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Bench

Artist: Phoenix Iron Works (active Utica, New York, c.1863-1906)

Date: 1870-1880
Medium: Cast iron
Dimensions:
Overall: 35 1/8 × 57 3/4 × 23 1/2in. (89.2 × 146.7 × 59.7cm)
Signed: marked: 'C.F. PALMER UTICA N.Y. MFG'R / FERN / PHOENIX / IRON / WORKS / UTICA /N.Y.' and 'FERN'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 84.16.1-2
Label Text
In the mid-nineteenth century, cast iron was elevated from a utilitarian metal to a substance from which to fabricate aesthetic art forms. Ease of manufacture and of assembly of parts made it an ideal industrial material for buildings and outdoor furnishings. The use of cast iron was part of a wider Victorian movement to tame nature through "civilizing" artifacts. The design of the MWPI settee-derived from a popular Victorian houseplant-implies the dominance of artifice over nature.

In 1853 Chauncey Palmer established an independent foundry in Utica. His business was twice destroyed by fire. In 1863 Palmer rebuilt his company and changed the name from C. Palmer & Company to Phoenix Iron Works, in reference to the mythological bird that rose renewed from its own ashes. Advertisements illustrate that, in addition to cast-iron seating, Phoenix Iron Works manufactured urns, garden statuary, fountains, fencing, architectural castings, and hardware.

ATD

The negative and positive visual aspects of cast-iron furniture are often equally important, adding an air of lightness to a physically weighty object. On this settee the pattern name "fern" is worked into the seat. (Look at the shadow below.) The design of the MWPAI settee was copied from the popular "fern and blackberry" pattern registered in 1875 by the English firm Coalbrookdale Company.

In 1853 Chauncey Palmer established an independent foundry in Utica. His business was twice destroyed by fire. In 1863 Palmer rebuilt his company and changed the name from C. Palmer & Company to Phoenix Iron Works, in reference to the mythological bird that rose renewed from its own ashes. Advertisements illustrate that, in addition to cast-iron seating, Phoenix Iron Works manufactured urns, garden statuary, fountains, fencing, architectural castings, and hardware.

ATD
(August 2002)

Text Entries

In the mid-nineteenth century, cast iron was elevated from a utilitarian metal to an aesthetic form. Ease of manufacture and assembly made it an ideal industrial material for buildings and furnishings. The use of cast iron, a favored material for outdoor furniture, was also part of a wider Victorian movement to tame nature through "civilizing" artifacts. The MWPI settee, a product from a once-thriving regional industry, attests to the nineteenth-century desire to tame the outside world through furnishings.

Mass-production techniques and improvements in foundry manufacturing methods made cast-iron furniture affordable for middle- as well as upper-class Victorian consumers. The process of casting iron required an original wood model designed by a skilled craftsman, or another cast-iron piece from which castings were directly made.(1)  This latter process permitted manufacturers to copy a competitor's creations quickly, and thus the market became flooded with favored designs. This example, for instance, is in the popular "fern and blackberry" motif manufactured by several firms.(2)  Although some designs were patented, opportunistic businessmen were not deterred from copying them.(3)  Unfortunately, the majority of craftsmen did not patent their designs, and these artisans remain undocumented.(4) Competing foundries could credit their products, however, by casting the firm name directly into the cast-iron seats. The maker of the MWPI settee promoted his work by casting "C. F. PALMER UTICA N.Y. MFG'R/FERN/PHOENIX/IRON/WORKS/ UTICA/ N.Y." into the diaper-patterned seat.(5)

Designers strove to make industrially produced cast-iron furniture appear to be a product of nature.(6) Cast-iron furniture evolved from mid-nineteenth-century designs of naturalistic, rustic forms in imitation of bound branches and twigs to rigid and controlled styles that expressed the desire to domesticate nature. The design of the MWPI settee is derived from the popular Victorian houseplant and implies the dominance of artifice over nature.(7)  On the MWPI example the fern-leaf motif forms the main structure of the back. The fern-and-blackberry design first appeared in American trade catalogues in the 1870s.(8)  Of European origin, the pattern has arcing fern foliage, suspended blackberry clusters, and symmetrically arranged fronds contained within the crest rail in a naturalistic yet highly controlled fashion. The legs suggest a cabriole shape by curving inward and back while ending in small ball feet. The back, sides, and legs of the settee are one continuous casting, while the seat is cast separately and bolted into place. A wrought-iron brace supports the seat and prevents the legs from splaying.

Chauncey Palmer (1807-84) was born in the Oneida County, New York, town of North Bridgewater, and received his training in woodworking and cabinetmaking prior to moving to Utica in 1828. He soon began a partnership with Lewis Lawrence and opened the first wood planing mill in Utica.(9)  In 1853 Palmer established an independent foundry containing a machine shop and iron-railing works at 55 Blandina Street. His business was twice destroyed by fire. In 1863 Palmer rebuilt his foundry and changed the name from C. Palmer & Company to Phoenix Iron Works, in reference to the mythological bird that rose from its own ashes. Advertisements illustrate that in addition to cast-iron seating, Phoenix Iron Works manufactured urns, garden statuary, fountains, fencing, architectural castings, and hardware.(10)  Under the direction of Chauncey's son Cyrus (1830-1906), the foundry continued to prosper and to expand its line of wares until Cyrus's death.(11)

Essay by Donald Scott Bell


1. Casting directly from a cast-iron model resulted in the loss of fine details, and the end product was up to 3 percent smaller than the original because the iron shrank after cooling.


2. The Coalbrookdale Company in England registered the "Fern and Blackberry Settee" in 1858 with the Designs Office in London. See Georg Himmelheber, Cast-iron Furniture and All Other Forms of Iron Furniture (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, Ltd., 1996), p. 32. Himmelheber has noted that copies of this pattern were available from companies in Glasgow, Stockholm, the United States, and perhaps Melbourne and has stated that the pattern was also available as an armchair.

3. 19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), cat. no. 119.


4. Esther Mipaas, "Cast-Iron Furnishings: Sitting Pretty in the Garden," American Art & Antiques 2, no. 3 (May-June 1979): 41.


5. See Sotheby's, Sotheby’s Summers Place Auction, sale cat. 7073 (New York, Sept. 23, 1997), lots 254-55, 266, for illustrations of fern and blackberry- patterned settees showing an iron slat seat, a wooden slat seat, and a pierced cast-iron seat of lattice work and scrolls, respectively.


6. Ellen Marie Snyder, "Victory over Nature: The Elevation and Domestication of Victorian Cast-Iron Seating Furniture" (M.A. thesis, Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, 1984), p. 38.


7. In her master's thesis, Snyder analyzed five settees and discussed the Victorian desire to express control over nature through seating furniture. During the nineteenth century, cast-iron furniture changed forms-pieces tended to become more controlled and confined and less naturalistic. Snyder described the fern settee as a step in the evolution between the rustic settees and curtain settees (rectilinear in composition). See Snyder, "Victory over Nature," p. 38.


8. Snyder, "Victory over Nature," p. 33. The fern settee is illustrated in a Phoenix Iron Works advertisement in the 1877 Utica city directory. The fern settee also appears in several trade catalogues of A. B. and W. T. Westervelt and Samuel S.  Bent and Son of New York and E. T.  Barnum Wire and Tool Works of Detroit, Mich.; see 19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts, cat. no. 218, and Mipaas, "Cast-iron  Furnishings," p. 38. The fern settee with wooden slat seat is illustrated in an 1870s catalogue and a 1924 catalogue of J. W. Fiske of New York; see Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, Winterthur, Del. The Coalbrookdale Company of Shropshire, Eng., illustrated the fern settee in its catalogue of 1875. See Sotheby's, Summers Place Auction, illustration for lot 254, and The Coalbrookdale Illustrated Spring Catalogue, April 1888, Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.


9. John J. Walsh, Vignettes of Old Utica (Utica: Utica Public Library, 1982), p. 274. Palmer is listed as a master builder and foundry owner from 1843 through 1859, after which he is listed as foundry owner.


10. One of the company's principal products was the well-known Phoenix furnace. Chauncey and son Cyrus Palmer also expanded their business to include the distribution of the Utica Sewing Machine as well as their own highly advertised Palmer Patent Clothes Dryer. See Utica city directories, 1866 and 1906.


11. Obituary for Cyrus F. Palmer, The Utica Observer; Sept. 19, 1906.

In the early 1880s, according to the Utica Mercantile and Manufacturing Association, Chauncey is listed under the category of “Iron Industries" as an employer of ten workers. See Utica Mercantile and Manufacturing Association (Utica: Curtiss & Childs, Printers, 1881), p. 44. By 1892 his son Cyrus, then presiding owner, employed twenty-five "of the most skilled mechanics in the city." See J. A. Miller, A Descriptive Review of the D., L. & W R. R. Co.’s Route (Syracuse: Hall & McChesney, 1892), p. 39. There is no listing for Phoenix Iron Works in the Utica city directories after 1906.