What’s the story with that woven spiral wood fretwork?

Periodically, we have sold or seen wooden fretwork panels that were made up of individual spiral sticks of wood, all woven together in a grid-type pattern, or even as a dense wooden “mat” like panel. Such a piece is currently in our inventory. http://www.thebrassknob.com/detail.cfm?ID=3262&category=1

We have often wondered how this type of ornamental wood was constructed. Enter one very astute customer who was an expert on this style of woodworking who stopped by one day when we had another panel on display, this one bearing the original brass tag from the maker.  This tag noted that it was covered by a patent granted to a person by the last name Ransom. We had always assumed that such spiral wood elements were fashioned using a steam-bending process, but this expert informed us that such was not the case. He subsequently sent  more information which encouraged us to do some additional research. According to his information and some websites, in 1884 Mr Moses Younglove Ransom patented a spiral molding lathe in conjunction with his involvement with his father’s lumberyard and planing mill. At this time, great numbers of wooden, glass and metal building elements were made in numbers and a level of detail and finish that had only been available to the very wealthy only a few generations previous to the time.

Such a “barley twist” spiral element would have been laboriously hand-turned in previous times, and now were available quickly, in large numbers and made inexpensively by machines. The planing mills of the elder C.S Ransom lost no time putting this machine to use. A second patent was granted to Moses Ransom in 1885 which covered the use of cut spiral rods being made into panels for decorative fretwork, room dividers and even some pieces of furniture. The taste for stylized “moorish” interiors at the time used such elements quite liberally. Even more modest homes where a full “moorish” room wasn’t desired could incorporate a narrow fretwork panel of the woven wood between 2 rooms. As with most such things subject to changing tastes, the fashion for the moorish interiors and also the woven fretwork began to wane in the closing years of the 19th Century. The C S Ransom company continued to produce its distinctive fretwork up until it went out of business in 1898. At that time this manufacturing process was brought to the Buffalo Grille Company by one Alexander Macintosh, a former partner in the Ransom company.

A review of their catalog of 1899 shows the creative use of such highly ornamental woodwork at its dizzying zenith. Our own research so far has not led us to the date of the demise of the Buffalo Grille Company, but research of period books and magazines would indicate that all manner of interior ornamental fretwork was passe by the time the US entered WW I. We are always grateful  to our customer who are so often  generous in sharing of their knowledge and in this case setting the record straight on this very unusual form of wooden ornament.

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