Historical guessing game

How do you accurately re-create a 150+ year-old piece of furniture when no originals exist to look at? If you’re like me, you cross your fingers and take your best guess.

I’ve just finished a reproduction of a field cot described in a marvelous 1859 book called “The Prairie Traveler.” The description is minimal at only a couple sentences. (Well, just one sentence, really, with several commas.) The book had a sketch of the cot, but it was extremely lacking in detail.

As you can see from the above photo, it’s a simple piece of furniture. Those riveted legs pivot up compactly when knocked down, then are placed on the canvas between the rails and just rolled up for transport. You can see in the inset how those end braces on the underside of the rails press into the head/footboards when pegged from the other side to lock everything in place.

Trouble is, in the little sketch in the book there are no braces. Perhaps the rails where made so the end tenons were smaller than the rails, providing a shoulder to lock everything together? Nope – the sketch has the rails uniformly sized along their length. How can that be? Without either tenon shoulders or braces of some kind, the cot would have wobbled like mad. Obviously, the original 1859 cots had to use one or the other, but the author didn’t include that detail in the sketch. So, which was it?

I spent a long time thinking about it and came up with numerous pros and cons for either arrangement, but the bottom line was that both would work equally well, and either would be period-correct. I opted for the braces, and in retrospect it seems like the better choice – after a lot of use those head/footboards will eventually loosen up and begin to wobble. You’d not be able to adjust those tenon shoulders for a tighter fit, but braces can be unscrewed and repositioned. On the other hand, making those rails with tenon shoulders eliminates four separate components, making for more straightforward construction. Again, pros and cons. Makes me wonder how original builders made them, and how they decided which way to go.

I’m guessing that, like me, they probably flipped a coin.

A.J.

COMMENTS

  1. Lee Gordon wrote:

    Fortunately for you, there’s no one still around from back then to tell you you guessed wrong.

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