North Carolina is known for its beautiful forests, and since the 19th century was the state known nationwide to produce serviceable wooden furniture. My son lives there now, and some of that early Primitive furniture is highly deceptive in its simplicity versus its collectible value. Southern – the original Southern American furniture is simple, functional and expensive, but not the fad in the mid 1800s. Of course rich folks then (1860’s) from the Eastern seaboard furnished their homes with French or English furniture, but the simple folks needed low-priced long lasting dressers and tables too. So North Carolina became known for their little country carpenters, both black and white, all of whom were true artisans.
Enter, in 1903, Samuel Huffman, and five entrepreneurs, who gathered together $14,000 and formed a factory of 50 carpenters called Drexel Furniture. They made low-priced simple furniture for the mid-Atlantic communities until Sam’s son took over the enterprise. By the 1950’s, the younger Mr. Huffman changed course, charged more for the same furniture but advertised the heck out of it. I enclose a pictorial sample ad which made it easy to order your loved ones furniture for Christmas, dated 1959. At the time of this ad, Huffman had 2300 workers supplying 2500 stores across the US. Suddenly, North Carolina furniture was a nationwide concern and very profitable.
Sometime around this mid-century mark, D.M.’s relatives from Santa Barbara bought a traditional oval dining set with pedestal base and splayed feet, mahogany, in the style of Duncan Phyfe (an early 19th century NY furniture maker); they also bought chairs in the English Chippendale transitional Hepplewhite style. Interesting that the American style table is usually paired with 18th century English chairs: both in the mid 20th century were considered “Early American Traditional.” In addition, the upper-middle-class loved the look. Mahogany, more expensive and harder to maintain, meant up-scale and the middle class who bought, if they could, bought maple ‘traditional’ (like my mom’s Early American Ethan Allen). And, boy, did Mom like Early American; we had spinning wheels, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, gun racks, and Williamsburg green custom-mixed paint by Sears on the walls, all this, back home in Illinois, not in Williamsburg or even Boston. We had red brick, eagle Plaster-of-Paris sculptures mounted on the paneling in the ‘family’ room, and pineapple doorknockers on the bible-paneled front door, variously painted Monticello Red or Williamsburg Green. We lived the early-American dream.
Yet Drexel was above my family, especially sets like D.M.’s Drexel, which, in a stroke of advertising genius, was raised above other Drexel lines by naming itself the “Travis Court” line. This was costly in 1959: a Travis Court mahogany chest of drawers would run your family $77.50, a china cabinet, $188.50, a vanity with a pop-up mirror $104.50; a server $89.50, and each side chair $22.50 – and those armed for the master would run you $28.50. Rest assured that those were upper-middle-class prices in 1959.
Back home in North Carolina, Huffman expanded Drexel Furniture by buying Heritage Furniture Co. in 1960 and then they began to manufacture dorm and library furniture, dumbing down their former expensive woods. So much so, that Drexel came to the attention of a former competitor, US Plywood Co., who purchased Huffman’s company in 1969. Management there jumped on the stylistic bandwagon of the Mediterranean style (mostly unsalable today) with such looks as Italian Provincial, French Provincial (little girls’ bedrooms in the 1960’s, usually pickled white), Tuscan Villa, and the most flamboyant Hollywood Regency. The latter is highly saleable today, at a cross between the sloping degenerate lines of French Deco and Liberace’s master bedroom. The look is what I term ‘early brothel’ and desirable, filling the magazines and Palm Springs boutiques.
Drexel today has gone the way of all lucky capitalistic family start-ups; one of the largest furniture manufacturers since 1980, Masco Co., purchased Drexel Heritage in 1986, which expanded Huffman’s corporate model, went on to furnish hotels, state departments, and government offices. Drexel is located today in High Point, NC with 10 factories around NC and 1300 workers. The value of D.M.’s dining set? $800 total: ‘Traditional’ from the mid 20th century is one of the poorest selling style today.
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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