Saturday, November 17, 2007

Kimbel and Cabus -- Cabinetmakers of Curiosity

Here is a draft which will be edited over the next few weeks, right here.


Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus were names associated with fine cabinet making[1] in late nineteenth-century New York City where many other European-influenced firms also thrived in the industrious world of the furniture arts on Lower Broadway. Gustave and Christian Herter arrived in 1848. Edward W. Hutchings (1836-1856), Alexander Roux (1837-1881), Auguste Pottier (1823-1896) worked in the same neighborhood. The luxury hardware business of P.E. Guerin was founded on Jane Street in 1864.[2] While the names Kimbel and Cabus were spoken together in the same company as Herter and Roux, and they shared clientele with prominent architects like Stanford White, it is baffling that to date, other than a sole trade catalogue, ostensibly no invoices or other business records have been left behind. In spite of this, examples of Kimbel & Cabus furniture turn up in the Cooper-Hewitt, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hudson River Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other public collections. There are also surviving examples in the US Capitol, Henry Ford Museum, and the High Museum of Art. Today Kimbel & Cabus are best remembered for having created and introduced the American version of Gothic Revival[3] style to a very receptive public at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876.

Kimbel and Cabus [biographical details]

Between 1863 and 1882 in the Madison Square Park area of the City of New York, Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus operated their fine cabinet making[4] ,decorating shop and showroom in the heart of the burgeoning retail district where R.H. Macy, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor had already established themselves. [5] Their trade card read, “Kimbel and Cabus, Cabinet Makers and Decorators”, and paper labels with the same logo identified their wares.
Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus moved many times during their close to twenty-year partnership, achieving some prosperity, but spent their peak years at 7 East 20th Street, and 458 10th Avenue. The firm achieved a reputation for high quality design and manufacture of furniture in a variety of styles, but gained prominence in the 1870s for developing an American version of Gothic Revival[6] or Modern Gothic style furniture featured in the trade catalogue dating from this period. [INSERT FIGURE]
Anthony Kimbel’s earliest training as a cabinet-maker was under the tutelage of his father Wilhelm (1786-1869), a master craftsman in Europe, and his godfather Anton Bembe (1799-1861), a furniture dealer and decorator in Mainz, Germany. He continued his education in Paris working with furniture maker Alexandre-Georges Fourdinois and publisher Desire Guilmard before coming to New York in 1847. In New York, Kimbel became the principal designer in the shop of Charles Baudouine and in 1854 established the firm of Kimbel & Bembe with the backing of his German uncle, Anton Bembe. Kimbel’s knowledge of European ornament and style (notably Rococo-Revival) and his ability to produce quality pieces for an American market enabled the firm of Kimbel & Bembe to flourish.
Joseph Cabus came from a family of French-born cabinet makers who had established a furniture manufacturing business in New York in the 1830s. As a boy, Joseph worked with his father Claude and then trained with the prominent cabinetmaker Alexander Roux in the 1850s before opening his own workshop at 924 Broadway, in 1862. Just a year later, Kimbel & Cabus would open, next door at 928. There in the years following the Civil War Kimbel & Cabus’s factory and showroom expanded greatly, allowing them to move to a quite fashionable site at 7& 9 East 20th Street by 1873[bey1] . In 1876, Kimbel and Cabus had developed a distinctive enough style of Modern Gothic at the Centennial in Philadelphia for their booth (#327) to be considered “rich and tasteful enough to rank among the very best of American exhibits in household art.” (Voorsanger, Encyclopedia of Interior Design). [INSERT FIGURE OF CENTENNIAL BOOTH]. At the height of their careers then, they were listed as exhibitors in the Official Catalogue of the 1876 International Exhibition in the Main Building’s Department of Manufactures with others — Brown & Bliss (#340), the Kilian Brothers (#338), Daniel Pabst (#361) , and Pottier & Stymus (#373), whose cabinets were similar in design to their own, and sometimes even mistaken for them.
Later commissions included the woodwork interiors and furniture for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (1875) and the interiors for a Company Room at the Seventh Avenue Regiment Armory (1879-1880). After Kimbel & Cabus closed their doors in 1882, both Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus continued to work in partnership with their sons. A. Kimbel & Sons was more successful than Kimbel and Cabus and remained in business until 1941.
On his own, Joseph Cabus rose to prominence as a cabinet maker, but it was not until after the dissolution of the Kimbel and Cabus partnership that he landed his most famous commission in building the interior of the Church of the Ascension on lower Fifth Avenue in New York in collaboration with Stanford White in 1884.
Keeping Up Appearances: The new middle-class in late 19th century America

Victorian culture was the first to use the safety pin (1849), the typewriter (1867), the telephone (1875), and the first to profit from balloon frame construction (1832), a popular and inexpensive building technique that allowed people with modest incomes to afford to purchase homes. The mid- to late-nineteenth century in New York alone saw the rise of the first modern hotel (The Astor, 1830s), the first department store (A.T. Stewart Dry Goods, 1846), and the first chain grocery store (New York-based Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, 1864). Nearly six thousand newspapers and magazines were being published in the United States by 1870, with 1.5 million copies issued annually. A large percentage of these publications instructed the new middle class in etiquette, health, home decoration, gardening, hygiene, and taste. Its members developed a taste for the “new” as a way of “keeping up appearances,” which was not easy at a time when the most idiosyncratic and eclectic designs dominated the culture, especially the decorative arts. A young middle class was beginning to acquire decorative objects, the objects they saw at international fairs and in the lavishly illustrated magazines whose woodcuts they pored over. As long as the new middle class was able to imitate something that pleased their senses and be affiliated with the avant-garde, the demand for novelty would flourish. By 1877, Thorstein Veblen had coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe the drive to show off what you own to your friends and neighbors.
The furniture trades in New York City were thriving. Of the 4.2 million foreigners entering the United States between 1861 and 1877, most came ashore in New York City and would stay there. By 1870, New York was the busiest American seaport and the major distribution and sales center for imported goods in the country. At the same time, a number of skilled craftsmen and artisans arrived from Europe bringing with them both traditional and avant-garde designs which American firms quickly adopted, manufactured and marketed. The confluences of prosperity, technological and industrial innovation as well as the advent of mass merchandising provided opportunities for middle-class consumers to attain home ownership. These Victorians were the first ‘‘consumers” of mass-produced luxury items, made suddenly available to middle-class and wealthy households as one of the benefits of industrialization. As the economy expanded, the new middle class tastefully furnished their new residences with the latest styles and textiles of the day. Idiosyncratic and eclectic designs and products dominated the culture in the decorative arts.
The success of furniture manufacturing and interior furnishing firms such as Kimbel & Cabus was due to the patronage of this young, educated middle-class consumer who had developed a taste for the “new” as a way of “keeping up appearances.” New ideas and trends in etiquette, health, home decoration, gardening, hygiene, and taste, eagerly sought out by middle-class readers, became regular features in the nearly six-thousand newspapers and magazines being published in the United States by 1870. Illustrated serials and mail order catalogues fueled the desire to obtain fashionable decorative household objects as did the publication of a number of popular home decorating manuals. An abundance of popular magazines and manuals of instruction brought the great halls of the wealthy right to the parlors of the reading public. The Ladies Home Journal (first published in 1883), Cosmopolitan (1886) and Vogue (1892) raised the level of expectation for the burgeoning middle class.
How-to books like A.J. Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses went through nine printings between 1850 and the end of the Civil War. Downing’s choice of furnishings for his audience did much to prescribe the types of furnishings that the new homeowner should choose in establishing an ideal American way of life and emphasizing the practice of attaining prestige. He did much to establish the understanding of the picturesque as beautiful and the unity of design as a form of truth and high morals. In the history of taste, it must be considered one of the nineteenth century’s best “how-to” manuals as well as a primer of the aesthetic interior and its accompanying manners and values.
The opportunity to own a home became affordable with the rise of mass culture, and with the rage for home ownership and the proliferation of the middle classes, the stage was set for craftsmen to sell their wares to a new market. The Victorians were the first “customers” of mass industry, and they wanted whatever elevated their status. The home was the ideal place to display status. The neo-Gothic with its underlying accent on perfection was just the right line of products to pitch to the first mass consumers, who yearned to have the pleasures of the wealthy. With their linearity and pointed features, Kimbel & Cabus’s furnishings offered the connection between the Gothic and good character that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin established in England through writings that influenced Bruce Talbert and others. With their neo-Gothic interpretation of furniture, whose features pointed to a place nearer heaven, Kimbel and Cabus were able to bring to American households a style that would give its members a firm moral basis in addition to an exciting new aesthetic.
With a fickle middle class that needed to keep up appearances, furnishings with greater refinement, lightness, and delicacy were quick to replace the massive, heavy, linear architectural style of the neo- Gothic that had swept the same population only a decade previous. By 1878 journals were already heralding Queen Anne style as the latest in home furnishings, a style that would foretell the decline of the Aesthetic Movement and firms like Kimbel & Cabus.
Preserving Kimbel and Cabus; or, The Trade Catalogue Itself

The Smithsonian Institution is the keeper of 6500 rare books at its New York library branch and is fortunate to have what some consider the only existing trade catalogue left from the business firm of Kimbel & Cabus. The remarkable documentary artifact, [Furniture Designed and Sold by the New York Firm of Kimbel & Cabus] , comprises the only visual record of their furniture and is the only evidence supporting the existence of the manufacturing firm to be found to date. The original 1870s catalogue, and a modern photographic reproduction of the 1870 catalogue (produced in 1976), are currently housed in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library’s rare book room and catalogued on Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ on-line catalogue, SIRIS, . The original artifact was transferred to its current location at the Cooper-Hewitt when the library and collections of the Cooper Union Museum were moved in 1974.
The photo album contains images of approximately 184 furniture pieces that Kimbel & Cabus designed and manufactured in the 1870s (?). The catalogue reveals a diverse vocabulary which needs to be studied. Pieces in this catalogue include foliated ornament, large metal hinges, pointed arches and trefoil and quatrefoil patterns. A number of other pieces contain elements of the Modern Gothic style, characterized by elements such as ebonized wood with incised, gilded and linear ornament; tiled and painted panels on gold ground with medieval motifs; strapwork hinges and other elaborate hardware; turned wood galleries of spindles, hoof, trestle, or bracket feet; stiff-legged and rectilinear forms; and raised pediments with pointed arches.
In addition to the Modern Gothic, other pieces contain details and motifs inspired from a compendium of historic European and Asian patterns. Ottomans, inlaid work tables and cabinets with semi-circular arches are inspired from Middle Eastern and Moorish patterns while many of the upholstered armchairs, tête-à-têtes, and sofas, with floral motifs, curved forms, and plentiful fringes, are reminiscent of Second Empire style. Elaborate carved panels and ball feet are evidence of the influence of Elizabethan period furniture. Several pieces are adorned with Chinese- and Japanese-influenced details, notably faux bamboo woodwork, intricate oriental fretwork, and panels decorated with cranes, dragons, lions, and human figures in kimonos.
The catalogue illustrates the distinctive style of Kimbel & Cabus’s work where often the exaggerated sculptural forms, bold rectangular shapes, and decorative ornamentation have been emphasized over their functionality. In fact, the spectacularly ornamented and artistically designed pieces are constructed to be usable pieces of furniture. The range and style of their seating and casework could address the needs of prospective clients, possibly assisting customers in selecting designs to reflect their own needs and tastes – perhaps offering them a choice of a number of accessories or ornamental hardware, tiles or mirrors.
The catalogue contributes to the growing body of scholarship on the influence of the Aesthetic movement in furniture production at that time. It is currently used as a primary source for scholars and students of 19th century American decorative arts, especially the many who have already been consulting it since 1976, when the Cooper- Hewitt, National Design Museum Library opened its doors at the uptown landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion. The catalogue is an essential resource for identifying actual pieces produced by Kimbel & Cabus in the 1870s -1880s. Without overstating its importance, the digitized trade catalogue offers continuous, reliable access to one of the only information sources about Kimbel & Cabus.
Up until now most if any scholarship has been a superficial gloss over Kimbel & Cabus, a nod of acknowledgement, but nothing much else, especially since we are left with no invoices, no business records, no letters. The fading studio photographs are believed to have been arranged as a practical sales tool, comprised solely of images and what appear to be some code numbers (which may be price codes). Although the numbers and codes have never been deciphered it is important that they be preserved so that further research may be conducted with this important, rare, and delightful glimpse into the world of 19th century New York cabinetmakers and New York Victorian interiors. The Kimbel & Cabus catalogue is also a picture album of the world of the Industrial Revolution – a time when engineering and aesthetics met for the first time, making and using everything from new textiles to springs for upholstered chairs.
Today the names Kimbel and Cabus most often bring to mind the terms neo-Gothic, Aesthetic movement, and Eastlake style, although the original trade catalogue shows a much more diverse inventory, one that included an impressive selection of furniture for every room of the home in styles that include Chinese and Japanese motifs, Moorish and Turkish influences, exotic textiles and Renaissance, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Revival forms, as well. The original catalogue includes chairs, washstands, sofas, desks, settees, pedestals, revolving book stands, cabinets for -- dishes (cupboards), clothes (presses and armoires), music; wall shelves; dressing tables; buffets; sideboards, hat stands, easels, umbrella stands, many of which are displayed in suites or room arrangements. [INSERT EXAMPLE PHOTO].
Digitizing Kimbel & Cabus

The decision to extend the life of a particular artifact is especially thorny, necessarily limiting material access and providing instead a high-quality surrogate, but considering the level of cultural interest in the material, the trade book provided an ideal project. The digitization is expected to enhance interest in the material — material that can at best support a limited audience in terms of its condition.
Each image of the original catalogue from the 1870s has been scanned to provide access to each page of the trade catalogue, in thumbnail and oversized views, by browsing or by subject selection. The actual album, the paper artifact, will no longer be required for most scholarly work now.
This catalogue is one of the most important among the 6500 rare books in the Smithsonian’s New York collection, one that will continue to be in demand by researchers, staff, students, and others who will continue to use the collection. It cannot be replaced, only copied. The presence of the catalogue on the Internet gives access to the appropriate global audience now.
The web project will extend the life of the existing photographs of the catalogue by at least one hundred years, decreasing the use of the actual artifact to almost zero, and storing the “best possible images” on archival quality disks. The Smithsonian’s plans for long term retention include: [Stephen or Martin]
Technical Information
In accordance to the guidelines established by NARA and the Colorado Digitization Project, three versions of the images were created: a master image, an access image, and a thumbnail image (on server and CDs).
Images were scanned in greyscale at 600 dpi, using a flatbed Epson Expression 1600 scanner and including the Kodak standard grey patches in all scans. All images were scanned from a set of high-quality photographs made in 1976 from the original cards. Scanning the photographs avoids risk to the more fragile originals and also prevents twenty years of further deterioration of the cards. All images were inspected visually for quality assurance. Adobe Photoshop was used to produce smaller images for web display and indexing. Maxell Gold 700 MB CDs , MSM-A Color Therm, Archival quality disks were used to store a backup copy of the thumbnails.

Further Reading

Burke, Doreen Bolger, et. al. In pursuit of beauty : Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

Burrows, E.G. and Wallace, M. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cook, Clarence. “Beds and tables, stools and candlesticks. X.” Scribner’s Monthly. April, 1877. vol. XIII, no. 6. pp. 816-820.

Downing, A.J. The Architecture of Country Houses. New York: Dover, 1969. (reprint)

Freeman, John C. Furniture for the Victorian home: from A.J. Downing (American): Country Houses (1850) and J.C. Loudon (English): encyclopedia (1833), 1968.

Gere, Charlotte. Nineteenth-century Decoration: The Art of the Interior. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Hanks, David. “Kimbel & Cabus: 19th-century New York Cabinetmakers.” New York: Art & Antiques, Sept-Oct 1980. pp. 44-53.

Howe, Katherine S., and David B. Warren. The Gothic Revival Style in America, 1830-1870. Exh. Cat. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1976.

Meyer, Priscilla S. Victorian Detail: A Working Dictionary. Armonk, NY: Oak Cottage Farm. 1980.

Otto, Celia Jackson. American Furniture of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

Spofford, H. “Medieval furniture.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 54, Issue 318, Nov. 1876. pp. 809-830. [Illustrations on pages 825 and 828 are examples of Kimbel & Cabus, not Pottier & Stymus. Attribution corrected in Harper’s Vol. 54, Issue 319, Dec. 1876. p. 143.]

Talbert, Bruce J. Gothic Forms applied to furniture, metalwork and decoration for domestic purposes. London, 1868.

Voorsanger, Catherine Hoover, ed. “Gorgeous Articles of Furniture: Cabinetmaking in the Empire City,” in Art and The Empire City. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. pp. 287-325.

Voorsanger, Catherine Hoover. “Kimbel and Cabus,” in Encyclopedia of Interior Design and Decoration. London; Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997. pp. 675-677.

Wedgwood, A. Pugin Family Catalogue of the Drawings. Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, London: R.I.B.A., 1977.

[1] New York cabinetmakers like John Belter, Charles Baudouine, Alexander Roux
[2] Kimbel and Cabus may have purchased plaques and mounts from the firm, although no records exist to confirm this.
[3] Gothic Revival wavers between a folksy, decorated gingerbread style and a heavy linear medieval throwback.
[4] As you would expect, the terms also spelled “cabinetmaking” or “cabinet-making”, customarily consisted of two words in the nineteenth-century.
[5] “Ladies Mile” would become the name associated with women’s clothing and accessory stores proliferating along Broadway in Lower Manhattan in an area between 9th and 23rd Streets on Broadway and 6th Avenue (now also called Avenue of the Americas).
[6] Gothic Revival wavers between a folksy, decorated gingerbread style and a heavy linear medieval throwback.

[bey1]Hanks claims the date to be 1874.


RC said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. Anthony Kimbel was my great-grandfather. [father's mother's father] This article fills in a lot of pieces of family history. Please share any other kimbel material if you can.

I temporarily copied your article for a family blog. Its a great addition and all in the family will enjoy. May I have permission to continue to use it?

Richard Clarke

Libraria said...

Hi Richard,
Thanks so much for your comment. I am so glad to have connected certain dots in your history. I am hoping you may be able to help me with certain questions about Kimbel and Cabus which still remain unanswered, even now (2009). Yes, you may continue to use it, but only for non-commercial purposes. If you want to cite me, just use my blog address:
Thanks for your comment.

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academic said...

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