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From Egypt to the American Patio

The History of Wicker Furniture

Considered one of the quintessential elements of modern outdoor furniture, wicker has a long and interesting history. One of the first natural materials to be used for furniture, it was very popular during the ancient Egyptian civilization as a medium for baskets and chairs. The popularity of wicker was passed from Egypt to Rome and then throughout Europe, as international sea traders carried wicker wares to Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain. Today, wicker remains a popular selection for outdoor furniture in America and Europe. From the classical pieces of ancient Egypt to the modern-day outdoor furniture of America, wicker furniture has survived and flourished through centuries and civilizations.

Ancient Egypt to Victorian England

Wicker furniture began its history in the exotic Egyptian empire of 3000 B.C. While working to uncover the civilizations of the pharaohs, archaeologists have discovered dozens of examples of wicker furniture made from reed and swamp grasses (Saunders 1990). Historians believe these grasses growing along the Nile river were popular material for a variety of furniture in the Egyptian kingdom, including chests, baskets, wig boxes, and chairs. Wicker furniture items created in Egypt traveled throughout the ancient world and eventually became quite popular in Rome. Appreciating the style and simplicity of this furniture, Roman emperors began utilizing wicker to create their own furniture styles.

While wicker furniture and, indeed, all furniture design declined somewhat during the Dark Ages, it had become quite common in several European countries by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Adventurous sea travelers with an appreciation for ancient Roman culture scattered wicker furniture throughout Europe, and explorers' forays into Southeast Asia brought about the discovery and use of rattan, a much sturdier wicker material than reed (Saunders 1990). 

By the nineteenth century's Victorian era in England, wicker had become an important and popular element for outdoor furniture. As lovers of cleanliness, Victorians believed that the raw wicker was far more sanitary for furniture, as it tended to collect much less dust than upholstered items. Wicker furniture became popular for use both in the home and in the garden, as its simplicity and flexibility lent itself toward a variety of different furniture styles and designs. 

Wicker Enters America

While the first items of wicker furniture came to America with travelers on the Mayflower, it would not experience widespread popularity in the new world until the mid-nineteenth century. Rattan, the most common material for wicker furniture, was frequently used in this time period to hold cargo in place on trading ships that had ventured to Asia. In the early 1850s, Cyrus Wakefield, now considered the father of American wicker furniture, discovered large quantities of rattan on the shipping docks of Boston and became fascinated by the material (Saunders 1990). Recognizing rattan's potential for a variety of purposes, Wakefield began his own rattan importing company in Boston and commenced bringing entire ships full of it into America. The material became quite popular with basket and furniture makers, and Wakefield himself began constructing his own line of wicker furniture from rattan. His popular furniture designs soon caught on and his company became the industry leader in wicker furniture.

Automation Speeds Production

While wicker furniture proved to be quite popular in the United States for both indoor and outdoor use, the labor-intensive process of weaving the canes into furniture limited its overall production. However, in the late 1860s, an inventor employed by the Heywood Brothers, one of Wakefield’s competitors, created a loom that could automatically weave and install cane seats (Saunders 1990). The tool minimized the handwork required in creating a piece of wicker furniture and greatly reduced the overall production cost. Competition increased rapidly between Wakefield and the Heywood Brothers, as the two companies each sought to produce more quality furniture at a lower price. Eventually, the two leading producers decided to merge, and their combined company completely dominated the wicker furniture industry until the 1920s (Adamson & Latham 1993).

Wicker Declines and Resurges

Although it had been quite popular during the Victorian era, wicker furniture began to decline in the public regard by the early 1900s. Furniture tastes had moved toward simple, clean-cut lines, and the style of wicker furniture was considered too elaborate and flamboyant for most homes. Reacting to this general distaste for Victorian wicker furniture, Wakefield and Heywood began producing wicker chairs in the popular mission style (Adamson & Latham 1993). However, popularity continued to wane until Marshal B. Lloyd, a competing designer, began producing wicker furniture from synthetic materials in more simplistic designs. Using synthetic materials greatly reduced the cost of production and allowed Lloyd to sell his furniture for a lower price. Not to be outdone, the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield purchased Lloyd’s company and began producing more cost-effective, synthetic wicker furniture. The furniture did well for some years, until wicker again began to lose its appeal in the midst of the Great Depression. The twice-merged company was forced to turn to wood and metal furniture and eventually quit manufacturing furniture completely in 1979 (Saunders 1990).

By the 1960s and 1970s, wicker furniture experienced an increase in popularity as demands for outdoor furniture and appreciation for earlier furniture styles took hold. This renaissance of popularity has generally held into present years, and wicker furniture--in a variety of different styles using many diverse wicker materials--is now a common sight on American porches, patios, and decks.

-- Posted May 4, 2007

References

Adamson, Jeremy & Latham, Kit. 1993. American Wicker: Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930. Random House, Inc.

Saunders, Richard. 1990. Wicker Furniture: A Guide to Restoring and Collecting. Random House, Inc.