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Antique Wicker Furniture

Nov 09, 2010 07:01PM ● By Anonymous

What exactly is wicker? It is a general term applied to anything constructed of woven rattan, cane reed, dried willow, or any other pliable material—even twisted paper.

Although Peregrine White, the first baby born to New England’s Pilgrim settlers, in 1620, was placed in a wicker cradle, wicker first gained its mass popularity during the Victorian era, with the opening of Cyrus Wakefield’s wicker factory in Boston. Wakefield was inspired to use wicker to make furniture when he observed bundles of rattan inside the clipper ships unloading their cargo at the Boston wharves. The rattan, used to protect cargo from slipping, was an inexpensive raw material. “Why not use it for constructing furniture?”he reasoned.

The Victorians used a multitude of materials to create unusual furniture, including papier-mâché, cattle horns, and untrimmed tree branches. Wicker was a natural addition to the Victorian furniture marketplace. The pliable rattan and willow lent itself remarkably well to the elaborate curlicues and complex decorative designs so popular as the Victorian ideals of interior fashion.

Along with a good idea came competition. During the late 1900s, the Heywood brothers of Gardner—as well as the American Rattan Company, the Lloyd Manufacturing Company, and the already established Paine Furniture Company—joined the league of wicker furniture manufacturers. The Heywood Company subsequently merged with Wakefield, and pieces marked Wakefield, Heywood, or both are particularly desirable among collectors.

People may have one of two goals in buying old wicker. First there are those looking for practical porch furniture. They are looking for durable, sturdy pieces and thus prefer antique wicker to new reproductions. They purchase what is referred to as the Bar Harbor style, produced in the 1920s and 30s. Bar Harbor is characterized by a massive, more simplistic design than some other wicker furniture. The rising cost of labor and high taxes on imported rattan during the early part of the century caused the manufacturers to prefer the thicker reeds with an open-weave construction.

The other type of wicker buyer is the connoisseur collector who prefers unusual pieces from the Victorian era. Elaborate settees and chairs from the 1860s and 70s are highly prized by decorators. Bedroom furniture such as headboards and chests of drawers, as well as bookcases and platform rockers, is very rare and therefore very much in demand. Natural wicker, sometimes accented with a multicolored design, is the most valuable of Victorian-era wicker. Many of the pieces were painted to mask imperfections, lowering their value. Never paint an antique piece of natural wicker.

If you own wicker you’d like to restore yourself—other than the wicker constructed of twisted paper, which cannot withstand applications of chemicals or water—first remove the numerous layers of paint, if present, by hand with a toothbrush and paint remover.


The next step, according to the late antique restoration authority George Grotz, is to wash the piece thoroughly with soap and water, thus returning moisture to the wicker. Grotz, who wrote Furniture Doctor and numerous other texts, recommends that you then glue any loose pieces with white glue and hold them in place with masking tape. Missing reeds can be replaced with 3/16-inch dowels. As your final step, make a solution of 10 percent white glue and 90 percent water and brush this thoroughly into every nook and cranny of the furniture. Let it dry and apply another coat. At this point your piece’s strength will be renewed and you can repaint it, using a spray gun or brush. Repaint only if the piece was painted before. New or re-covered cushions in attractive colors or prints will further complement your restored wicker.

New wicker, primarily being produced in Asia, can be distinguished from antique pieces by examining the weight of the furniture frame. Today, lightweight bamboo is used; whereas originally wicker furniture was constructed on hardwood frames. Most antique wicker chairs have cane seats on wooden frames. New chairs have seats of circular woven reed. Antique furniture constructed of reed should be smooth and substantial rather than thin and fuzzy.

Prices for antique wicker can range from $150 to $3,000, depending on the item. Most valuable are Victorian-era pieces in rare shapes and in pristine condition. There are several wicker price guides that can assist you in determining approximate values. A trip to the library or bookstore, along with checking on the Internet, can be helpful in assigning approximate values to pieces you own or are considering purchasing. My favorite reference book on the topic is Fine Wicker Furniture: 1870–1930, by Tim Scott.