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For me, one of the highlights of the auction season is the Country Store Auction in Mebane, NC. Not much in the way of furniture but tons of interesting stuff. The focus of the auction is things found in a country store, the merchandise found there-in and advertising of all sorts.
My favorites of favorites continues to be the foods or nominally edible products. Many unfamiliar products or familiar products in unfamiliar formats. Like soft drinks:
Then the are some adult drinks (non-alcoholic):
There was also other the counter remedies:
But, by far the largest category is something you don’t eat. Directly. I hope.
One thing this display points out is that there are no longer local brand in the number there once were. Consolidation has killed off local and regional brands. That and people used to buy a lot of lard.
You would need to buy one of these:
This is another situation were we need some Federal regulation as to the standardization of furniture terminology to avoid confusion and indicate the actual use and derivation of a furniture type. It is commonly called the corner chair but there is not indication that these types of chairs were used exclusively in corners:
There is speculation that this design was meant to allow men wearing sword to sit comfortably. Many doubt this. It can also be called a writing chair, a smoking chair, a roundabout chair or simply Edgar. My personal belief is that exist to promulgate manspread.
There are many variations of corner chairs out there. The common design elements are that the legs are rotated 90° from typical, the side legs continue up to become the arm supports and that the chair arm goes from one side leg to the other. I now believe that some of those odd chairs I came across are just corner chair variants.
Some are more functional:
Some are more elaborate than others:
Some aren’t rounded:
Some are less than utilitarian:
Some are more modern in their approach:
Whatever they are and however they’re made, you can find more in a photo set HERE.
If you are of a certain age, you will know this is one of the iconic lines from Firesign Theater’s The Further Adventures of Nick Danger (1969). Depending on how you’ve lived your life, you might have been surrounded by college friends that, from memory, would constantly reenact entire Firesign Theater routines. Often on a daily basis. Possibly more often but you only saw them on a daily basis. (For extra credit, explain regnad kcin.)
That phrase has also recently become my life. A bridge that links us to the world is being replaced. Bridge 77 on Route 1133 was built in 1954 and has been declared Structurally Deficient and Functionally Obsolete. I was born 1954 and have been declared Structurally Deficient and Functionally Obsolete.
With Old 77 missing, the only way out of here is to go 3.5 miles south or 1.5 miles west on an unpaved road. From one side of the bridge to the other is 6.2 miles on the unpaved road or 9.3 miles if car cleanliness is important to you. I observed the gentleman servicing the job site toilet discovering this the other morning. Our access to Chapel Hill and Carrboro is unaffected so we can still eat well.
Here is the bridge as it is being removed:
Why wouldn’t I want this wood. No one can positively say how it’s been treated. Creosote is a given. It was once widely used by all including the homeowner before coal-tar based creosote’s carcinogenic properties became known. And there could be other things in there including heavy metals. The supervisor told me it costs around $2000 per dumpster to dispose of it properly (legally).
Demolition being finished, construction is well underway.
It takes a big crane to build a bridge:
Depending on weather, the replacement could be ready by month’s end. The one thing we will miss is having the road to ourselves on our early morning walks:
It always interests me that often on those rare occasions I go out looking at furniture I will find very similar items. Similar but not the same.
First I found this:
Continental Victorian Burled Sideboard
Description: Circa 1860, choice burl wood veneers, ebonized highlights, oak secondary, three part form, backsplash featuring a central cartouche with relief carved nuts and fruit, mirrored back, base with two upper side by side drawers above two paneled cabinet doors, flanked by rounded cabinet doors, on suppressed bun feet.
Size: 72 x 65 x 23 in.
Condition: Likely later mirror; top with several shrinkage cracks including one long crack; wear and paint loss to ebonized edge highlights, shrinkage crack to left cabinet door panel; other imperfections from age and use.
The French are very fond of the knife hinge.
And this one has the cutest little bun feet:
A consignment shop in Raleigh has this similar piece:
Again, dovetailed drawers:
This one has hinged drawers:
This buffet also has the lock with two bolts used on many pieces of French furniture:
If any of you know the name of this lock or where I can buy one, please share.
This buffet also has some really great pulls:
Last and by far the least, this poor sad thing found at a mall furniture store:
On a recent trip to the Philadelphia area for a wedding, I had a chance to visit some of my favorite antiques dealers in South Jersey. At one of them, I came across this rather ordinary bench:
This bench has a tool tray and a tool rack on the back:
Drawers have machine cut dovetails:
An adjustable bench stop is currently frozen in place:
The odd thing here was the label on the front of the bench:
If you know Hammacher Schlemmer at all, you probably know them for that catalog that makes you wonder why you’re getting it. It features such brilliant gifts such as The Best Bug Vacuum for $69.95 and the $50,000 The Barbecue Dining Boat.
Hammacher Schlemmer actually has a more interesting past:
Hammacher Schlemmer began as a hardware store specializing in hard-to-find tools in the Bowery district of New York City in 1848. Owned by proprietors Charles Tollner and Mr. R Stern, it became one of the first national hardware stores. A few months later, Stern withdrew and Toller continued the business until 1859, moving in 1857 to 209 Bowery. In 1859, family friend Albert Hammacher invested $5,000 into the company and the name was changed to C. Tollner and A. Hammacher.
Throughout the 1860s, William Schlemmer gradually bought out Charles Tollner’s stake in the company. When Tollner died in 1867, 26-year-old Schlemmer entered into a partnership with Hammacher and Peter F. Taaks. As a result, the company changed its name to Hammacher & Co. William Schlemmer had been actively involved with the business since 1853 when he moved to New York City from Germany at age twelve and worked at the storefront. After a few years Taaks resigned and since Schlemmer owned a greater portion of the company, the name was changed in 1883 to the present style of Hammacher Schlemmer & Co.
And it was all down hill from there.
Things change. Look on eBay for Hammacher Schlemmer in collectables and antiques.
More history for young people:
Abercrombie & Fitch: Founded in 1892 in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch, Abercrombie & Fitch was an elite outfitter of sporting and excursion goods, particularly noted for its expensive shotguns, fishing rods, fishing boats, and tents.
American Eagle Outfitters: The first attempt was to open American Eagle Outfitters in 1977, positioning it as a proprietor of brand-name leisure apparel, footwear, as well as accessories for men and women, emphasizing merchandise suited for outdoor sports, such as hiking, mountain climbing, and camping.
I bought my first (and last) sleeping bag and tent at American Eagle Outfitters.
I am adding the following item to this blog because I found it interesting and don’t know where else to put it. I did find it at the same shop which makes them location coincidental. It is this box:
And waterfowl on the lid:
A closer view does not necessarily provide answers:
My best guess after looking at the actual box and these pictures if that it is a veneer failure. Looking at the corner of the lid you can see the substrate is white and the veneer likes to free itself. There is already a veneer failure at the edge of the tail board. Wood movement cracked the veneer and it either fell off or was picked of by idle fingers.
But, I could be wrong…
I was talking to Peter Follansbee about life, woodworking and this blog when he asked my why I didn’t take pictures of anything really old? My threshold for old is pre-McKinley (1900) while Mr. Follansbee’s is 16th century. The obvious answer is that the places I have access to don’t often have anything old. The number of Empire chests-of-drawers far exceeds the number of jointed English stools in the retail/auction market.
To address Mr. Follansbee’s concerns, I offer here two dealer-confirmed old pieces. I completely trust antiques dealers. What possible incentive would they have to lie or deceive?
Is it a cupboard if it was built before cups were invented? Could it be a jelly if all they had was preserves? It’s that old:
Equally old or even older is this chest:
Wanting to do something different, I recently went out to visit a few antique shops. I discovered many things wonderous and mundane as is typical. These three are not as they seem and I find them worthy of being shared.
First up is a desk with a secret. I haven’t seen one of these in a while. I’m not sure if it is my declining skill in finding them or there just hasn’t been one to be found. Whichever, here is the desk:
The main drawer bottoms are made of several board that over a few hundred years were not dimensionally stable:
An appropriately handsome gallery:
A lot of wood in the drawer fronts:
Nice prospect door:
Nothing within the prospect:
I reached in to see if there were finger notches to push out the letter boxes on either side of the door. I made a discovery:
An it turns out that the letter boxes come out the back:
There is also a less than obvious drawer above the door:
Next is the deception. This deception might have worked better when young and the doors hung true:
The press is actually an armoire:
And now, the mystery. I speak of this large, two piece press, shelves and drawers:
The upper section is shelved:
Now, here’s the mystery: how do you access the area between the shelves and drawers? Storage space was always at a premium. I do not believe that the builder would have left the space unused. There are rough sawn board internally above the drawers so the space was not intended to be unused.
I don’t think the only access to the space is by lifting off the upper section. The carcass is pinned frame and panel construction so nothing comes off or is hinged.
My only conclusion is the access was gained by lifting out the bottom shelves of the upper section, the top over the lower section being left open. Those bottom shelves did seem loose and not part of the carcass. Inconvenient but workable. I didn’t have the time, patience or chutzpah to try so I don’t know.
Then the question is is it a secret or mystery or just something we don’t know because it is not now in common use?
I’ve recently come across some more furniture that is similar/the same as in some previous blogs. No one piece is worthy of its own blog but taken as a whole, it’ll do.
In April in There are No Rules, I wrote of this chair with this unique leg layout:
In the past two weeks, I have come across the following:
And in Georgia, I found:
In the metal-for-wood category we have:
Two more Wooton rotary desks:
Another in Monroe, Georgia:
A Hitchcock chair:
A Hitchcock settee?
And a gout rocker:
Back to the auction gallery.
There were a few other auction items worthy of attention. First is this:
American Chippendale Blanket Chest.
Description: Late 18th century, white pine dove tailed case, lid with fishtail hinges and applied molded edge, interior with till to left side (lacking lid), base with two side by side lipped drawers, raised on ogee bracket feet with spurs.
Size: 29.5 x 48.5 x 23 in.
Condition: Wear and marring to top; missing lock; later pulls; feet have lost some height.
They called it a blanket chest while others might consider it a mule chest. The argument is that the drawers make it a mule chest but others say mule chests must be taller. Who knows?
Some interesting details:
Till lid is missing. Saw cuts were used to make the dados for the till and mortises for the hinges:
The breadboards on the lid are very narrow and really seem to be wide moldings more than ends designed to keep the lid flat.
Interestingly, they are attached with through tenons:
For a minute I thought the tenons were wedged but a closer look showed me that it wasn’t a wedge but a pinned tenon that suffered a break in the end grain where the pin came too close to the end of the tenon:
I like the pulls…
Next up is this:
Cherry Dovetailed Blanket Chest
Description: 19th century, hinged top with applied rounded edge, interior with till, applied molded base with turned peg feet.
Size: 23 x 38 x 18.5 in.
Condition: Later hinges with break outs and repairs; moth ball smell to interior; surface scratches.
There carcass is dovetailed. Really. Email me if you need to see the pictures.
I haven’t shown any secret compartments for a while so I owe you this.
There is a till on the left. Thetill appears shallower than the till front board would lead you to believe:
Not all that much or a secret really.
Note the arc of a groove on the chest’s lid caused by using the till lid as a stop.
Odd to find a boarded chest at a “better” auction but, here it is:
American Grain Bin
Description: 19th century, white pine, hinged lid, divided interior with two compartments, straight legs from the solid with half-moon cut.
Size: 26.5 x 30 x 16.5 in.
Condition: Rat chew to lid and front boards; tin patch to left side.
This piece had some remodeling done:
George III Chest of Drawers
Description: Early 19th century, mahogany, pine secondary, converted originally from a commode / wash stand, now with four graduated drawers, with a bracket foot base.
Size: 30 x 26 x 20 in.
Condition: Converted from wash stand to chest of drawers; later pulls; wear and chipping.
You see, in this chest, the two doors were rebuilt into two drawers. Original lower drawers are dovetailed:
Improvised upper drawers are dovetail-free:
Looking at the upper drawer fronts tells the story of its origin:
In review, this chest was initially built with two drawers below with two doors on top. The doors were cut up and converted into two drawer front giving the chest four drawers.
I like this sring pull, too.
Finally, apparently no recent blog of mine is complete without a Hitchcock chair. This blog is no exception:
James L. Ferguson’s Hamilton College Hitchcock Chair
Description: Late 20th century, black lacquered wood with gilt and painted decoration, back support with early scene of Hamilton College and signed S. Marshall, stenciled on seat rail “L. Hitchcock, Hitchcocks-ville Conn., Warranted” and gilt signed “James L. Ferguson ’49, Charter Trustee 1973-1988.”
Size: 31 x 24 x 16 in.
Condition: Some scuffs and light wear; overall good estate condition.
And here is the obligatory picture of the genuine stenciled logo:
We have two hummingbird feeders hanging outside our breakfast area. Our cats enjoy watching them feed and I am constantly amazed by their aerobatics and dogfights (bird fights?) Seems hummingbirds don’t get along all that well.
Unfortunately, the hummingbirds prefer the cheap copper toned available from Home Depot. We have tried nice, more expensive feeders but all are rejected. Are these feeders really cheaper when they rust so quickly and need to be replaced annually?
Over the weekend, our feeders started emptying themselves overnight. 2/3 to 3/4 full at dusk and empty at dawn. Hummingbirds don’t feed that much overnight. I’ve heard that some bats might feed there but emptying them both? Suspecting leaks, I brought them in for testing and put last year’s out. In the morning, the old ones were empty with one screw-on base on the ground.
The next step was technology. I place one of my Nikons on a tripod and programmed it to take a picture every two minutes and left the outside lights on at sunset. I got a whole lot of this picture:
At 10:41, I got this:
First racoon we have seen in the eight years we’ve lived here. Deer. Opossums. Rabbits. Squirrels. Chipmunks. Cyotes, Foxes. Groundhogs. But no racoons.
Might explain what happed to all the asian pears…
The auction from the last post was not a great auction, there were no wonderous pieces of furniture. Many nice ones but nothing that jumped out and screamed “Take me to the Met.”
In the absence of greatness, I look for interesting details. Things done differently or things not typically done. I always wonder if these different approaches are naive or brilliant. Did they not know how things were done or not care how others did it. No clue or different inspiration
There were a few items that had a unique approach to curves. First up is this:
Chippendale Style Dressing Table
Description: 19th century, oak, shaped dish top, single serpentine drawer, cabriole legs with ball and claw feet.
Size: 29 x 30 x 18 in.
Condition: Restoration including the drawer being reworked, later glue blocks, break and repair to back right leg; insect damage; surface stains.
To start things off, the ball and claw feet are a bit different:
The drawer has been reworked?
The serpentine drawer front caught my eye:
A sawn serpentine drawer front is not unique. What is unique is how thin the drawer front gets:
I do like the bail pulls:
Next specimen is quite a bit taller:
William IV Mahogany Bookcase
Description:` 19th century, two-part form, mahogany, mahogany veneer, oak and pine secondary, applied cove molded cornice, two hinged glazed doors with original wavy glass open to two louvered shelves, over an ogee drawer, two paneled doors with flush base.
Size 94 x 43 x 18 in
Condition: No key; surface wear; top surface to base with looseness.
The only curved thing on it is the, as they call it, ogee drawer. Looking at is in profile you see:
It looks like it started life as a squared drawer to which bits have been added and removed:
Staring at it for a while, I think I might have figured out how they did it. It started out as a drawer with a square profile. The baseline looks like it was made by a marking gauge which would require a flat front. Moldings and fillets were attached and the drawer front was then given the ogee profile. The through dovetails were hidden behind a thick veneer on the concave surface.
The third curve is the first kidney-shaped server I’ve ever seen.
English Regency Concave Mahogany Server
Description: 19th century, mahogany, oak secondary, top with applied gallery, two drawers over two tambour doors, shelved interior, on flush base.
Size: 39 x 50 x 22 in.
Condition: Right tambour door with loose panels; surface scratches; shrinkage crack to top; other wear.
The tambour doors were a bit stiff. Now knowing how the non-existent Pottery Barn Rule (You break it, you bought it) applies at an auction, I wimped out and chose to use their picture to show it closed:
The joinery might be a bit coarse but it has lasted for 200 years:
Interesting way that the lower shelf boards installed on a bias:
With everything going on out there, I thought it might be nice to look at a few (slightly) amusing things I found at a recent auction. First up is this chair:
Pair of Venetian Carved Oak Curule Chairs
Description: Mid 20th century, relief carved crest rail with arms terminating in lions heads and rings, raised on ball and claw feet, crest rail detaching to allow chair to fold.
Size: 34 x 24 x 19 in.
Note: Purchased by consignor in Venice.
We’ve all seen various versions of this chair and wondered what’s its story. From Wikipedia:
A curule seat is a design of chair noted for its uses in ancient and Europe through to the 20th century. Its status in early Rome as a symbol of political or military power carried over to other civilizations, as it was also utilized in this regard by Kings in Europe, Napoleon, and others.
My question: Does it fold?
And the lions match:
Next, we have:
Antique English Oak Tantalus
Description: Circa 1900, oak case with silverplate mounts, locking hinged handle releases three cut glass decanters.
Size: 13 x 14 x 5 in.
An attractive and interesting way to carry and display your best liquor. Then you notice the lock on the handle:
Again, from Wikipedia:
A Tantalus is a small wooden cabinet containing two or three decanters. Its defining feature is that it has a lock and key. The aim of that is to stop unauthorised people drinking the contents (in particular, “servants and younger sons getting at the whisky”),while still allowing them to be on show. The name is a reference to the unsatisfied temptations of the Greek mythological character Tantalus.
Not to be confused with Tantalus, a Greek mythological figure, most famous for his eternal punishment in Tartarus.
(Also, not to be confused with the Tantalus Field of the original Star Trek, season 2, episode 4, Mirror, Mirror. Bad Kirk)
And finally, this:
Cast Bronze Figure of a Rabbit
Description: Late 20th century, patinated bronze, possibly Maitland Smith, unmarked.
Size: 16 in.
What was he holding? Could it be a Confederate rabbit? A Federal rabbit?
Due to the excitement from The Eclipse Event of 2017, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do a blog today. Locally, the eclipse was only partial enabling me to recover more quickly than expected.
I’m OK. now.
Wandering through my favorite auction gallery, I came across this piece:
Antique Continental Inlaid Dressing Table
Description: 18th century, mixed woods, reverse bookmatched veneered top with geometric banded inlaid edge, two cock beaded drawers, with barber pole banded inlay, raised on later cabriole legs with block feet.
Size: 29 x 29 x 17.5 in.
Condition: Later legs; insect damage; shrinkage crack to top with areas of fill; retains likely original pulls.
I opened one of the drawers with end-grain veneer and barber pole banded inlay and was surprised to not see dovetails. My first thought was the applied cockbeading might be covering the dovetails, but that was not the case. It is unusual for a table of this quality not to have dovetailed drawers. Rare but not unheard of.
Looking for more construction details, I pulled out the other drawer:
I checked the opposite side of the first drawer and found dovetails:
I went back and looked at the first side of the first drawer and found that:
I’m figuring the thin pins failed and the drawer side was replaced with one nailed on.
There was another piece there that I ignored at first:
Georgian Hepplewhite One Drawer Server
Description: Early 19th century, mahogany, oak secondary, bow front, single drawer with ebony line inlay to edge, banded line inlay to skirt and square tapered legs raised on brass casters.
Size: 29 x 36 x 19 in.
Condition: Later top; some inlay loss and other restoration.
I had ignored it because the top looked too new and was glued up from several narrow boards. The top had no profile or decoration applied, just a plain edge, similar to today’s Bassett or Ethan Allen furniture.
Just to validate my dismissal of this server as new, I looked at a drawer and saw this:
That’s when I checked the catalog and saw that (part of) it was 200 years old.
Not something I wanted. It did find a home for $130.
I had been struggling for a week with what might turn out to be one of my more interesting blogs. Then I read a new blog from an unusually perceptive blogger that, while not changing the premise of my post, is causing me to rethink the presentation.
I’m going to move on and revisit it when I get a clue,
In the interim, I thought I would share some recent pictures of variations on familiar topics. First, sidelock chests.
I met this handsome Eastlake version at an under-tent antiques fair in Abingdon, VA:
This is another small sidelock with a different execution:
Here the locking wings are restrained by the bottom drawer and not individual locks:
It’s been a while since I featured a gout rocker. I now present two.
First is this conventional one that can hold two undesirable things:
Then there is this fairly modern yet ugly version has no redeeming features:
Lastly, the torrent of Hitchcock chairs continues:
And even two authentic ones:
Some of the best furniture ever made is being made today.
Steve Latta, 6/24/2017
Steve Latta actually said that. Or something real close to that. That certainly is the gist of what he said. Might even be the exact words. I can’t remember.
Steve Latta is a professional furniture maker, teacher, scholar, author and star of several Lie-Nielsen instructional videos. He teaches full-time in the furniture making program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa. He also teaches at nearby Millersville University and conducts workshops at woodworking schools across the country.
He made this statement at the beginning of a breakout session on Rustic Inlay he was giving at the Mid-Year Conference of SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) in Winston Salem, NC this past June.
On the drive home, I thought about what he said and decided he might be right. I have been to three SAPFM events where members displayed and explained their creations. Most were not professional furniture makers but highly skilled and motivated other-than-professional furniture makers. (I couldn’t come up with another descriptor that wouldn’t alienate someone.)
These people do have some advantages over those working in the past. A few members went on for a bit about procuring just the right wood. Checking with all the hardwood dealers with an email address looking for just the right pair of matching 14 inch wide by 11 foot mahogany boards for a secretary for their niece as a wedding present. This is a luxury not enjoyed by those working in the past. You can argue that they might have had better wood but I believe they didn’t have the access to any and all wood that we have today.
Information. You can learn how to do anything you can imagine by watching a video, reading a book or magazine, taking a class, or asking your local neighborhood expert. This might not be equivalent of an apprenticeship but we have the advantage of only building what we want to and not having to learn things we don’t care about.
Controversially, tools, both power and hand. Many of the presenting SAPFM members use power tools. Past furniture makers did make fabulous furniture using hand tools alone but there are advantages to power tools. Starting the annual Toys for Tots build, I have to process a few hundred board feet of 4/4 poplar into 1/2″ stock which will then be cut to size, rabbeted, have sliding dovetails installed, drilled and rounded. I can and have done all this with hand tools but am grateful for things that plug in.
Good furniture can be built with either type of tool. On some level it has become a religious discussion. No right answers. Whatever works for you and is within your comfort level.
I do cut dovetails by hand for reasons of aesthetics. Those machine cut dovetails look too industrial and I can’t afford the Leigh jigs. (I can, I choose not to.)
The biggest advantage some have is time.
If you’re not getting paid, it’s practice.
Chuck Bender, Some time in the recent past.
When I heard this, I made Mr. Bender repeat it. It was a bit of a slap in the face but I got his point.
We were taking one of his classes. Some members of the class were not happy with the quality of their work. (My standard line from any class is alway: Not my best work.) Frustrated, Chuck was trying to make the point that it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We are there learning new skills and attempting techniques for the first time. There should be no expectation of perfection. However, regardless of how badly things work out, we will probably still be able to make our mortgage payment. Our livelihood is not dependent making a salable piece of furniture. Furniture makers in the past needed to produce to pay for food, supplies, employees and apprentices. We have the luxury of time. It would be interesting to discover when in time did the hobbyist woodworker become a possibility.
Your niece’s wedding date is important but if you miss is but a week or so, you might be embarrassed but no long-term repercussions. Your spouse already knows better than to take any promised delivery date too seriously. Career furniture makers actually have to deliver. For the rest of us, it’s a matter of pride, self-esteem and perceived worth as a human being. That and we just invested a great deal money and time in a another pile of firewood.
Having delivered the sermon, I will now show an actual piece of period furniture. If you only see period furniture at museums and historic house museums, you are not getting to see the full range what was made. More and more, museums are thinning their collections so they just contain the best of the best. A few organizations, like MESDA (Museum of Southern Decorative Arts), do have some vernacular furniture, but that is an exception.
Let’s look at this piece from a recent auction:
Pennsylvania Chippendale Walnut Chest on Frame
Description : Circa 1770, poplar and white pine secondry, later applied cove molded cornice to the dovetailed case, three upper side by side lipped drawers above four graduated lipped long drawers, on a later but appropriate styled frame with a scalloped skirt, cabriole legs and trifid feet.
Embarrassingly, in my zeal to get lots of pictures of construction details, i neglected to take a picture of the whole piece. This is their picture.
A look at the top reveals they only used the finest of hardwoods in the case construction:
Their picture shows the attention to detail given to the back of furiture:
In a previous blog, I asked the question: Would Duncan Phyfe have used Masonite® or Luan? Maybe not Duncan Phyfe but certainly some lesser makers might have. The function of the back is to provide structure and to keep dust out. Plywood would have worked as well as some of the wood actually used.
The drawers are..
Furniture from the past might not be as finely built as the best furniture being built today but there were different expectations and different pressures on the furniture makers. Modern customers also have different expectations. For the money they are paying for period furniture, I do not think they would accept the furniture as it was built back then although some of them might also buy IKEA furniture.