Well, maybe not Duncan Phyfe or the Seymours  (John the father and Thomas the son). They had very well-heeled customers paying top dollar and expecting the best. Like Thos. Moser today, all their furniture was finely made from superior material with impeccable finish. But not everybody could afford the best. There had to be the equivalent of Ashley and Basset furniture.

I first started think about this while walking through a local consignment shop. One quick check for the age of furniture is to look at the back. Plywood or hardboard means it’s most likely 20th century. Plywood might have been available in the  1880’s.

Really nice plywood.

Really nice plywood.

Old plywood.

Old plywood.

Luan, not mahogany plywood.

Luan, not mahogany, plywood.

Traditional Masonite®.

Traditional Masonite®.

Horizontally texture hardboard.

Textured hardboard.

Cardboard is the ultimate low end material. Mostly for RTA (Ready To Assemble) furniture. Cheap and can be folded to fit in boxes.

Cardboard is the ultimate low-end material. Mostly for RTA (Ready To Assemble) furniture. Cheap and can be folded to fit in boxes. I don’t love it but it has its place in the retail hierarchy.

I was feeling smug and superior knowing respectable furniture makers from back in the day wouldn’t use plywood when it occurred to me they really did. Not plywood or other sheet goods, but certainly wood that couldn’t be used anywhere else. For examples:

Not prime or select.

Not prime or select.

Not even full boards.

Not even full boards.

Big, ugly boards.

Big, ugly boards.

I don’t believe that mid and lower level furniture makers worried much about the backs of furniture. The function of the back is to keep the carcass square and keep the dust out. Sheet goods do this quite well. These makers used what they had on hand including wood that couldn’t be used anywhere else. Wood had to be purchased and these people couldn’t afford to not use what they bought.

Think about it, they often didn’t even paint or finish the backs:

No faux graining.

No faux wood grain.

No paint.

No paint.

No finish.

No finish.

The backs are against the wall and once delivered are rarely seen. It just doesn’t matter. I think that if sheet goods were available, they would have been used.

And they didn’t worry too much about drawer bottoms either.

Made to fit and that's about it. Not pretty but it works.

Made to fit and that’s about it. Not pretty but it works.

It just didn’t matter. It’s just commerce.