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As read to the members of the Woodcarvers Guilds in 1904, 1926, 1939 and 1948 with kind permission of the authors of the ANCIENT WOODCRAFT.
The history of the style known as Early American Colonial Furniture is to trace something that is very old indeed we usually say that it is as old as the hills, but when speaking of things made by man, it would be truer to say " as old as the rivers," for it was in the river valleys that workmen really became craftsmen. An incredible time ago, in the valley of the Nile, men became skilful in the use of tools.
The Egyptians believed that they would actually live again with their earthly bodies and that they could take with them things that would be useful in the after-life. They believed that, beside actual things, representations of things, whether painted or drawn or made in miniature, could be endued with spiritual life in the spirit world and serve the needs of the dead owner. It was even believed that figures of the dead person, carved in wood or stone, or painted upon a wall, could perform any laborious or unpleasant task or duty for the person after death. Because of all this, very great care was bestowed upon the placing and building of the burial places so that they should not be disturbed.
Because the climate was so dry, and because the good land was so limited that the burial sites were placed on the edge of the desert where there was either a waste of sand, or a rocky escarpment in which tombs could be hewn, and because the tomb entrances were so carefully hidden, it is still possible to find tombs with their contents undisturbed after all these thousands of years, and we have (I) a wonderful selection of the work of craftsmen who laboured from at least five thousand years before Christ, and (2) on the walls of the tomb chambers and on written papyri an unrivalled pictorial record of the life and work of untold generations of Egyptian people and to see the origins of the style known has Early American Colonial Furniture.
These records and actual remains make clear the extraordinary fact that the Egyptian woodworker was making chairs and tables before even the Celts (Ancient Britons) came to these islands of. Britain and the Americas Furniture of the origins of the style later known has Early American Colonial Furniture was made in Egypt several thousand years before the Romans came to Britain, which was being copied in England when the Battle of Waterloo was fought. There is a box (a coffin) (i. I) in the British Museum which is certainly 5000 and possibly 7ooo years old. The back and front are framed, that is, the " rails " (the cross pieces at top and bottom) are tenoned into the "stiles " (the upright pieces at the ends). The thick boards forming the panels are pierced from side to side and long slats or keys are driven through. The panels fit into " rebates " (grooves cut in the edge) of the rails, and the whole box is fastened with wooden pegs. The miracle is that such framing was not done by English carpenters until the reign of Henry IV. Many Egyptian mummy cases and the huge cases (called sarcophagi) which contained them were of wood. The huge wooden slabs were squared and finished exquisitely. The corners were "mitred," they were pegged and had a "key" at top and bottom (1,2, 3). The lids were at first flat slabs, but later were "coved" (rounded like a trunk lid), and finally, when the coffin was shaped to the figure within, the lid was carded to represent its occupant.
Boxes with hinged or with sliding lids, boxes to hold vases, boxes to hold figures of carven wood, or stone or clay which were to labour for the deceased in the next world, toilet boxes, caskets, framed chests to be slung on poles and carried on the shoulders of slaves, were made thousands of years before dug-out chests were made in England.
The same story can be told of chairs and stools. The earliest remains show separate legs, carved in the shape of ox or goat or lions' legs tenoned into the frame of the seat. From the earliest times chairs were made with a grace of outline, a strength of construction and an obvious comfort in use that has never been surpassed. Footstools and stools for workmen were made in abundance and in great variety. One stool in particular with folding legs and a web seat (like our camp stools) is probably the ancestor of the folding and legged chairs that have been made ever since.
Side by side with chairs and stools the tables were equally advanced in construction. Tables and benches, with legs, sometimes shaped, sometimes plain, sometimes joined with " stretchers," sometimes standing independently, are equally common. Most common seems to have been a table with a single pedestal leg, the like of which was not made in England until mahogany was used not two hundred years ago.
Several facts stand out clearly of the tracing of the style known as Early American Colonial Furniture as we study the origins of woodwork style of the Egyptian craftsman. The first is that he made extraordinary progress at first, and then appears to have stood still for centuries. Probably his furniture, etc., suited its purpose so well that there was no need to experiment. Secondly, for decoration he relied mainly upon colour. The wood was a base which was painted, or covered with a plaster composition which was gilded or painted, or it was sheathed with precious metals or with a mosaic of precious stones, glass or porcelain. In one form of woodcraft the Egyptian did advance continuously until he attained a wonderfully perfected skill, and that was in carving human beings and animals " in the round."