S.S. sends me a turn of the last century Golden Oak dresser, in quarter sawn oak, with a serpentine front.
As you see, she has pulled it out of her house and is about to put a FREE sign on it — and set it on the Santa Barbara street where she lives. It looks like a dresser, but the drawers hardly slide anymore. Before she does, she wants to know if she should rethink her generosity. Have you noticed how many pieces of furniture and kitchenware are showing up on our streets? People are getting sick of their homes and their décor! And they are about finished with their interiors out of sheer boredom, as S.S. reports.
Golden Oak was not only a type, cut and color of oak used for turn-of-the- century furniture, but it is also the name of a type of American furniture that is distinctive, and a true American style. In fact, some scholars call it the first true American style of furniture because it had three features that make it different from European and English furniture styles.
Those features? The affordability and accessibility of the furniture designed to appeal to the growing American middle class. Secondly, the wood itself, which is American Oak, and, thirdly, the simple “American country” look of the style. This last point bears explanation: the style is curvy and organic, as opposed to geometrical, which lends an air of quaintness and informality to the pieces. Notice how S.S.’s piece has curved drawer fronts in a curved case piece.
Previous to the period, from about 1820-1880, American furniture borrowed styles popular in Europe and England: the names of the periods tell this story: 1820 Hepplewhite (a British designer), Empire (based on the French Empire style favored by Napoleon), followed by the whole period called Victorian, which itself was a series of European revival styles (Classical revival, French Revival, the Aesthetic Movement (based on the late Arts and Crafts style of England), and then Arts and Crafts itself, a distinctive non-Victorian style.
But Golden Oak was a middle class popularist style that didn’t have an exotic origin. This style was running in tandem with a British style that made its way to America: Eastlake, after Charles Locke Eastlake(1833-1906) a British designer who eschewed the curving lines of the French Revival style and disliked the oppressiveness of the Victorian drawing rooms. Eastlake furniture was more intellectual and more formal, because it was more linear and more massive, but Golden Oak was for the American People, and designed for smaller modest homes.
Not only did Golden Oak start a decorating craze, it was the woman of the house who chose the pieces. This was a departure from the tastemakers who, up until 1880, were men. The lines of the furniture were designed with this market in mind: advertisements, such as those in Sears and Roebuck catalogues, showed a cozy country style interior with floral patterns and lighter colors, and that curving Golden Oak style. The construction was such that if Sears delivered it in pieces, almost anyone could join it, because there were no dovetails, no drawer liners, just a case piece empty in the middle with sliders simply pegs of curved iron, on two to a drawer cross- member. The problem is, after pulling the drawers 20 times, a heavy drawer carved grooves that rendered the drawer useless.
S.S. asks what the value is. Here’s the problem: Everything that sells well now is linear, and geomantic, mid century-ish. Golden Oak style is the exact opposite of linear and coldly geomantic, the opposite of understated elegance. It is cute. And the cut of the wood makes it even cuter.
For example, S.S.’s piece of wood is quarter sawn oak. That means that a round section of the log is cut in quarters and then shorter and shorter sections, so you see this mottled appearance of light and dark sections of the oak. This made inexpensive furniture look fancier. This is not exactly veneering, as that was an expensive technique, but mass-produced quarters of oak used to make figured wood surfaces.
In short, someone would pay you about $20 for that dresser, and they might offer less because those grooves in each of the under-drawer sections have “frozen” the action of the drawer in place.
So, it might be fun to see how long it sits on the street, S.S. Send me the timeline as it sits! I will be waiting to hear.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID 19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darling Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chao” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.