The Furniture Guilds
The skills of working in silver, pewter or wood were deemed a "mystery" or art, and the guilds strove to ensure both that the art was practiced to the highest standard and that it remained exclusive to their members.
In 1563 Parliament passed "The Great Statute of Artificers" that decreed that in all trades there should be a seven-year apprenticeship to a master craftsman which had to be completed before the age of 24. The apprentice then underwent a thorough examination by guild officers, and if he passed, became a freeman of the guild. He was then entitled to set up his own business, or to offer himself to a master for employment as a qualified journeyman. Journeymen were paid by the day (from the French journee = "day"). This hierarchy of master, journeyman, and apprentice was ubiquitous, and nobody outside of it was allowed to practice any craft.
Each guild appointed "viewers and searchers" to inspect members' workshops, materials and products to ensure that there was no backsliding. Because the craft was a "mystery," the customer could not be expected to have the expertise to check these standards for him- or herself. The guilds knew that the success of a trade depended at least as much upon trusting and satisfied customers as upon skilled craftsmen. If only guild members were to be permitted to practice the craft, and if "strangers and foreigners" were to be prohibited from setting up rival businesses, then guild members had to be honest, skillful and, most important, trusted by the public. The viewers and searchers were important officers of any guild. The "quality control" they exercised was rigorous.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, guilds controlled almost all the production of goods in what was by now an expanding and prosperous capitalist economy.
Unlike silver or pewter, furniture was never marked by the guild. Nor was there a single guild to mark it, for furniture was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized into different furniture makers' guilds. There was never a single guild of furniture makers, for furniture was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized into different guilds. The oldest guilds were the Companies of Carpenters and of Joiners, though the Turners were also important. From the 1660s, however, the furniture industry was dominated by the Joiners and Upholders (upholsterers).
The history of the Guild of Carpenters can be traced back to 1333, at which time it organized all workers in wood. There was then no distinction between builders of houses, farm implements, furniture, coffins and anything else made of timber. The Guild of Joiners was established in 1375, and for the next two or three centuries, disputes between the two were frequent, and occasionally, bloody.
In 1440 the Mystery of the Joyners of the City of London was allowed to elect two wardens with powers of search in the city, and in 1613, in London, the Lord Mayor gave to the Company of Joiners the exclusive power of search over makers of cupboards, trunks and boxes, a ruling that began the eventual the victory of the Joiners over the Carpenters. In 1632, the Court of Aldermen, in an attempt to end once and for all the arguments between the two trades, decreed that from that time onwards, the joiners alone should be entitled to make:
- · All sorts of Bedsteads whatsoever (onlie except boarded bedsteads and nailed together).
- · All sorts of chayres and stooles which are made with mortesses and tennants.
- · All tables of wainscotte walnutt or other stuffe glewed with frames mortesses or tennants.
- · All sorts of formes framed made of boards with the sides pinned or glewed.
- · All sorts of chests being framed dufftailed pynned or glewed.
- · All sorts of Cabinets or Boxes dufftailed pynned or glewed.
This ruling codified the practice that had emerged, at least in the towns and boroughs, that the joiners made the furniture, and the carpenters made almost everything else. Possibly, the carpenters still made boarded and nailed chests, like the beds that were specifically excluded from the joiners' responsibility (boards nailed together did not involve joinery).
The main provincial cities had their own guilds, and we may presume that they organized the woodworkers' trades in much the same way as London. In rural areas, however, the towns had no jurisdiction, so carpentry and joinery were often the responsibility of the same person. Indeed, estate records of the period show that oftentimes the estate carpenter made the furniture for the great house.
The Joiners had the political savvy to incorporate potential competitors rather than exclude them: carvers, box-makers and, most importantly, Cabinet-Makers all became members of the Joiners Company.
The Carvers were specialist artisans who formed a distinct group within the Joiners Company. They worked with joiners and chair-makers to decorate furniture, and worked on their own to produce frames for pictures and mirrors. They were, in effect, an early kind of subcontractor.
The Box Makers were another distinct group of artisans within the Joiners Company. In the 17th century, their skill lay in carving rather than joinery, but during the 18th their trade developed into miniature cabinet-making of the highest artistry, particularly in the production of tea caddies.
The term "Cabinet-Maker" came into regular use during the reign of Charles II, and was a sign of the new taste for luxury. The Cabinet-Maker provided case furniture, tables and stands, whereas the joiner made chairs, stools and beds. Sometimes the difference between them is described in terms of the joints that each used most frequently -- the dovetail for the Cabinet-Maker, and the mortise and tenon for the joiner. Cabinet-making produced case pieces with flat surfaces that were suitable for the newly fashionable veneering.
In 1660 there was a small group of specialist Cabinet-Makers in London, but by 1700 they had been subsumed into the Joiners, and Joiners had learned cabinet-making. In 1700 the Joiners Company claimed that its members were "bred up in the Art or Mystery of making Cabinets, Scrutores (desks), Tables, Chests and all other sorts of CABINET-WORK in England, which of late Years they have arrived at so great a perfection as exceeds all Europe."
Any distinction between cabinet-making and joinery rapidly diminished, and the term "Cabinet-Maker" displaced "Joiner" as the regular name for the producer of furniture. In 1747, the General Description of all Trades gives an idea of cabinet-makers' prosperity and status: "Many of their Shops are so richly set out that they look more like Palaces, and their stocks are of exceeding great value." In 1803 Sheraton wrote that cabinet-making was "one of the leading mechanical professions in every polite nation in Europe."
The Upholders' Guild is another that began in the fifteenth century, but it was not until the Restoration of Charles II that it gained social status and power. Charles spent the Cromwellian period in exile in the French court, and when he returned he brought with him a taste for luxury that was new to English society. He appointed Robert Morris to be the King's Upholsterer, and in a mere 21 months spent 10,000 pounds (approximately $13,800,000 in today's prices) with him. From this date on, the upholsterers never looked back, and by the middle of the 18th century were one of the most powerful bodies in furniture making. The London Tradesman, published in 1747, describes the upholsterer as one who "was originally a species of Taylor, but by degrees has crept over his head, and set up as a Connoisseur over every article that belongs to a House. He employed journeymen in his own proper calling, cabinet-makers, glass-grinders, looking-glass framers, carvers for chairs, testers and posts for beds, ….." Descriptions such as this suggest that the Upholders were becoming what today we would call "interior designers."
The Upholders had had to fight for their success. In the 1660s, the East India Company imported large quantities of rattan cane, and cane chairs became the fashionable rage. They were promoted for their "Durableness, Lightness and Cleanness from Dust, Worms and Moths," and they were cheaper than upholstered chairs. The Upholders, supported by the woolen cloth makers, petitioned Parliament to ban the manufacture of cane chairs. They failed, but continued to compete successfully with the chair caners, who allied themselves with the Joiners. Much was at stake. In the 1690s London produced about 190,000 chairs upholstered in woolen Turkey work and about 72,000 caned chairs per annum. Between a third and a half of these were exported to the Continent and America.
The Weavers were powerful allies for the Upholders. Cloth and drapery were costly and of high social status. In 17th and early 18th century households the most expensive furnishings were the hangings for the master bed. The wealth of Medieval England, which was considerable, was built largely upon the wool industry. English cloth was widely exported across the continent and across the Atlantic. The spinning and weaving of cloth was a labour-intensive cottage industry in hundreds of English villages and towns. It is hardly surprising that the spinning Jenny and the power loom were the first machines of the Industrial Revolution.