Antique furniture can remain beautiful long after the maker is gone and forgotten. There's no shortage of resources, however, to help you learn about the company that made your favorite antique chair or table, what else it made and how to identify its work. Antique books and fellow collectors can provide a wealth of information.
Identify the Maker
In theory, the distinctive symbol known as the maker's mark identifies the company or craftsman that created a piece of furniture. If you find a mark, you can look it up in one of various reference guides. The Marks and Library website maintains a list of books and online references. Many furniture pieces have no mark, but you may be able to use design elements to identify them. For example, Wayne Mattox Antiques & Auctions describes on its website how the Winterthur Museum managed to identify an early American high chest as the work of cabinetmaker Maj. John Dunlap. The chest had design features similar to those of cabinets already identified as Dunlap's creations.
Books and Libraries
Many books on antiques provide information about the makers. You can look online or at a library for a book such as "English Furniture and Furniture Makers of the 18th Century" or "Furniture of the Depression Era." If your library doesn't have the book you want, it can use an inter-library loan to obtain it for you. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh website provides a list of titles that might be useful. The Library of Congress recommends looking for old company catalogs, which often contain profiles of the furniture maker along with descriptions of the furniture.
Along with hard-copy references, a wealth of information is available online. For example, you can try entering the furniture company's name in the online archive of "The New York Times" and seeing if any articles turn up. The archives includes stories as far back as 1851, though you may have to pay to read some articles. The Library of Congress maintains several online references, such as a list of businesses' founding dates going back to 1681. For foreign companies, you may be able to glean information from online resources such as the United Kingdom's National Archives.
People, including antique collectors, love to talk about their hobbies. Talk to dealers about furniture they've sold from the same manufacturer, what they think about the quality and how to identify pieces. Meet other collectors at antique shows, ask similar questions and learn what they know. If the popular view is different from what your research tells you, dig deeper and find out why there's a disagreement.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.