Hickory Furniture - A New Old Favorite
By Michael Walsh
To the short list of good things that work -- things like the spring-loaded mousetrap, the manual can opener and the flyswatter - add furniture made of hickory.
Hickory is to furniture what blue denim is to slacks: comfortable and comforting, familiar, user-friendly, long-wearing, rugged, versatile, stylish, practical, attractive, all-American, reasonably priced and perpetually dependable.
It is frontier furniture, dating from a time when the frontier was still east of the Mississippi. Westward-bound pioneers and settlers crossing the Smokies and the Appalachians in the early 1800s found straight-growing, small-diameter saplings in groups surrounded by much taller trees throughout the Midwest. Even after 20 to 30 years of growth, their thickness rarely exceeded two or three inches.
Immature hickory was, they soon learned, perfect for making table legs and chairs, bedsteads, broom handles, barrel hoops, wagons, gun stocks, ax handles and fence posts. One of the hardest of the hardwoods, it could be made pliable when soaked in boiling water and bent to form chair backs. When it dried, it retained its new shape indefinitely. Its inner bark could be woven into backs, seats and baskets.
In the mid-1800s a young man by the name of Billy Richardson began making hoop-backed hickory chairs in southern Indiana and selling them on weekends from the back of his wagon in the town square in Martinsville. Legend has it that he and his father made a set of hoop chairs for President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson.
In 1892 Richardson and M.B. Crist founded the Old Hickory Furniture Co., which incorporated under the same name in 1899. Now, a hundred years later and operating from Shelbyville, Ind., the company is still going strong, making the same chair that put it on the map as well as newfangled items: china cabinets, sideboards, hall trees, grandfather clocks, sofas, porch swings, bar stools, high chairs, fireplace mantels, dining tables, beds, even entertainment centers.
And the demand for Old Hickory's furniture, old and new, has never been greater. You can see it at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Anchorage Inn in Alaska, Wyoming's Grand Teton Lodge, Utah's Zion National Park, Harrah's in Reno and EuroDisney in Paris, and bars and restaurants in most major cities around the country.
Founded in an abandoned church, the Old Hickory Furniture Co. now markets its goods through 205 retail stores in 41 states, through catalogs and, naturally, a Web site. Future generations may well have a wider supply of antique hickory pieces than is now available.
Hickory furniture is as humble as it gets, but it does have followers among the rich and famous. Celebrity collectors include Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Tom Brokaw, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffet, Gene Hackman, Dan Aykroyd, Leonard Nimoy, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few.
Antiques dealers nationwide can't keep up with the demand, and prices have skyrocketed, particularly since the advent of countrified decorating styles. Rugged hickory makes itself at home almost anywhere: farmhouse, lakeside cottage, mountain lodge, Southwestern hacienda, suburban ranch and urban condo.
It's not difficult to account for its continued popularity. For those who appreciate folk art, hickory furniture has that just-whittled, primitive, practical, home-made look. The furniture also finds favor among those who admire Arts and Crafts styling and was, in fact, a strong influence on Gustav Stickley and Charles Limbert, two of that movement's leaders.
People who like antiques like hickory, even new hickory, because it looks like an instant heirloom, as if it has been in the house for years. And for those who emerged from the '80s in a more frugal frame of mind and ready to embrace the principles of simple living, hickory furniture is ideal: organic, well-crafted, woodsy, all natural, unpretentious, straightforward and honest-looking. It is inside-out furniture, furniture that wears its skeleton on the outside and looks as earthy, rugged and sturdy as the tree from which it was made.
If anybody ever attempts to affix the words "new-and-improved" to it, they should be taken behind the woodshed and beaten with a stick -- hickory, of course.
Copyright 1998 Universal Press Syndicate