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My Favorite Feet: 18th-Century Newport Furniture and the 21st-Century Culture of Consumerism

Ever since I took on the post of Director of Museums, I have had to learn a lot of information about a lot of different things, from how to get into our offices at Rough Point without setting off the alarm, to an understanding of the life and legacy of Doris Duke.  I have also spent a fair amount of time learning about the collection and interpretation of NRF’s museum at the Whitehorne House, which, when it reopens on May 29th, 2019, will be the world’s only museum dedicated solely to the craft, design, and social and cultural histories of 18th-century Newport furniture.

Learning about Newport furniture has become one of my newest passions. I have become fascinated by the design, construction, and history behind these exceptional works of American craftsmanship.  I haven’t always felt this way. Like many of you, I had never really thought much at all about historic furniture, let alone been engrossed in learning about the craft and history behind it.  But over the past few months, I have come to see that the Whitehorne House Museum’s furniture collection is filled with remarkable works from a world of design and consumerism that, despite their significant age (most pieces are about 250 years old or more), feels quite familiar to me, quite contemporary, and, perhaps surprisingly, relevant to the lived experience of 21st-century people. I get that readers may not see the ways in which Newport furniture and its creation and purchase are analogous to the behaviors of a contemporary consumer, but if you stick with me through this blogpost, I think you’ll see the connection. Let me explain through a brief exploration of feet. You read that right, feet.

The feet I’m referring to are, of course, furniture feet—the base of a piece of legged furniture, such as a desk, table, high chest, or chair. They are, quite literally, the lowest point on any work of furniture, so low and obscure that most of us don’t even pay attention to them. In fact, many pieces of furniture have no distinct feet at all. Their legs simply extend to the floor without a break.  That is surely the case with the chair that I am sitting in as I write this piece, and it is equally true of most of the furniture in my office and my home. My office and home furnishings, however, are not works of 18th-century Newport furniture. Would that they were.

Feet on a piece of legged, 18th-century Newport furniture are frequently amazing works of craftsmanship and artistry in their own right. Some are delicately sculpted to look like a human’s foot inside of a slipper, while my favorite feet are intricately carved to look like the claw on a bird of prey clutching a ball.

This last form, the ball and claw, was, interestingly enough, influenced by the early development of a global, consumer economy, a phenomenon that, while not identical to our contemporary world, shares similarities with the consumer society that we live in today. In the late 1600s, China opened trade with select foreign traders, including those from England.  As Chinese goods entered the English market, English craftsmen became familiar with a popular Chinese decorative motif, the dragon holding a pearl.  Most scholars believe that this design informed the creation of the ball and claw foot.  By the early 18th century, this Chinese-inspired, decorative motif became very popular in England, and since consumer tastes in England influenced consumer tastes in the British colonies in America, the ball and claw became a very popular feature in American furniture. By the mid-18th-century, the ball and claw was one of the defining characteristics of the Newport style of furniture.

It is worth noting that there is no structural advantage to the slipper or ball and claw foot. One might just as easily purchase a piece with no distinct feet at all and their furniture would stand just as well or poorly. Still, 18th-century Newport craftsmen took the time to carve such details, no small accomplishment since contemporary furniture maker, furniture historian, and NRF friend Jeffrey Greene tells me that this process could take four days or more in the midst of a tight, seven week production schedule.  Greene further notes that the 100 plus cabinet makers who built Newport furniture in the 18th century were not artists, per se.  That is to say, they did not carve such intricate details solely for the sake of personal expression.  They were, instead, artisans, craftsmen of tremendous skill in a community of 300 or so interrelated craftspeople, all of who were trying to make a living creating products in a system of pre-industrial, commercial production. Naturally, appealing to consumer tastes was an essential part of their business practice.

The widespread distribution of such furniture in and outside of Newport makes clear that 18th century consumers of Newport furniture liked the intricately carved feet that came to characterize the Newport style. At the very least we can say that consumers of the period knew such carvings were in fashion and that they had an interest in appearing to be fashionable. As the historian Margaretta Lovell has observed, consumers of 18th-century Newport furniture, and guests who viewed such pieces in their neighbors’ homes, experienced a sense of admiration for the objects “in both senses [of the word]—straightforward pleasure…and covetous desire.”

This 18th-century desire for the fashionable over the merely serviceable is also one of the defining characteristics of our own consumer society.  After all, what is the difference between the beautiful, but ultimately non-essential, ball and claw foot and the equally non-essential Gs on a pair of Gucci sunglasses or the trademarked red sole on a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes? Nothing, really.  After all, the decorative Gs do not help to reduce the influence of the sun’s rays (or, as so often happens, keep you from losing your sun glasses) nor does the Louboutin red sole make it easier to walk in a pair of stiletto heels.  Both products simply appeal to the consumer’s sense of or interest in the latest style and fashion, just like the ball and claw foot did in the 18th century.

Sort of…. After all, one of the notable differences between these 21st and 18th century examples of consumerism is the level of craftsmanship.  While 21st century, machine-produced, high end brands may feature very fine construction in their own right, they surely cannot compare with the remarkable detail of hand carved ball and claw feet, which are a distinct and unique product of the individual carver. Indeed, as Jeffrey Greene notes in his fascinating book, American Furniture of the 18th Century, “No two makers carved feet exactly the same way, so an individual carver’s work was as unique as a signature.”

So what do we learn from this brief study of feet? I believe that we’ve learned about the development of an 18th-century global marketplace and its influence on style and fashion, as well as the growth of manufacturing and consumer sectors in and around Newport that were keenly aware of these developments and used them to guide their production and consumption choices. While these facts are not identical to our own consumer society—which includes a global production and distribution network and an ever-present advertising industry to instruct consumers on what is and is not in fashion and convince them that their mere wants are actual needs—they are similar enough that we as 21st century consumers can recognize them as familiar and somewhat contemporary. At least, that’s what I believe.  What do you think?  You can let us know on social media, or better yet, tell us in person at the Whitehorne House Museum.

I sincerely hope that you can visit us at Whitehorne House this summer to see some of our collection of 18th century, Newport furniture.  The pieces on display are examples of extraordinary beauty, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, they have important stories to tell us about American history—from the history of colonial consumerism to the ways in which such beauty was indebted to the ugly and horrific colonial slave trade, to the integral role that family and kinship played in the production and sale of these works and beyond.

The museum season will run from May 29th to October 27th. Whitehorne House Museum will be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. Tickets will cost $15 for adults, $5 for students, and will be free for children twelve and under and for residents of Newport County.  Visitors can purchase a combined ticket to visit Whitehorne House and NRF’s museum at Rough Point, the Newport home of Doris Duke, for $25, a $10 savings. Click here to plan your own visit today!

By Dr. Erik Greenberg, Director of Museums, Newport Restoration Foundation

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