The Victorian era spanned most of the 19th century, from 1830 to 1901. This means that furniture from this storied time period may differ in age by as much as 70 years. If you’re about to send your antique Victorian dresser out for restoration work, you may want to know whether it dates from the era’s earlier or later decades. Let’s look at three top methods of obtaining this information.
1) Check the Style of the Dresser
There is no single style of Victorian furniture. In fact, several distinctive styles rose to prominence during various phases of the Victorian era. When trying to identify the age of your dresser, you can use its stylistic details as a rough guideline.
Two main styles were popular in the early decades of the Victorian era: Gothic Revival (1830 to 1860) and Rococo Revival (1840 to 1865). Two other main styles gained popularity later in the era: Renaissance Revival (1860 to 1890) and the Eastlake and Aesthetic Movement (1880 to 1900). Some of these major styles had multiple sub-styles. For example, sub-styles of Renaissance Revival furniture include Modern Gothic and Egyptian Revival. In addition, a wide variety of other Victorian styles were popular at one time or another.
If you know the style of your Victorian dresser, you already have a useful method of establishing its possible age. If you don’t know the style, a brief consultation with a knowledgeable expert will help clear things up. However, be aware that on its own, the style of a Victorian piece may not give you a reliable date.
2) Check the Type of Finish Used on the Dresser
Three types of wood finish were widely used during the Victorian era: shellac, lacquer and varnish. However, lacquer and varnish only entered the scene in the latter decades of the 19th century. This means that essentially all Victorian furniture made before 1860 has a shellac finish. Again, while you can use the finish on your dresser as a rough estimate of its age, you can’t use it as a definitive indicator. That’s because shellac remained in use past 1860, and some Victorian pieces made from the 1860s to 1900 have a shellac finish instead of a lacquer or varnish finish.
3) Check the Dresser Bottom, Interior or Back
The Victorian era of furniture design spanned a very important development in furniture-making history: the switch from exclusive reliance on hand tools to the use of mass-manufacturing processes that rely on automation. Furniture pieces from this time period often show signs of their method of manufacture, and therefore their age, in out-of-the-way places. These places typically include the bottom and interior of a piece, as well as the back.
When gauging the age of a Victorian-era dresser, you’re looking for the presence or absence of marks that show evidence of either handcrafting or mass manufacture. If your piece dates to the early decades of the era (i.e., up until 1860), you have a higher chance of finding handcrafting marks such as minor nicks and other surface irregularities. On the other hand, if your piece dates to the later decades of the Victorian era, you have a much higher chance of finding the smoothly finished surfaces made possible by automated mass manufacturing.