Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

COLLECTING AND RESTORING
VINTAGE WICKER

by Lisa Perry
Wicker is the general term used to refer
to furniture and accessories that are
woven from any kind or combination of
materials such as reed, willow, rattan,
cane or seagrass, as well as a machinemade
fiber. Reed and machine-made fiber
are materials that were used in the majority
of vintage pieces which have survived
and are found in the antique market.
Older wicker is considerably more
sturdy than mass-produced reproductions.
Vintage wicker was built on hardwood
frames, mainly oak and ash, as opposed
to the inferior bamboo frames used
today. American wicker, produced from
1850 to 1939, is the most collectible and
considered an art form by decorative arts
museums because of its design and quality
craftsmanship.
The rattan palm, a vine which grows
in the East Indies, is the source for the
most common wicker. The rattan bark is
peeled off and cut in long strips which are
used to cane chair seats and backs as well
as wrapping parts of the furniture framework.
The remainder of the rattan palm
is then cut and shaped into varied sizes
and diameters of reed. The early 1900's
brought the advent of a fiber rush which
was produced by the taut twisting of
paper. This fiber was inexpensive, strong,
and more pliable than the reed used previously.
The invention of this material
caused a great revolution in the wicker industry
that ironically also led to its downfall.
The material from which vintage
wicker is made should make little difference
in its desirability; what should be
considered foremost is the overall condition
of the piece.
Woven furniture is traceable back to
ancient Egypt where some of the oldest
and finest pieces were made. By the fifth
century B.C., the British had inherited
the idea of woven furniture from their former
Roman conquerors. The wicker they
26

produced was nothing more than an extension
of the basic technique of basketweaving.
The first piece of wicker in
America was a cradle, of Chinese or
Dutch origin, which appropriately came
over on the Mayflower, and can be seen
in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at the Pilgrim
Hall Museum.
The actual wicker furniture industry
began in America, not in the Far East as
so many believe. About 1850 in Massachusetts,
Cyrus Wakefield began the first
major production of wicker furniture. He
responded to the growing popularity of
intricate and ornate Victorian designs of
that era. The Wakefield Rattan Company
flourished, ultimately capturing the majority
of the wicker market. In 1873, a
few years before Wakefield's death, Levi
Heywood, founder of Heywood Brothers
Company, the largest U.S. wood chair
maker, began producing a line of wicker.
This competition produced higher quality
merchandise, improved designs, and
better prices. There were many other
smaller wicker manufacturers during

these years but the 1897 merger of these
two giants in the wicker industry created
a monopoly which lasted through the
early 1920's. Heywood-Wakefield Company
assured their monopoly of the industry
in 1921, when they purchased Lloyd
Loom Manufacturing Company. Lloyd
Loom had patented a machine which
made wicker from paper. This new
method reduced labor and the cost of materials,
thereby offering wicker pieces
at substantially lower prices. This business
move seemed wise to HeywoodWakefield;
unfortunately, when the machine
age took over, the buyers of wicker
furniture felt true craftsmanship had been
lost. Even though the 1920's wicker buyer
lost interest in this "new" wicker, today
this fiber wicker is as collectible and
useable as any that had been produced
before.
The likelihood of finding a piece of
vintage wicker in mint condition is becoming
a rarity. Over the years, most
pieces have been subject to extreme usage
and adverse weather conditions. It is important
to make a thorough evaluation of
the piece before attempting any restoration.
Damage to the weave happens in
varying degrees and in some cases the
framework is damaged. Usually, damage
can be repaired with minimal cost and
the wicker restored to its original condition.
Inspection of any piece should begin
with a check of its underside to see
whether it is worthy of restoration. Prior
to restoring, make use of this guide for
evaluation. Note, 1) the condition of the
outer finish, i.e., is it painted or natural,
and if painted with how much paint, 2)
the physical condition of the woven
areas, i.e., what and how much is
broken, are there any missing parts, and
3) is the framework sound and of good
quality, i.e., hardwood such as oak or ash?
If the piece is, for example, a chair, sit in
it, and note any unusual contours or
looseness. If purchasing a vintage piece,
the price should reflect acknowledgement
of any repairs and not the worth of a piece
in mint condition.

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed July 12, 2014.