Sunday, December 19, 2010

Nineteenth-Century Book Furniture Put to Good Use

A full-day, three-part antiques auction at Kimball’s in North Amherst yesterday left us with some fine additions to our household, both furniture and some books and ephemera. Rather than pluck out one of the latter, however, this week’s post features one of the more interesting pieces of furniture from the auction. My wife generously got it for me as an early Christmas gift.

The object in question is a nineteenth-century book stand, standing 5’ 5” at its tallest and opening to 1’ 9” at its widest. Four curved cast iron legs on small metal wheels support a pipe that runs up to the book-supporting mechanism. Midway up the pipe is an ornate cast irony tray (5” x 11”) for holding extra books. Originally all of the cast iron had an anodized copper finish, but now only vestiges of it remain.

The book-supporting mechanism is a set of cast-iron springs and hinges connected to two wooden “wings” of quarter sawn oak, smoothed and finished, each measuring 8” x 13”. The wings can be adjusted to hold a book open to any angle, or fold closed all the way, and have a bevel along the bottom to keep the book from sliding off; by loosening two wing nuts, they can also be slid in or out to accommodate books of differing thicknesses (from 4” to 6”). Between the wings are two gently curved bands of metal to cradle the spine of the book. The entire book-supporting unit can be adjusted to any angle or rotated around the center pipe, and the center pipe itself can be adjusted for height.

The only marking on the object is an “E” stamped into the cross-bar that supports the two wings. According to others auction listings, similar book stands bear a stamp reading “Pat. Dec. 10. 1895” -- perhaps the lack of a similar stamp on mine is an indication that this was manufactured prior to the patent date (perhaps by a rival company?). The only companies that I can identify as manufacturing a similar product are the Aermotor Company of Chicago (founded in 1883 by LaVerne W. Noyes; Noyes made his start-up capital selling these stands and then, in 1888, used that money to start up the company, still in operation today, that became the only producer of windmills in the country -- the profiles of Aermotor windmills have become iconic emblems of American agriculture), but theirs has a distinctly different look than mine, as does the one made by George J. Flanagan and the Giffen & Giffen Company (also of Chicago -- and about whom I can find nothing online), which included a paper label with instructions and had wooden wheels and a less ornate storage shelf. Apparently the Cuyahoga Machine Company of Cleveland also made a version in 1880, but I can find no descriptions or pictures of it.

Mine is in good condition, but it looks like someone left a book with a soft cover (perhaps leather or cloth) pressed against the wings for too long because there’s some discoloration and residue on the wood. All of the adjustable pieces, however, still work, and the wheels roll smoothly. Aside from the residue, the wings are clean and fully intact.

I’m not sure what the intended market was for these when they first appeared. Obviously ministers wouldn’t need them; they’ve got rather nice pulpits from which to read their Bibles. I assume the target buyer was the at-home reader and collector of books, particularly someone who might need to have a large volume, like the Bible or a dictionary, at hand and always open for easy reference. They continued to be manufactured into the 1920s, and references to their use appear in print into the 1950s but then they largely vanish (one exception: a similar stand is the first purchase made by Rene Chun at the famed Brimfield Antiques Fair, as related in her article “Haul of Fame” in New York magazine [July 7, 1997. 37]). Nowadays, of course, who needs to always have a particular book out, open on a stand, and ready to consult? Isn't that what the Internet is for? What kind of person would use such a baroque contraption?

Mine sits in our living room -- next to Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase -- comfortably cradling our Oxford Universal Dictionary, which has been opened to a random page for leisurely, serendipitous browsing... “Insuetude” -- “the quality of not being in use”... perfect.

1 comment:

  1. I was delighted to read your posting. I, too, own one of these book stands which displays a 1895 edition of Webster's International Dictionary. My father had purchased it many years ago at auction. One of my grandchildren was trying to work it when one of the wings fell off, poor thing was so upset. It was easily put back together and then I took a closer look at the insert inside of the wing showing the parts and where replacements could be sent for if needed. At the bottom was the name La Verne W. Noyes, with a street address in Chicago. So my search has ended with your posting. The stand and dictionary have a place of honor in a corner of our living room. The kids are fascinated to see that some words did not exist back then such as television. My stand's grill to hold books is not ornate as the one pictured above, and the wings are dark wood, otherwise they look just alike. I love old things, too. Jeanne in Connecticut