Thursday, April 30, 2009

Does Obama's Election make Campaign Furniture Obsolete?

Did you know there's an entire category of antiques called "campaign furniture?"

This furniture has nothing to do with last November's election, although it was a campaign. Plus, even if there were some connection, the furniture wouldn't be antique because an antique is defined as a piece that's at least 100 years old. Dick Cheney and I almost qualify but not quite.

Campaign furniture dates back to Roman times but it was perfected by the English during the Georgian and Victorian periods (1714-1901) when the British empire was being built.

It's defined as any furniture made specifically for travel, being designed in such a way that it could be carried with ease, with either chunky brass handles or dismantled completely to be packed away for long voyages. Plus each piece could be broken down and set up without nails, tacks or screws, hence its nickname "knockdown furniture."

Here's an English campaign desk, circa 1820:

Campaign furniture was always made in separate parts to make it more portable. In the case of this desk, the top detaches from the two pedestals. Also, each of the three pieces has flush mounted brass handles on the sides for easy carrying and storage.

Here is an antique campaign washstand that unscrews for portability:

To understand campaign furniture, you need to understand warfare two hundred years ago. It was a time of extended voyages, long treks (either on foot or with animals like elephants and camels), and harsh living conditions for the infantry and porters.

But conditions were very different for the high ranking military officers. These British officers of high social position took it for granted that they'd enjoy the same luxe life on a military campaign as they did at home. To assure this, they spent enormous amounts of money purchasing campaign furniture to make their life "under canvass" (as life in military camps was called) as elegant, comfortable and convenient as it was back in England.

Some commanders would go so far as to take along entire drawing-room suites of upholstered furniture designed to disassemble completely without the use of tacks, nails, or tools. Picture a room at the Four Seasons only it's in a tent and stuck in some far flung wasteland. Here's a photo of a typical campaign bedroom:

A good example of the luxury that was campaign furniture is demonstrated by this 19th century English Mahogany Serpentine campaign chest of drawers (aka lowboy) that was made in two separate parts (note the handles below on the sides):

The purpose and design of campaign furniture was clear: strength (mahogany and teak were the woods of choice given their durability and resistance to insect damage), ease of assembly/disassembly, portability, and elegance.

Did I say elegance? Forsooth I did. Campaign furniture was designed to be as stylish as the finest furniture in an upper class London home. And along with the furniture, came the servants to attend to the officer: each officer would typically be accompanied by no less than 10 members of his staff. In a letter to his mum, English Captain Julian Grenfell wrote, “I adore war. It is like a big picnic.” Question from the Buzz: "Where can I sign up?"

Here's a campaign chair that folds up neatly for travel:
What other types of antiques were made as campaign furniture? A better question would be what kinds of furniture wasn't made for campaigns?! Julius Caesar brough parquet wood floors on his campaigns. And for the English, in addition to the pieces shown above there were bookcases, games tables, reclining chairs, beds, sofa-beds, toilets, bidets (don't ask), and chests like the one seen here:

Finally, it should be noted that not all antique campaign furniture saw a single battle or for that matter any military campaign at all. The designs of campaign furniture were considered so stylish in their day that many well-to-do Londoners at that time commissioned the same designs for their manor houses or London flats. Strange but true.

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