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Treasures: Natural finish of wicker chairs is prized

This imposing high back wicker chair is sometimes called a “photographer’s chair.”
This imposing high back wicker chair is sometimes called a “photographer’s chair.” TNS

Q: I have an old wicker chair with a label underneath that reads “Heywood Bros, Gardner, Mass, USA.” It is in good condition, with minor wear. I am downsizing and would like to sell it. Any idea of its current value?

E. E.

A: Furniture skillfully woven from wicker, rattan, willow, rush, raffia or palm has been around for a very long time. It is said that the ancient Egyptians made chairs and tables from this material, and the Romans used it to craft sofas and baskets.

Rattan is the stem or trunk of a climbing palm that is native to China, India, Malaysia and other Asian countries. When the outer bark is removed and the interior vine is dried, what remains is the hard inner shell, or rattan. When rattan is split into flat strips, the remaining product is called cane.

The popularity of wicker furniture has had its ups and downs, but the period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s is often called the “Golden Age of Wicker.” Prior to 1850, most of the wicker furniture available in the United States was made either in England or Asia.

The Berrian family of New York City may have been the first to have a factory manufacturing wicker furniture. But the two most famous companies were located in Massachusetts and were founded by Levi Heywood, who established a bentwood and Windsor chair factory in Gardner, Massachusetts, in 1826, and Cyrus Wakefield, a grocer who established a factory to make wicker furniture in 1855.

Heywood added wicker furniture after the end of the Civil War and became a fierce business rival with the Wakefield Rattan Company of South Redding (later renamed Wakefield). The company was founded after Wakefield, a Boston grocer, noticed all the wasted rattan lying around on the docks. The material was used to cushion cargo during long sea voyages from Asia, but after the trip was over, the material was discarded.

Wakefield found a use for it, and soon he and Heywood were competing aggressively in the wicker furniture business. The two firms merged in 1897 and became the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. Not until 1921 did they become known as Heywood-Wakefield Co.

The chair in today’s question, with its high back decorated with swags and roundels, is often called a photographer’s chair, because it was sometimes used as a posing chair in a photography studio. It looked good in the pictures and helped the subjects sit up straight while getting their picture taken.

This circa 1891 to 1897 chair is all-natural, unpainted wicker, and this is to its monetary advantage because collectors prize wicker furniture that has never been painted. One exactly like this one — except it had been painted white — sold at Thomaston Place Auction Company in Thomaston, Maine on March 29, 2014, for $250. This one might bring a bit more because of its natural finish.

Write to Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.