Fine Georgian Cabinet-Making
In the eighteenth century, not all craftsmen were equal. There was a definite hierarchy amongst them, based on a number of different factors: the amount of skill or artistry required to do the work, the nature of the materials used and whether or not the work was laborious and dirty. For example, goldsmiths and silversmiths came at the top of the hierarchy. The amount of skill and artistry required was significant; the materials used were extremely expensive; and although working in metals has a certain amount of dirt associated with it, it was also seen as highly artistic, especially in the design and decoration of the final object.
Even within a particular craft, there could be significant gradations in the esteem given to various aspects of the work. I’m going to take making furniture as an example.
The Hierarchy in Wood-working
Carpenters and Joiners
Mere carpenters made simple wooden objects or did repairs; nothing that demanded particular skill beyond the basics; nothing that contained an artistic element. Roof timbers, wall timbers, floors and things like that. Next in esteem came the joiners. They constructed windows and door frames, doors, window shutters, book presses and shelving, and panelling; not furniture, especially fine pieces, Joinery is skilful work, of course, especially if the customer was the owner of a fine house, but it’s still mostly a matter of cutting and fitted together pieces of wood accurately. At the time, this caused it to be seen as somewhat less skilled and more laborious and dirty than the work of the more esteemed craftsmen in wood. Next in hierarchy were cabinet-makers.
Cabinet-makers and Upholsterers
Cabinet-making developed to handle more skilled and complex work than joiners undertook. For a start, a cabinet-maker worked with the more exotic woods suitable for the finer, lighter and more highly finished furniture required by aristocratic customers, the gentry and the most prosperous of the middle class. This type of fine furniture, making its way from France and Holland, required additional techniques that had not previously been in use; techniques such as veneering in rare woods or tortoiseshell, marquetry or the use of highly decorative metal or similar inlays. The actual construction of the object, especially the precision of the joints, the overall design and highly decorative interior fittings, might also require extremely advanced skills in the cabinet-maker.
Oddly enough, once, say, a chair had been made, those who applied the decoration to it were seen as engaging in more ‘genteel’ activities. Upholsterers, for example, often worked with expensive and luxurious fabrics. They were considered superior to almost any other craftsmen involved in making furnishings, save for the very finest wood-carvers.
As demand for fine furniture increased, even the most famous cabinet-makers had to resort to the very first kinds of ‘mass production’. Those who produced cheaper furniture went even further down this path. In earlier centuries, a cabinet-maker would produce a complete object, from basic frame to final decoration. By the 1760s — and to a still greater extent after then — we find different craftsmen specialising in specific stages of constructing and decorating the more complex kinds of furniture. This led to companies being formed, which could preserve quality while increasing the output of goods for sale. The days of relying on a single, individual master-craftsman, supported by one or two journeymen and a few apprentices were coming rapidly to an end.
The evidence for this in furniture-making comes from inventories showing stocks of certain parts of items being produced and stored separately from the rest. For example, one inventory in 1760 included ‘Ten sets of mahogany table feet … Twenty-six mahogany feet for breakfast tables … Thirty wainscot table feet … Twelve pair of cards-table legs … Six tops for breakfast tables part veneered.’ Another, this time from 1763, is even more suggestive of work on a large scale: ‘222 Marlborough feet for tables and chairs … Thirty-five table legs with turned toes.’
To make this number of individual items must indicate several craftsmen producing similar objects. It made sense. Each table or chair required four legs and their feet, so the making of table legs and feet would have been a repetitive, routine job; while their generally similar design and decoration made them suitable for the production of a large quantity of similar items to be stored, ready-made, for future use. When the number of items ‘in store’ was especially large, it may also have represented items for use in the production of cheaper lines of furniture.
The Introduction of Machinery
By the end of the century, some workshops clearly operated with a high degree of specialisation, employing craftsmen to concentrate on particular aspects of the overall task. This made sense in the ‘mass production’ of cheaper items. However, it was equally applicable to some specialist work, such as inlaying or, in the case of billiard tables, the preparing of a special slate, baize-covered top to ensure the table was absolutely level.
The same steady move towards specialisation and the introduction of a rational division of labour within a workshop could be mirrored throughout many of the craft activities of the 18th-century. By the early nineteenth, the introduction of machinery to undertake more routine tasks caused even greater changes in the status and the training of craftsmen. It wasn’t until the Arts and Crafts Movement of late Victorian times that an emphasis on handmade and craft furniture, as opposed to machine-made items, attracted the interest of wealthy customers; and by then, the finest exponents of furniture design and construction were seen as artists, not ‘mere’ craftsmen.