Bringing the Outdoors In: Cottage and Wicker Furniture for House and Garden

Brock Jobe, Winterthur Museum

Tuesday, September 11, 2012Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
Walt Disney Museum
Painted bedstead with canopy, circa 1855, painted by Thomas and Edward Hill

Painted bedstead with canopy, circa 1855, painted by Thomas and Edward Hill for Heywood Brothers & Company, Gardner, MA, gift of Richard N. Greenwood to the Museum of Fine arts, Boston

“Blanche Reynolds,” photographed by Holts of Philadelphia

“Blanche Reynolds,” photographed by Holts of Philadelphia, circa 1900, Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera

The thought of American Victorian furniture usually conjures up visions of luxury, elaborately carved and inlaid rich woods crafted by upscale makers such as John Henry Belter or Herter Brothers. These costly products, however, were beyond the reach of most Americans. Cottage and wicker furniture offered style, ornament and often exoticism at a fraction of the cost of their lavishly carved or inlaid counterparts. Cottage and wicker furniture enjoyed widespread appeal and were affordable to nearly everyone.

American cottage furniture was a painted style that was fashionable from the 1840s to the end of the century. Edward Hennessey, a Boston manufacturer of cottage furniture, attracted the praise of landscape architect and style-setter Andrew Jackson Downing. A.J. Downing’s bestseller, The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), praised Hennessey’s furniture as being “remarkable for its combination of lightness and strength … It is very highly finished, and usually painted drab, white, gray, a delicate lilac, or a fine blue — the surface polished and hard, like enamel. Some of the better sets have groups of flowers or other designs painted upon them with artistic skill.”

Wicker, another form of low-priced furniture, attracted even greater interest beginning in the 1850s. Architect Gervase Wheeler’s Rural Homes (1855) explained that “a material now in very general use in this country, the rattan or cane of the East Indies, affords an immense variety of articles of furniture, so strong, light and inexpensive, that it seems peculiarly adapted to general introduction in rural homes.”

Rattan, or wicker furniture as it has come to be called, soon became a fixture in almost every American setting. Wicker furniture, suitable for parlor, porch or lawn linked indoors and outdoors. Hundreds of patterns in wicker, mass-produced by dozens of firms across the country, illustrate the range and richness of Victorian fashion. Wicker remains an attractive option for interior design. No other form of 19th century furniture retains the same continuity of popularity.

Brock Jobe graduated from Wake Forrest University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He became a research assistant for the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then helped edit Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (1974). Mr. Jobe then earned a master’s degree from the Winterthur program in early American culture and headed south to serve as Colonial Williamsburg‘s associate curator and curator of exhibition buildings.

Brock Jobe returned to Massachusetts where he was the chief curator for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) for 13 years. He returned to Winterthur in 1993 as its deputy director for Collections and Interpretation (later Collections, Conservation and Interpretation) and, in 2000, his career came full circle when he became a professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur. He teaches graduate courses in historic interiors, decorative arts and 20th century design, mentors graduate students, advises theses, leads field trips and helps place students after graduation.

Brock Jobe’s fields of interest are early American furniture and upholstery, 18th century domestic interiors and historic house management. His research has expanded, along with the Winterthur program’s scholarship, past 1840 and into the 20th century.

Brock Jobe co-authored New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (1984) and American Furniture with Related Decorative Arts 1660–1830, The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Layton Art Collection (1991). He organized and edited Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast (1993). Mr. Jobe also edited and contributed essays to Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (1974) and New England Furniture: Essays in Memory of Benno M. Forman (1987); contributed “The Boston Upholstery Trade, 1700–1775” to Upholstery in America and Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War I (1987), as well as contributions to Paul Revere’s Boston (1975), Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U. S. Department of State (1991) and The Concord Museum, Decorative Arts from a New England Collection (1996).

Brock Jobe’s contributions to the Chipstone publication are “The Lisle Desk and Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon” (2001) and “Sophistication in Rural Massachusetts: The Inlaid Cherry Furniture of Nathan Lombard” (1998) with Clark Pearce. Mr. Jobe’s most recent work is Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850, coauthored with Gary Sullivan and Jack O’Brien.

Brock Jobe has established a reputation with the Forum as a crowd-pleasing speaker. His prior presentations are “New England Furniture of the Colonial Era“ (1985), “Portsmouth Furniture, 1700-1825“ (1990), “From Queen Anne to Arts and Crafts: Two Centuries of Change in American Furniture“ (2004) and “Harbor and Home: Furniture of Coastal New England, 1725-1825” (2009).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Long before Martha Stewart, Levina B. Urbino and Henry Day wrote Art Recreations, an instruction book for ladies with artistic aspirations. The chapters run the gamut of homemade Victoriana: pencil and crayon drawing, watercolors, and enamel, theorem and oil painting; paper and feather flowers; moss work; papier mache; wax work, shell work and hair work; aquariums; and magic lanterns. This bestselling guidebook went through many editions from the late 1850s through the 1880s. Share your vernacular Victoriana. — which may well be such an “art recreation” that once graced a cottage dresser or wicker table.


Walt Disney Museum, Presidio, 104 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. If you are using GPS, also include the zip code—94129—or you will be directed to downtown San Francisco, instead of the Presidio. Parking is plentiful, and free, on the parade ground and behind the museum.