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Artist: W.T. Mersereau & Company ((active before 1865-1896), Newark, New Jersey)

Date: 1880-1885
Medium: Brass
Dimensions:
Overall: 25 x 19 x 11 1/2in. (63.5 x 48.3 x 29.2cm)
Credit Line: 75th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Robert Tuggle in Honor of Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio
Object number: 2012.4
Text Entries

The brothers William T. (b. ca. 1848) and Jacob (b. ca. 1831) Mersereau founded W. T. & J. Mersereau.74 The firm operated in New Jersey and New York City with a store listed as “Stair Rods and Trunk Hardware” on Duane Street in New York beginning in 1865. By 1879 the factory remained in Newark, New Jersey, but the retail business was conducted solely in New York City, having moved to 321 Broadway.75 In 1883 the firm was reorganized; Jacob Mersereau retired and a new partnership consisting of William T. Mersereau, George W. Holt, and Frank D. Mersereau (a younger brother of William and Jacob) was formed under the name W. T. Mersereau & Company.76

 

Patent records, newspaper and periodical articles, credit ratings, advertisements, and an incomplete catalogue present an overview of this large household-brass manufacturer. Judging from its marketing materials and a surviving company catalogue, brass bedsteads were the firm’s mainstay in the 1880s.77 Advertisements typically feature a line drawing of a simple canopy bed with other furniture forms mentioned in the text. W. T. Mersereau & Company’s ca. 1885 catalogue features an array of brass beds—from bassinets and youth bedsteads with canopies to highly ornamental full-sized beds, the embellishment of which exhibit a strong Japanese design influence. Brass rods in patterns that echo bamboo and brass panels with portrayals of bats, owls or other birds, sailing ships, and stylized flowers are hallmarks of the company’s beds.

 

The business also produced a line of smaller household goods. William T. and Frank D. Mersereau were each issued a number of design patents for metal items such as a jeweled lampshade (1885), sunflower-shaped and crab-shaped cuspidors (1887), and Japanese-inspired teakettle stands (1887 and 1889). By retailing sheet metal and patterns, the firm also capitalized on the arts-and-crafts pastime of home repoussé work, which, according to the New York Times, was “rapidly becoming a favorite occupation of fashionable ladies.”78

 

For the home, W. T. Mersereau & Company offered brass easels, “cabinets” (akin to small étagères), fire screens, coat racks, and a selection of tables and chairs.79 An 1885 article in the New York Times remarked on Mersereau’s “composite furniture, partly of wood and partly of brass and in all useful shapes and styles. They present a very handsome appearance, and are becoming quite fashionable.” A year later, a writer for the Decorator and Furnisher commented, “brass tables are among the pretty and artistic productions of this house. They have either brass or wood tops, the latter being of highly polished mahogany or rosewood, the former of finely wrought brass, with a plaque or tile set in the top.”80

 

The company’s catalogue illustrates tables with mahogany or stained ebony tops resting on tubular brass legs patterned in imitation of bamboo. These tables cost as little as eight dollars, whereas more elaborate tables with brass or “oxidized” silver legs and decorative “heavy cast brass braces” (stretchers) cost about thirty dollars.81This chair reveals the decorative potential of brass, which was used to imitate other materials. The legs, stretchers, and attenuated chair back are of tubular brass, the rustication of which imitates tree branches, even the knots in wood. The matte finish created by the pattern and the use of wood for the seat frame and spindles enhance the countrified pretense of the chair.82 At thirty dollars, this was one of W. T. Mersereau’s more costly chairs. A more formal example of brass furniture is the tête-à-tête attributed to Mersereau based on a catalogue illustration.83Here, tubular brass with a hammered pattern is fashioned in a serpentine top rail supported by straight legs and crossed stretchers.

 

Many of W. T. Mersereau’s products demonstrate a preference for Japanese imagery. From each corner of the top of one Mersereau table hangs a decorative spindle ending in a pendant drop. On either side of the spindles, a pierced, cast brass, stylized fan is attached. The Japanesque influence is carried to the legs, which have an overall pattern of nonrepresentational organic forms, a design similar to one pictured on a coal hod in Mersereau’s catalogue and referred to as the “Japanese pattern.”84 The metal tabletop boasts a realistic rendering of grapes and grape leaves.

 

The music rest (61.1078) draws together many of the motifs found in Mersereau designs and is one of the strongest examples of Anglo-Japanese furniture produced by the firm. A framework supports two shelves designed to hold sheet music. The spindle-rail sides on the bottom shelf are hinged to permit easy access. Cast floral elements analogous to that on the side chair, and fans identical to those on the table, adorn the framework. Oftentimes, the top surface of each shelf would have been covered, yet they feature scenes in matte and polished brass that include depictions of a sunburst, clouds, and birds that are most likely drawn from Japanese print sources. The application of stylized animal feet strengthens the object’s visual relationship to Japanese applied arts. Manufacturers of brass household furniture exalted brass for its warm color and shininess while creatively maximizing the adaptability of the material. Mersereau’s catalogue offered select objects in several finishes that demonstrate the versatility of the metal. Decorative patinas included “Oroide Bark” (an alloy that resembles gold in color), oxidized silver, nickel plate, and “Japanese Bronze.” The music rest retains its original red and black patina on the vertical supports. The color adds visual warmth and increases the exotic tone of the object. Mersereau had a store in Manhattan, but the company most likely increased its furniture distribution by selling wholesale. An 1886 advertisement for Robert S. Gould, retailer of brass accessories and curtain trimmings, for example, depicts a chair analogous to one offered in the Mersereau catalogue and closely related to the tête-à-tête.85 Perhaps Mersereau was supplying retailers such as Gould.

 

74. The R. G. Dun ledgers note that, “Jacob Mersereau states new firm formed February 1/65, that WFM was the co. in the late firm and he (JM) has been bookkeeper for Bruce & Cook.” New York City Vol. 379, 8 (Mar. 18, 1865), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.

 

75. The R. G. Dun records for Newark, N.J., note on Jan. 30, 1877, “Store and Finances in NY City where they are better known than here.” New Jersey Vol. 22, 58 (Jan. 30, 1877), R. G.

Dun & Co. Collection. On Jan. 22, 1878, the R. G. Dun records for New York City list the firm on Broadway (New York Vol. 379, 173). In 1883 an additional address of 9 Bond St. was added to the listing. The listing remains unchanged until 1890, when 321 Broadway and 39 Union Square West were recorded. Beginning in 1893, 261 Canal St. was the given address; in 1896, 259 Canal St. There is no New York City directory listing after 1896.

 

76. New York Vol. 379, 200S 9 (Apr. 6, 1883), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.

 

77. An article in the New York Times, Aug. 18, 1885, 5, notes, “Messrs. W. T. Mersereau & Co. of No. 321 Broadway,” were the “originators of the New York Brass Furniture Company.” According to the R. G. Dun ledgers, the New York Brass Furniture Co. was Mersereau’s retail operation at 39 Union Square West. See New York Vol. 379, 200 a/54 (Sept. 15, 1887), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.

 

78. New York Times, Aug. 18, 1885, 5. The article goes on to define repoussé work on sheet metal as consisting of “raising in relief the pattern by sinking or lowering the groundwork by hammering either with different shaped hammers by means of blows applied to a punch or chasing tool, one end of which is figured with the pattern desired to be used.” Trade journals such as The Art Journal also often carried repoussé patterns for domestic purposes.

 

79. A later company advertisement noted that the firm also made architectural elements such as handrails, office rails, and grilles. See an undated advertisement in the International Silver Archives, Meriden Historical Society.

 

80. New York Times, August 18, 1885, 5. The Decorator & Furnisher Supplement 8, 5 (August 1886): 148.

 

81. Eight dollars in 1885 is the equivalent to about $150 in 2003; thirty dollars in 1885 equaled about $569 in 2003. See John J. McCusker, “Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in the United States (or Colonies) from 1665 to Any Other Year Including the Present,” Economic History Services, Web site, http://www.eh.net/hmit/ppowerusd/

 

82. This chair is nearly identical to model no. 625 in the W. T. Mersereau catalogue of circa 1880–85. No. 625 had a sunburst motif in place of the flower and leaves. Catalogue of Brass Bedsteads and Furniture Manufactured by W. T. Mersereau & Co., No. 321 Broadway, New York (New York: W. T. Mersereau & Co., [1880–85]), 173. A partial photocopy of this catalogue is in the research files of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and was kindly supplied by James Roan, Librarian, NMAH. The whereabouts of the original is unknown.

 

83. Manhattan Brass Co. offered a similar, singular chair in its ca. 1887 catalogue. The framework of the Manhattan Brass chair features a wave pattern, and there are no cast embellishments nor spindles. See “Price List of Rolled and Sheet Brass, Brass, Copper and Zinc Tubing, Brass and Copper Wire and the Following Brass Goods: Burners, Lamps, Lanterns” (New York: Manhattan Brass Co., ca. 1887), 147. Baker Library.

 

84. No. 722, Catalogue of Brass Bedsteads and Furniture, 180.

 

85. Advertisement, Carpet and Trade Review 17, 10 (May 1886): 49. Gould’s store was located at 332 Broadway in New York City. Courtesy of the metals research files in the American Decorative Arts Department, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would like to thank Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and Beth Wees for permitting access to these files.