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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Furniture Handle Styles

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Furniture Handle Styles

 More than just a functional device, drawer and cupboard handles or knobs can provide both a decorative fillip to a piece of furniture and useful clues in dating it.

 The earliest forms of furniture didn't really need handles and it wasn't until drawers came into general use in the 17th century that handles became a decorative element in a piece of furniture.

 The metal mounts on imported Chinese furniture were an inspiration, and ca ly handles were usually made of cast brass. Much about the date of a handle can be learned from the material itself, as well as the way it's shaped. Brass made before 1690 often had an unattractive, pitted look. From that date, lead was added to the mix of copper and calamine to produce a metal with a softer feel. It's less shiny, and more yellow than brass made after around 1770. In that year, James Emerson patented an alloy of copper and pure zinc, which, because of its closer resemblance to gold and the lack of pitting, soon became the standard form of brass.

 The first metal handles, though, used in the early and mid-17th century, tended to be made of iron and were shaped like inverted hearts. These were still being used on country furniture in the 18th century, but on better pieces were supplanted by drops, usually teardrop-shaped lumps of solid brass that were hinged to a backplate at their narrow end. The plate was occasionally fashioned as a flower, but was more usually a plain circle. The drop itself was sometimes cast to resemble an acorn.

 In the early 18th century the bail handle was developed. This was an incomplete loop of cast brass with its open ends attached to a backplate. The plate was usually made from a pieces of sheet brass cut in a roughly triangular shape, but invariably with indented edges embellished with a symmetrical pattern of complex curves. The surface of the backplate was often engraved. Sometimes a design was also cut out of its centre. Matching key escutcheons protected the veneer around the keyhole.
The ends of the first bail handles curved in and were poked through rings raised out of the backplate. This arrangement was not particularly effective - the handle would pop out of its setting if tugged roughly - and it soon became the custom to curl the open ends out into a 'swan-neck' shape and enclose them securely.
Handles provide an important decorative focus in any piece of furniture. The right period handle enhances both its looks and its value.

 The 18th century taste for elaborate rococo design was also expressed in drawer handles, which got ever more flamboyant in their designs. Much use was made of fretted piercing of backplates, which were reduced in extreme forms to delicate traceries of metal. Asymmetrical scrolling d signs made an appearance. The increasing use of curved surfaces in bow an i serpentine drawer fronts led to the introduction of swan-neck bail handles with a small individual backplate or each end of the loop.


 Such handles did not go well on late 18th century furniture in neo- classical styles. Its cool restraint was matched by elliptical or circular ring handles that lay snugly against a backplate of the same shape and were attached in one place. The rings were sometimes plain, and sometimes cast as ropes or a bracelet of beads.

 From the 1770s on, the plates were machine-stamped with appropriate patterns - a patera (a small, round ornament, often shaped as a rosette), a Roman lamp, and so on - in low relief.

 Towards the end of the century, handles were increasingly made in ormolu, brass or bronze gilded to give it a luxurious feel. At about the same time, well-turned wooden knob handles began to be used, and remained a popular alternative. From the 1830s on, there was a vogue for fat, mushroom-shaped wooden handles which replaced brass ones on a host of older pieces in a misguided attempt to 'modernize' them.


 Squared-off bail handles, each end with its own circular backplate, were a late 18th-century innovation that continued to be popular on Regency furniture. Another style popular at this time was to have a ring handle clasped firmly in the mouth of a cast brass lion's head.
The Regency was virtually the last period in English furniture history when there was a single agreed style.

 After it, most of the handle styles of the previous century and a half were revived at one time or another, though there were some innovations. The main ones came in the form of new materials. Porcelain knobs were increasingly used from around 1850. Some were plain and some of them had painted decoration. At the same time, wooden handles were embellished with colourful insets in porcelain, glass and other materials.

 Putting a date on a handle doesn't necessarily date the furniture to which it is attached. Handles are one of the most vulnerable parts of any piece of furniture, subject to tugging, twisting and the occasional knock; they are also the first target of anyone aiming on updating or other 'improvements. Handles had to be replaced, too, whenever a piece was cut down, in order to keep the correct proportions. All this means that the handles on antique drawers and cupboards are likely to be replacements.

 Fortunately, it's fairly easily to check whether a drawer handle is original. Look inside. It was rarely possible to reuse the same fixings when fitting a new handle, so the existence of previous ones will be revealed by old screw or peg holes, which will probably have been filled.


 Drawer fixings themselves help date a piece. Drops and bail handles of the 18th century were fixed by split pins; two thin pieces of metal were fed through the drawer front, folded back and fastened to the inside.

 Wooden knobs were often turned with a screw thread and fitted straight into the drawer, while cheap, 19th century and later stamped-brass handles were typically attached by metal screws through the backplate.



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