In 1987, an American "hairy paw" chair was purchased at auction for $2.75 million. M.S. of Santa Barbara has a hairy paw table from the 19th century, made of American golden oak. Unfortunately, it's of much less quality; in fact, it's made by machine.
In this country, furniture bearing an animal foot design was beloved before the American Revolution. The furniture was made by the finest carpenters with fine fruitwoods, both native and imported. Animal feet surfaced again after the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the middle class. A furry animal foot on antique furniture is so ubiquitous that we forget how strange it must have looked as a new style.
British craftsmen of the 19th century originated the style after seeing what the Romans did with animal feet; excavated ruins showed hairy paw
antiquities. After the fad, British connoisseurs labeled it garish. Having graced the homes of aristocrats in London, such 18th century furniture was sent to Ireland and the colonies.
American makers imitated the high style (no Englishman told us it was vulgar) and it became a fashionable design here for 100 years. By the time Americans purchased tables like M.S.', the style had trickled down to the middle class.
Beasts' feet came in many forms on furniture: lion and dog paws, goat and bull hooves, eagle talons. I have yet to find a chair or table with mixed animal feet, however.
The popularity of American hairy paw furniture can be traced to Thomas Chippendale (1781-1879). He never came to America, nor did he make his furniture for Americans. But his designs were popularized through his catalog of work called "The Gentleman & Cabinet Maker's Director." The 1762 edition came to the U.S. on ships. Chippendale created one unique design involving animal feet: the "ball and claw" style. The ball is a round piece of wood around which any number of animal toes might grasp; designers' expert techniques can be seen in their intricate carvings. The bottom of the ball is slightly flattened to support the chair, or the base is fitted with a brass caster. The artistry of the wood carver is most challenged when the foot of the lion or eagle must transition to the actual leg.
M.S.' table is an everyman's version of this hairy paw style from the third quarter of the 19th century. It is not, as the 18th century American versions were, expertly carved in an elegant wood. M.S.' table merely suggests a lion's hairy paw with three toes and claws; at the backsides of the feet, a little hairy frill suggests the lion's fur. Lion's feet on anything suggests nobility and grandeur.
When the American middle class was forced from the farms into the factories, a little grandeur was necessary and the style had a resurgence. Almost all of the American furniture from this era is made of oak. It was durable, cheap and plentiful. Machinery to join these tables was invented, and large furniture factories employed hundreds. No longer was one American carpenter hand-carving pieces for the American upper class.
In fact, there's a reason that the 18th century American upper class lost interest in the style. Right after the Revolution, especially in Philadelphia, anything that smacked of royalty was discouraged. American furniture did a quick about-face to the Federal style, based upon the French furniture. You might argue that French furniture of the day was overseen by Louis XVI, himself a king. But Louis was not George III. Most Americans wanted nothing to do with George III. Not
even his table legs.
American homes in the late 19th century typically had a round dining table with hairy paw feet extending from a central pedestal. American ingenuity created a ratchet of metal underneath the tabletop — the table expanded to fit multiple leaves. Oftentimes, the quality of these tables is seen in the leaves — leaves that follow the curve of the circle into an oval and boast a drop cornice come from a better table. Most had "service" leaves, made of a cheaper wood that relied on a
Golden oak hairy paw furniture was so plentiful in the late 19th century that M.S.' table is worth $300. But find an 18th century table and you are golden.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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