Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wicker Summer

   Nothing spells a southern summer like white wicker furniture sitting on the porch. It gives an illusion of comfort and coolness, even during the 'dog days' of August.
   The use of wicker or rattan for furniture, chests, tables, and baskets goes back in history to ancient Egypt. Its light weight easy to obtain materials fostered a rapid spread to Persia, where during the Achaemenid Empire (500 - 350 BC) it was used in battles for shields.
From Persia it spread to Rome. The period of history, referred to as the Iron Age began about 1200 BC and ended around 400 AD, near the time of the adoption of the Christian Bible. This period saw the use of wicker for furniture spread across Roman conquered lands throughout the then known world.

   The construction and early patterns may have been instrumental in the development of what is recognized as Celtic Art, with the twists and turns, like the famous Celtic knot, that expresses undying love.
   By the 16th and 17th century, it was a common household item across Europe, England, and what became the United States. There is a rumor a piece of wicker furniture came over on the Mayflower.
   The great seafarers brought back a new material to add to the manufacture of wicker, a species of palm, rattan. The rattan fibers were tougher and harder than the previously used cane, Later someone opened the stalks and extracted the softer core to make wicker. The process was much like those used to acquire fibers from a flax plant for the weaving of linen that had been used for eons the make the ancient fabric.
   Cyrus Wakefield began manufacturing wicker furniture in the United States during the 1850s. At first, he used rattan discarded on the docks from flying clippers arriving from the Far East. Bundles of rattan were used for ballast on the merchant ships. Later he began importing his own materials. He merged  his company with a rival firm, which continued to build wicker products until 1979.
   Wicker, in our country, became popular with the Victorians, who believed it was more sanitary than upholstered furniture. It does not harbor fleas, which were a common household pest. It was sturdy and withstood the outdoor elements.
   Over the years, the popularity of this ancient home furnishing has waned and gained, depending on fashions of the time. Today the materials used are mainly plastic twisted around wire and then wrapped around an aluminum frame, never touched by human hands. Catalogs refer to it as 'all weather' furniture.
   Some years ago, when wicker was a hot collectible on the antique market, it wasn't safe to leave your old pieces out overnight on the porch.

   A friend told me about having her chairs stolen, going to a barbecue at a friend's home, and being shown the lovely wicker patio furniture the friend had purchased at a flea market. She didn't have the heart to tell the friend, it was her furniture.
   I have the pattern book my father used to make wicker pieces for his mother around 1920. The famous one is the floor lamp, no one wanted it and I ended up with it. To us, it was ugly and difficult to keep clean when we were using a wood burning stove for heat. Sold it at the 127 yardsale. On the way home, I saw it sitting on a neighbor's front porch. It didn't travel far, maybe it's haunting me.

Nash Black, author of Cards of Death. 


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