POTTIER & STYMUS FURNITURE
The New York City firm of Pottier and Stymus was one of the premier cabinetmaking firms of the late nineteenth century in the United States. In 1875 alone it made more than $1.1 million and had 750 employees. The firm produced interiors for private and commercial clients both here and abroad, but since only a few objects are clearly marked, identifying its furniture is difficult. Pottier and Stymus made furniture in the neo-grec, Renaissance revival, and Egyptian revival styles. Period publications also indicate that they produced furniture in the modern Gothic style, yet curiously no examples were known until recently.
In 1885 Edison was a thirty-eight-year-old widower with three children who was about to marry for the second time. He sought an appropriate residence for his bride to be, Mina Miller, who had been raised on a large estate in Akron, Ohio. Although richer than he had ever been, Edison did not intend to spend more than $20,000 on a new house, but when he was shown Glenmont on more than thirteen acres of landscaped grounds and for sale at a much larger price he wrote:
When I entered this I was paralyzed. To think that it was possible to buy a place like this, which a man with taste for art and a talent for decoration had put...years of enthusiastic study and effort into - too enthusiastic, in fact - the idea fairly turned my head and I snapped it up. It is a great deal too nice for me, but it isn't half nice enough for my little wife here.
The estate was valued at $271,000, including the Pottier and Stymus furnishings that had cost Pedder just over $36,000, but Edison paid less than half the value for the fully furnished Queen Anne style house, grounds, and outbuildings.
Auguste Pottier (1823-1896) was born in Coulommiers, in north central France, and was apprenticed to a wood sculptor in Paris. He had immigrated to the United States by 1847, first working for E. W. Hutchings and Son, then, in 1851, forming a short-lived partnership with Gustave Herter (1830-1898) as Herter, Pottier and Company. In 1856 he became general foreman at Rochefort and Skarren, cabinetmakers in New York City, where he probably met William P. Stymus, who was the upholstery foreman. After Rochefort's death in 1859, Pottier and Stymus formed a partnership and took over the firm. Their new venture began on May 1 of that year with a workshop at 115 Wooster Street and their salesroom at 623 Broadway.
Two significant events occurred in 1888. In February, Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing Company liquidated and was succeeded by Pottier and Stymus Company, a cooperative. The president was Adrian Pottier, Auguste's nephew; the vice president was Auguste Pottier; and the treasurer was Frank Pentz. William P. Stymus Sr. and Jr. and seven other men employed by the previous firm were also named as members of the firm.
The second event was a fire that ravaged the factory on Lexington Avenue in the early hours of March 1. The next day the Daily Graphic provided a detailed drawing of the disaster and announced that "a pile of rains now covers the ground where the great buildings stood." Although the factory was rebuilt on the same location, most of the firm's meticulous records are believed to have been destroyed in the fire.
The firm's elaborate and elegant work in the various revival styles noted above is known from such commissions as the president's office and the Cabinet Room in the White House in 1869 and the house of the financier and politician Leland Stanford (1824-1893) in Palo Alto, California, in 1875.
The only evidence to suggest that the firm also produced simpler, modern Gothic designs are three drawings published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in November 1876. The furniture shown reflects the tenets of the English design reform movement - geometric and incised lines, contrasting materials, and architectonic qualities. The crenellations, rectilinearity, and compartmentalization on the top of the sideboard in Plate IX are repeated in the design of chests of drawers and headboards on bedsteads in Glenmont. Indeed, the shape of the sideboard nearly matches that of an organ case in the reception room at Glenmont. Notably different are the metal hinges on the furniture in Plates IX and X and the floral marquetry panels on the Glenmont furniture.
What decoration there is on the Glenmont furniture includes just enough carving to provide texture and contrast to the straight lines of the furniture. The modern Gothic line appears to represent the middle range of the company's products, for Pottier and Stymus were known to produce "canopied and carved bedsteads that cost thousands of dollars"; whereas the most expensive bedstead at Glenmont is listed at $630, which included a matching chest of drawers.
The firm's invoices show that it supplied about 120 pieces to Pedder at Glenmont, although based on stylistic criteria only about seventy percent remains today. Of that seventy percent, only twenty-three objects, all in the modern Gothic style, can be documented to Pottier and Stymus, for they all bear a five-digit number, ranging from 50822 on a desk to 71340 on a wardrobe. The numbers are applied in three ways: in pencil, impressed, or stenciled in black ink. The eighteen that are stenciled also bear a stenciled "PEDDER" before the number . Most of the marked pieces comprise bedroom suites and a suite for the reception room. In the case of one of the bedsteads the mark "PEDDER 65280" is followed by "4.10 [feet] B.6.6," which are the interior dimensions of the bed frame. These marks, together with the Pottier and Stymus bills, detailed household inventories, and period photographs in the archives at Glenmont, provide clear evidence of their manufacture by the firm.
Much of what is known about the firm's operations comes from the Golden Book of Celebrated Manufacturers and Merchants in the United States, published in 1875 as part of the reports of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The book claims that the firm scrupulously detailed
the history of each article...from its first entrance to the building through its various stages in the different departments....Each piece, from the cheapest to the most expensive, is numbered in the beginning, and retains the same number till it comes forth in one of the numerous elegant productions. To the uninitiated this plan seems perfectly simple, but upon examination it develops a most ingenious combination, particularly in view of the details of perfect fabrication, which is the prime objective of this establishment.
The entry suggests that the numbers constitute a code that, if deciphered, could be used to document the firms furniture today.
The wardrobe marked "71340" is also inscribed "Photographed" twice in pink ink on the back. The location and condition of this notation suggest that it was applied at the time of production. This supports the assertion in the Golden Book that all objects were photographed for the firm's photographic gallery, "encased in elegantly bound albums, for the inspection of the patrons of the establishment."The book states that the photographic gallery "is an unique and happy conception of Pottier, Stymus & Co."
Twenty-three pieces of furniture may seem a small sampling, but in the case of Pottier and Stymus it is an unusually large number from a single commission. Putting the marks in numerical order suggests intriguing interpretations. Three sequentially numbered pieces of furniture are in Edison's bedroom - the bedstead in which he died, a bureau , and a table. All have carved basket-weave patterns and floral marquetry of metal and wood. Remaining evidence suggests that the fireplace surround was similarly decorated, indicating a unified decorative treatment for the whole room. As would be expected in an aesthetic movement interior, similar repetitive motifs infused all aspects of the design of the room. Pottier and Stymus were masters of this sort of decorating, for Home Building wrote in 1877 that the firm
unit[es] all the arts of house-decoration and furnishings....From a vast museum of artistic samples and models [their designer] draws the themes that are to be realized...and the result is a harmonious whole, beautiful, interesting and reposeful.
In the adjoining bedroom the bedstead, two chests of drawers, and a table also follow a sequential numbering system and are united by carved floral motifs. A chest of drawers in a second-floor bedroom, a bedstead now stored on the third floor and a side chair also reflect this pattern, demonstrating that they once all belonged together.
The five objects in the reception room that have visible numbers present an exception to the sequential, or nearly sequential, numbering of stylistically similar furniture. They are a table, an organ case and bench, and two music cabinets. Like most of the rest of the furniture in the room, these five pieces have floral marquetry patterns, and all have a carved fan, indicating that they were to be used together:
The reception room is adjacent to the drawing room, and there are strong indications that Pottier and Stymus intended the rooms to be related decoratively. A commentator in 1891 wrote of the reception room that the ceiling was "bordered with conventionalized roses on a trellis of golden brown,"while the carpet in the drawing room "shows soft-hued conventionalized roses." Moreover, in the drawing room Pottier and Stymus supplied an Italian marble bust of a girl entitled "The Rose," signed by Salvador Albino of Florence and dated 1881. Most of the furniture in the drawing room comprises a rococo revival suite that belonged to Pedder before he came to Glenmont. Clearly, Pottier and Stymus were asked to work around it in their decorating, for their bill of May 7, 1882, notes: "Altering and supplying onyx top to Rosewood table and refinishing same." The table is still in the room and, and on the underside of the onyx top the number "65321" has been impressed. This is close to the number on the organ in the reception room, "65317," suggesting that the numbering is based on how objects fitted into a planned interior scheme rather than objects made en suite. It seems possible that the now absent modern Gothic furniture that Pottier and Stymus surely made for the drawing room bore the numbers that would have failed in the now random numerical sequence in the reception room. Period illustrations show a tete-a-tete and a sideboard in the drawing room, for example, that might have assisted in documenting this theory.
In 1888, two years after the Edisons moved into Glenmont, they had Pottier and Stymus supply some furniture and make a number of changes in the textiles. Besides surviving estimates and bills of sale, there are what appear to be ledger pages from the firm's upholstery department. In these the textiles are given a five-digit number - different one for each room. These numbers are larger than those in the 1882 to 1884 bills, indicating that the later the commission, the larger the number.
The result of the present research has been to provide evidence of Pottier and Stymus's work in the modern Gothic style. As more documented furniture by the firm comes to light, information about the numbering system may help to date or even identify it. An examination of the middling wares of this major nineteenth-century firm provides a contrast to its high-style survivors. Continued study of Glenmont's furnishings and interiors will add to our knowledge of late nineteenth-century furniture and interiors as well as the work of a preeminent, but little studied, decorating firm of New York City in the Gilded Age.
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LAST UPDATED: 18th JAN 2008