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Hanging Shelf

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Hanging Shelf

Artist: Charles Parker Company (active Meriden, Connecticut 1832 - 1957)

Date: c. 1885
Medium: Brass, silver and other metallic plates, iron, other metals, wood, modern fabric
Overall: 33 1/4 x 26 1/4 x 7 5/8in. (84.5 x 66.7 x 19.4cm)
Inscribed: Paper label on back, center
Credit Line: Museum Purchase in part by exchange with funds from: Mrs. F. F. Brandt, Mrs. C. Warner Clarke, Miss Eugenia Curtis, Mrs. Raymond J. Lenhardt, Sarah T. Norris Estate, Dr. David R. Rosendale and Mrs. B. A. Sackett
Object number: 2001.22
Label Text
Hanging shelves produced by the Charles Parker Company had little practical application; the shelves are objects of art in themselves. The construction of this shelf is simple. It is a basic wooden form covered with a show material of either metal or cloth, outlined with brass framing, and accented with metal bibelots. Color plays a crucial aesthetic role. Lush fabric, shades of gold and silver, and black highlights contribute to the visual richness. Japanesque radial sun arches and brackets featuring swallows relieve the angularity of the form.

The gate-motif element on the front of the shelf is made of intentionally oxidized silver-plated iron. Because firms such as Parker were set up to create a range of plated and patinated surfaces, utilizing silver plate was cost effective. It was also representative of a larger, late-nineteenth century trend of utilizing plated silver oxidized to shades of warm gray to black for a heightened artistic effect.

Text Entries

The Charles Parker Company was one of the largest and most diversified of all the firms producing art brass goods. Its success was tied to its founder and namesake, who had a strong head for business. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, Charles Parker (1809–1902) descended from one of the first families to settle in Hartford. He toiled on a local farm and attended a village school from age nine to fourteen. At age eighteen, he worked for Anson Matthews, a manufacturer of pewter buttons. In 1829, after moving to Meriden, Connecticut, Parker began making coffee mills on contract. After eighteen months, the venture was so successful that he entered a partnership with a neighbor, Jared Lewis, and assumed a larger contract for coffee mills, ladles, and skimmers. An incessant entrepreneur, in 1831 Parker sold his interests to his partner and bought land in the heart of Meriden, where in 1832 he established his first shop and manufactured coffee mills and waffle irons.26 Reportedly, the only source of power for the factory was “a blind horse, who propelled a pole sweep, which, hour after hour, day after day, plodded around in a circle.”27 Steam power was installed in 1844, its first use in Meriden and an example of the foresightedness of Parker and his associates.28


The Charles Parker Company continued to manufacture coffee mills but soon diversified its product line by adding plated spoons, forks, and hollowware. It was the first hollowware factory in Meriden. Beginning in 1853 the Charles Parker Company had offices and showrooms in New York City.29 In 1854 the Parker vise was patented.30 Parker was active in local politics and, commencing in 1867, served two terms as Meriden’s first mayor.


Like many of the other art brass manufacturers, the Parker Company mainly produced utilitarian goods, but it also offered lines of luxury wares. The company operated five main manufacturing plants by 1874. The main factory (the Union Works), located in Meriden, produced coffee mills and castings, vises, sewing machines, plated wares, spectacles, and, in the early 1880s, lamps and chandeliers.31 Other factories in East and West Meriden and in Yalesville, used steam and water power to make Britannia metal and German silver goods, piano stools, chairs, benches, hinges, scales, and other like goods. A broadside of circa 1874 explained that the various plants turned out “about 120 different lines of goods” and that “merchandise of all description is sent throughout the United States, Canada, the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America, Australia, and to almost every European Country.”32


Charles Parker had other business ventures that were not formally part of the Charles Parker Company, such as Parker & Whipple (active 1859–1926, the name being changed to The Parker Clock Company in 1893) and the Meriden Curtain Fixture Company (active 1860–1905).33 Parker also was a partner in the esteemed Parker Brothers Machine and Gun Works, which operated until 1934.34 An 1884 map of Parker’s business in Meriden illustrates the breadth of the manufactory site. The largest building is labeled “Foundry.” The types of goods offered by the company represent the various metals produced—Britannia, an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony; Alabata, “silvery alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel”; steel; and Nickel or German silver, “a white alloy comprising zinc, nickel, and copper.”35 The foundry also turned out alloys of brass, bronze, and iron based metals used in other Parker products.


Other factory buildings consisted of a screw shop with a150-horsepower engine, and coffee mill, vise, spectacle, and lamp shops. The map differentiates process-oriented aspects, such as rolling, tumbling, bluing, annealing, tempering, plating, and buffing shops, as well as gun turning, packing, Japan ovens, and numerous storage buildings. The complex of buildings was expanded by 1891.


Charles Parker maintained close alliances with other Meriden firms. He served for thirty-two years as a director of Wilcox Silver Plate Company. When the established railroads refused to make rate concessions to Meriden businesses, Parker joined forces with Horace Wilcox, the principal owner of the Meriden Britannia Company, and other Meriden businessmen to incorporate the Meriden Cromwell Railroad Company. The railroad began operation in 1884 and “ran from Meriden to the Connecticut River barge docks at Cromwell, Connecticut.”36 Parker’s relationship with Meriden’s business entrepreneurs is further confirmed by the fact that Walter Hubbard, one of the founders of Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing, served as a pallbearer for two of Charles Parker’s sons.


Parker, who may have suffered from tuberculosis, became seriously ill in 1876 and was apprehensive about the impending future of the large company of which he was the sole owner. He therefore incorporated the business in 1877 to avoid any hindrance to the operations should he pass away. He conceded to his sons Dexter W. (1849–1925) and Charles E. (b. ca. 1842–1894) just enough of the stock to comply with corporate laws. As a result of his illness, Charles Parker was a semi-invalid, but he remained actively involved in business. Dexter Parker assumed management of the company, but, apparently, was not esteemed. The R. G. Dun & Company credit report for January 1879 notes, “He is not regarded as a good manager.”37 Dexter, a graduate of West Point, had completed a multiyear apprenticeship, serving at every level in the company, including two years in management. He soon rose to his new administrative challenges. In 1880 the company reportedly employed between five hundred and eight hundred men, and in 1886 the Dun report explains, “The business is handled much better by Mr. Dexter Parker and nearer cash basis than under the direction of his father. For a young man he has developed a very good bus[iness] capacity and judgment.” The success of the company is reflected in the fact that in 1886 Charles Parker had a personal worth of one to two million dollars.38 In 1906 the entire Parker Company employed about 1,500 hands.39 In 1940 Bradley & Hubbard became a division of Charles Parker. In 1957 Union Manufacturing acquired the Charles Parker Company, and by 1984 the firm had relocated to Juarez, Mexico.


 Avid gun collectors, surviving members of the family, and Connecticut-based historical societies have researched the history of the Charles Parker Company. Several surviving catalogues document the various household goods produced by the firm, but period records do not provide any information on the firm’s creative and diverse line of art brass goods; only an undated advertisement illustrates some brass furniture (ill. 3).40 There are, however, numerous surviving examples of Parker’s art brass products, and they are easily identified due to the many identical parts found on myriad examples. Several retain their original paper labels. The fact that no records but that many goods survive may indicate that art brass goods were a line of luxury wares produced and marketed on a more limited scale than the company’s utilitarian fare.


An amalgam of color, texture, and line contribute to the luxuriant and exotic feel of a Parker-made art brass table that survives in remarkable original condition (cat. no. 14).

Color diversity enriches the appearance of the table.41 The original reddish-purple, silk-velvet top complements the warm hue of the metal surfaces.42 The floral element below the tabletop is silver plate with bronze-plated flower centers and stems. The blossoming tree twig motif (perhaps a cherry tree) is highlighted by tones of silver and gold, and it is set against the central panel of intentionally oxidized silver plate.43 The lattice-motif brackets flanking the legs show a surprising dash of color (a rare survival). The reticulated pattern of entwined twigs and blooms is finished in pink, bronze, and green.


Various textures are at play in the ornamentation of the table—plush fabric, smooth shiny brass, textured matte metallic details, and patterned surfaces. The designers at Charles Parker added selective details to soften the impression of sharp metallic forms. A strip of brass ending in twisted and curled tips, for example, is arched over the central panel. Sun roundels accent the lower portion of the central panel, and arched legs diverge from the rectilinearity of the rest of the object.


Hanging shelves produced by the Parker Company exhibit similar qualities. With little practical application, the tables and shelves were intended for display and are objects of art in themselves. The construction of the hanging shelf in catalogue number 15 is simple. It is a basic wooden form covered with a show material of either metal or cloth, outlined with brass framing, and accented with metal bibelots.44 Color again plays a crucial aesthetic role. Lush fabric, shades of gold and silver, and black highlights contribute to the visual richness. Japanesque radial sun arches and brackets featuring swallows relieve the angularity of the form.


Variations on this shelf design demonstrate the firm’s use of transposable parts. In an alternative scheme, a copper surface with a pattern that imitates woven straw replaces the hammered silver plate. The same decorative brackets are utilized, but a cast lattice panel that forms a pointed arch is used in place of the silver-plated and patinated iron gate on the shelf in catalogue number 15.


Other Parker wares incorporate analogous motifs. A mirrored hat rack, for example, includes hammered surfaces and cast twigs. A jewel casket or small worktable is attributed to the Charles Parker Company based on its many ornamental attributes; it is the only example of a worktable thus far attributed to the company. Four splayed legs featuring cast aprons in between support a hinged casket. Surfaces with a hammered pattern, two with applied metal branches and two with lion-mask roundels identical to one found on the hat rack, ornament the box. Brass in an all-over blossom pattern frames the fabric-covered lid. The hinged lid, mirrored on the underside, opens for access to fabric-lined compartments.


The firm also offered less ornate tables in a variety of sizes. The two-tiered table bears many Parker characteristics. The metal framework and rail components forming the top shelf resemble those on the hanging shelves. The brackets beneath the top are identical to those on the hanging shelves, and the side panels match the one on the front of the Parker shelf in catalogue number 16. The three single, stylized sunflowers on the gallery behind the top shelf recall those used in triplicate form on the table (cat. no. 14) and on other Parker furniture.


A comparison between the Parker table and the Parker floor lamp further reveals the company’s lucrative and cost-effective use of interchangeable parts. Many of the same parts found on other Parker furniture— the top frame, triple sunflowers, songbird-motif brackets, and the sunbursts—highlight the table. The floor lamp and table, however, present a new decorative element, which raises the complex question of trade between Meriden firms. These pieces each feature a panel with a pierced polychromemetal surface depicting an anglicized Middle-Eastern female figure dancing while playing a tambourine above her head. While there is little doubt that both the table and lamp were made by the Parker Company, an extension lamp, table, and an epergne pictured in the 1886–87 Meriden Britannia Company catalogue use an identical decorative panel.45 One of the two firms (probably Meriden Britannia) most likely sold the decorative element to the other.


26. Also in 1831, Parker married Abi Lewis Eddy of Berlin, Conn. They had ten children. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, (1891), s.v. “Parker, Charles.” Parker took in his brother Edmund Parker and Herman White as partners in 1833, and the firm was known as Parker and White. Edmund retired in 1843 and White the following year. Gillespie, A Century of Meriden, 310–14. In 1833 Andrew Jackson was awarded a patent for coffee mills that was assigned to Charles Parker, one of more than 250 patents of which the Parker Co. would be either an assignor or fully awarded.


27. Gillespie, A Century of Meriden, 49.


28. Other aspects of the business utilized waterpower. Encyclopedia of Connecticut Biography s. v. “Parker, Charles.”


29. The New York office was on Gold St. from 1853 to 1862. A wholesale hardware business was established on Beekman St. by 1857. By 1867 the wholesale business address changed to 27 Beekman where it remained until 1872. The business address listing was 83 Duane St. in 1873, 97 Chambers St. in 1876, and 96 Chambers St. beginning in 1896. Reade St. is given as a second address beginning in 1876. See Daniel Philip Coe, Roy W. Gunther, et al., The Parker Story (Knoxville, Tenn.: Parker Story Joint Venture Group, 1998), 35. See also New York Vol. 316, 1cc (Oct. 7, 1874, and Jan. 5, 1881), and 100/a85 (Mar. 21, 1891), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection. In 1906 the New York salesrooms were located at 32 Warren St. See Gillespie, A Century of Meriden, 54.


30. The Parker vise was one of the company’s most successful products and it helped sustain the company into the twentieth century.


31. By 1910 bathroom fixtures were added to the product line.


32. Coe et al., Parker Story, 31.


33. Parker & Whipple Co. initially made door locks, knobs, and hardware, eventually changing over to nickel alarm clocks, locks, and builders’ hardware. In 1877, when Charles Parker

incorporated the Charles Parker Co., Parker & Whipple became part of that joint stock venture but continued to operate under its established name. The Meriden Curtain Fixture Co. produced window shades, shade cloth, and curtain fixtures. The firm may have supplied some of the shades for Parker-made lamps. See Coe et al., Parker Story, 10–11, and Gillespie, A Century of Meriden, 53.


34. Parker had partial ownership in other firms, such as Snow, Brooks & Company, “Manufacturers of Steam Engines, Mill Gearing, Machinists Tools . . . Punching Presses and Machine Work in General. Also . . . Coal Oil Burners and Lamp Trimmings, [and] Sewing Machine Needles.” (October 1862, bill-of-sale from Parkers, Snow, Brooks & Company as quoted in Coe et al., Parker Story, 14.) Parker and his brothers increased their ownership in this company by 1863 and changed its name to Parkers’ Snow & Company. After two more name changes, this firm became Parker Bros. Guns, which was sold to Remington Arms (Ilion, N.Y.) in 1934. “141-Year-Old Parker Co. Is City’s Oldest Manufacturer,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Conn.), Apr. 27, 1973, A-20.


35. Coe et al., Parker Story, 907.


36. Ibid., 33.


37. Connecticut Vol. 35, 232 (January 1879), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.


38. Connecticut Vol. 36, 357 (April 1886 and March 1880), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.


39. Gillespie, Century of Meriden, 53.


40. A Parker advertisement dating to ca. 1890 illustrates some art brass goods, but the original source of the advertisement has not been located. See Coe et al., Parker Story, 39.


41. Variations of this table include examples with a cast bird-and-flower ornament on the central panel and bird motifs on the sides, between the legs.


42. Other documented examples have original red silk-velvet tops. Another example has been found with a patterned metal top, but the author has not examined it to determine if the top is original. The pattern on the top of the undocumented table appears nearly identical to that on the beveled sides of the Matthews & Willard table, cat. no. 25.


43. The oxidized surface is a rare survival as many owners see the discoloration as tarnish and clean the surface. This use of this type of dark surface was influenced by Japanese shibuichi and shakudo, dark-colored alloys. For further discussion see Judy Rudoe, “Oxidized Silver in the 19th Century: The Documentary Evidence” in Metal Plating and Patination: Cultural and Historical Developments, ed. Susan La Nice and Paul Craddock (Oxford, Eng.: Butterworth- Heinemann, Ltd., 1993), 161–70. The cast branches (one on either side) are secured to the panel via pins. Similar ornaments on Charles Parker goods illustrated in this catalogue are attached in the same manner. In 1888, however, Dexter W. Parker and Lewis F. Griswold were granted patent number 382,661 for a process by which ornaments were attached to a metallic surface via electroplating. I would like to thank Margaret Guido for sharing this patent information with me.


44. A blue, plain weave material originally covered the back of the shelf unit and red velvet was the show material. The red silk-velvet material now on the shelf is modern but closely resembles surviving samples of original cloth.


45. Meriden Britannia Company, The Meriden Britannia Silver-Plate Treasury: The Complete Catalogue of 1886–87 (1887; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982), 218, no. 655; and Meriden Britannia Company catalogues in the collection of the Meriden Historical Society. The central dish of the epergne is supported by the decorative panel. The epergne was available in two finishes, “Silver, Gold Lined, $110. Gold Inlaid and Gold Lined, $125.”