letters at a Secretary, since the 20th century invention, the computer has entered our home, that gray-colored box and keyboard sit on a table alongside the printer, well hidden from view, in a room upstairs. It has no brass pulls, valanced skirt or French bracket feet. This is where I write, dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, with no lacey blouse with broach in sight.

Curious to know the value of the Secretary, I found an appraisal made in 1979 by Warren H. Smith, of Shelburne, Vermont. Its value at that time, was $2000.00. Today, the value is more like $6,000. I have no plans on ever selling it, and would love for one of our daughters to enjoy its elegance some day.

As I polish the mahogany wood of the Secretary and clean each pane of glass, I feel I’ve stepped back into history --- at least for the moment. My visions include the impeccably dressed woman seated properly at the desk and the Green Mountain of Vermont, where Secretaries adorned home libraries and parlors and folks from small towns had big opportunities.