Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2824: A BRASS CATALOGUE

by: Margaret Culbertson

Today, we look at a mysterious catalogue. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Next time you open a drawer, look at the handle you use. Do you grab a brass loop hung between 2 small knobs? Such loops, first appeared in the late 1600’s. Known as bail handles, they and their decorative backplates became larger and more ornate over the next century.

bail handles

Here is a rare trade catalogue of around 1780 that documents their development, even while its own history remains mysterious. Over 1,000 brass objects are illustrated in meticulous detail. In this era before photography, the images were made by engraving lines by hand on a copper plate that was then used to print the pictures. The price of each object was handwritten on the page after printing. Pages of hinges, locks, and pulleys impress the reader with their variety and the skill of the engraver, but the undisputed stars are the bail handles and backplates. Curving baroque lines and rococo fretwork were all the rage, and this furniture brass embodies the styles in every gleaming and ornate detail. You can see actual examples in American historic houses and museums, like Houston’s Bayou Bend Collection. Grand chests of carved mahogany proclaimed their owners’ success—and the more brass the better.

escutcheons

Most of that brass was manufactured across the Atlantic, in Birmingham, England. A directory lists 33 different brass founders there in 1770, and the number kept growing. Which brings us back to the mystery of this catalogue. No brass founder’s name was printed anywhere on it. No date. No publisher. Over 100 brass catalogues from this era have been preserved in libraries and museums, and almost all lack a printed name identifying the source of the objects they picture. Clues in the paper and printing help date the catalogues. Owners’ signatures occasionally lead us to a specific foundry. Most remain tantalizingly anonymous.

andles and escutcheons

Illustrated catalogues of objects for sale were a new thing at the time, and some manufacturers immediately grasped the importance of linking their names with the products. Josiah Wedgwood made sure his name was printed on the first page of his ceramics catalogues. Toolmaker John Wyke’s name is on every page of his catalogues. But brass founders were different. The reason may lie in their method of marketing through middlemen, or agents. Or, perhaps the same printing plates were used by multiple foundries. (One hinge does tend to look like another.)

Whatever the reason, these catalogues represent an alternative to the name-driven advertising that dominates our world today. The objects themselves, rather than their makers are glorified. And they are glorious. With the help of catalogues, 18th-century Birmingham brass drawer handles found their way to cabinetmakers around the world, and we still admire them today.

I’m Margaret Culbertson, from the Bayou Bend Collection, where we too are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The brass trade catalogue described in this episode is in the collection of the Kitty King Powell Library, Bayou Bend Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was donated by Susan Neptune. In Houston, one may make arrangements to view the catalogue by calling the Powell Library, 713-353-1542, or emailing mculbertson@mfah.org.

Bibliography:

Hummel, Charles F. “Samuel Rowland Fisher’s Catalogue of English Hardware.” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol 1 (1964): 188-197.

Symonds, R. W. “An Eighteenth-Century English Brassfounder’s Catalogue.” Magazine Antiques (Feb. 1931): 102-105.

Goodison, Nicholas. “The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.” Furniture History, Vol. 11 (1975): 1-30 and plates.

Fennimore, Donald L. Metalwork in Early America. Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1996.

McKinstry, E. Richard. Trade Catalogues at Winterthur: A Guide to the Literature of Merchandising 1750 to 1980. NY: Garland Publishing, 1984.

Reilly, Robin. Wedgwood. NY: Stockton Press, 1989.

Wyke, John. A Catalogue of Tools for Watch and Clock Makers. Charlottesville: Published for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum by the University Press of Virginia, 1978.

My thanks to Michael Brown, Curator, Bayou Bend Collections, and E. Richard McKInstry, Library Director, Winterthur Museum, for their assistance with this episode.

All images are from the untitled brass trade catalogue of c. 1780 in the Kitty King Powell Library, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, donated by Susan Neptune.

A similar catalogue from the Winterthur Library Collection has been completely digitized and can be viewed at the following link: http://archive.org/details/albumdeserrureri00unse.

This episode was first aired on August 24, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.