Despite the fact that the firm of Morgan and Sanders was considered the leading patent furniture-maker in London during the Regency, neither partner ever actually never filed for a single patent for any of the unique furniture pieces they produced. As it happens, the fashion for that type of furniture reached its peak in Britain during our favorite decade and a great deal of it was supplied by the firm of Morgan and Sanders. They were also one of the first London furniture-making firms to regularly advertize their wares in the periodicals of the time. The firm of Morgan and Sanders, and/or the patent furniture they produced, might offer some unique and historically accurate opportunities by which to furnish the plot of a Regency romance.
Morgan and Sanders, patent furniture-makers of the Regency . . .
By the turn of the nineteenth century, "patent furniture" was a term used to refer to any piece of furniture which had interchangeable parts or could be transformed from one type of furniture piece into another. This same type of furniture was also known as "metamorphic furniture." The term is believed to have derived from the epic poem, The Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet, Ovid, in which various characters experience a metamorphosis, by which they are transformed into something else, from human to animal, or, in a few cases, an inanimate object. Another term for this type of furniture was "mechanical furniture," as many pieces were equipped with some type of catch, latch, lever, spring and/or set of gears by which they were operated. Such furniture had actually first been conceived in England in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. The earliest known examples of this type of furniture were chairs, or sometimes desks, which were made so that they could be transformed into library steps for use in rooms with tall book shelves. However, very few of these pieces were actually made in the eighteenth century.
In the early nineteenth century, as the number of books published each year increased, more and more affluent households had a dedicated book room or library. And often, the shelves in those rooms were generally of full height, from floor to ceiling. This made it difficult for most people to reach books on the upper shelves. Therefore, a set of library steps became a useful item of furniture in those rooms. By the Regency, many people had developed a taste for ingenious design, particularly that employed to create furniture which could serve more than one purpose, which helped to increase demand for these clever furniture pieces. And, on 1 July 1811, in their section on Fashionable Furniture, Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, published an illustration of a "Metamorphic Library Chair," which they noted was manufactured by "Messers. Morgan and Saunders’s [sic]." This is the first known "advertisement" for a piece of patent furniture in Britain. [Author’s Note: A copy of this illustration has been made available online by the Brooklyn Museum. It can be found on this page.]
There were no laws governing advertising during the Regency, so this illustration does not look like the kind of advertisements with which we are generally familiar today. Rather, this particular illustration was more like an instance of product placement. Apparently, the partners in the firm of Morgan and Sanders were on very good terms with Rudolph Ackermann, the publisher of the Repository. Their furniture manufactory was located on Catherine Street, only a few steps from The Strand, where Ackermann’s print shop was located. Naturally, Morgan and Sanders were eager to bring their products to the attention of the public, and Ackermann was always eager to feature the newest and most fashionable items in his periodical, in order to maintain its image and prestige as a thoroughly modern publication. Through the Regency, the Repository would continue to feature other patent furniture pieces which were manufactured by the London firm of Morgan and Sanders. During that same period, Morgan and Sanders would pay for additional advertisements for their furniture in the Repository, and in other publications.
In the Regency, the firm of Morgan and Sanders was a relatively new London firm, having only been founded in 1801. Thomas Morgan and Joseph Sanders had both worked for the furniture maker, Thomas Butler, who had premises at 13 & 14 Catherine Street. Morgan had previously been a linen draper, while Sanders had been employed as a superintendent by Elward & Marsh, cabinet-makers to the Royal family. Both men held administrative or supervisory positions when they went to work for Thomas Butler, in the late 1780s. Business was good, but as the century came to a close, it was clear that the aging Thomas Butler was planning to retire. Morgan and Sanders had discussed with him the possibility of buying him out. In preparation for the sale, Butler hired Samuel Oxenham to appraise the business and determine its value. It is not clear exactly how it happened, but in 1800, it was Oxenham who bought Butler’s furniture-making business. Morgan and Sanders refused to work for Oxenham, and set up their own furniture manufactory, just a few doors away, at 16 & 17 Catherine Street. Curiously, about a year later, Oxenham sold the business back to Thomas Butler. But by then, the firm of Morgan and Sanders had become quite successful and they had no wish to return to their former employer. Instead, they remained his chief competitor right though the Regency.
Initially, the firm of Morgan and Sanders produced quite a lot of campaign furniture, that is, furniture which could be easily knocked down and packed fairly flat, for the use of officers in military service. The Napoleonic War had required an increasingly large British Army and Navy, thus also increasing the demand for such easily transported furniture by the officers in those services. Morgan and Sanders were happy to execute commissions for all types of campaign furniture, from collapsible chairs and beds to portable camp chests and dining tables. Thomas Butler also produced such furniture, but Morgan and Sanders soon developed a reputation for top quality pieces at good prices. It is known that Admiral Lord Nelson purchased some of the collapsible furniture he used in his cabin aboard HMS Victory from Morgan and Sanders. In fact, after the autumn of 1805, Morgan and Sanders renamed their premises Trafalgar House, in honor of the great naval commander’s final victory.
The Metamorphic Library Chair, which Morgan and Sanders also called "The Trafalgar Chair," became very popular in England, particularly after the illustration was published in the July 1811 issue of Ackermann’s Repository. Today, it is believed that at least four hundred versions of that type of chair are still extant, leading furniture scholars to estimate that at least a couple of thousand such chairs were produced during the Regency. It was fairly easy to convert the chair into a set of library steps. A catch kept the upper and lower portions of the chair locked together until the steps were needed. Once the catch was released, the upper portion of the chair was tipped forward, to reveal the steps beneath the seat. The catch would be re-engaged when the upper portion was tipped back up to become a seat. It must be noted that a few versions of the chair had small brass casters on the feet. The casters would add a couple of inches in height, but they could also pose some danger, if the casters could not be locked when the steps were in use. That may explain why so few existing versions of this type of chair have casters. The design of the Metamorphic Library Chair did not include handrails for the steps when the chair was in that position. Therefore, it was necessary for the user to take some care when mounting the steps and reaching for books on high shelves.
The Metamorphic Library Chair was not the only patent library furniture produced by Morgan and Sanders. That chair was typically purchased by the affluent who had a large library or book room. Another special library chair was also produced for affluent customers. The Library Reading Chair was equipped with a special book rack, usually attached to one arm of the chair, at the preference of the purchaser. This rack could be raised or lowered as desired, in order to hold the book which was being read at just the right height for the occupant of the chair. Most of these chairs had some type of clip arrangement which held the book open and in place on the rack when it was in use. When it was not in use, the book rack could be swung out of the way so that the chair could also be used for other purposes, without the impediment of the book rack. The Metamorphic Library Chair or the Library Reading Chair were often purchased by people who wished to flaunt them as further proof of their wealth, in their libraries full of books.
However, not all Morgan and Sanders patent furniture was made for the wealthy. For middle class families of lesser means, they also produced a less costly piece of furniture for books. This was a "circular moveable bookcase." This piece was a multi-tiered set of spherical shelves, mounted on a stand, typically with casters on the base. For those who did not have enough books to fill multiple bookshelves, this smaller piece was ideal. It could hold quite a few books, and the shelves were mounted so that they could turn at a touch, in order to find a desired book. Since it was on casters, it could be moved next to a person’s favorite chair while they were reading. It could then be moved out of the way, perhaps into the corner of the room, when it was not in use. These portable circular book cases typically had anywhere from three to seven shelves, usually with each shelf of a larger diameter than the one above it. Though they were popular with the middle classes, some affluent ladies purchased them in order to keep their favorite reading material readily available in their sitting rooms or private parlors.
Despite their success with their library chairs and circular book shelves, the firm of Morgan and Sanders did not restrict themselves only to the production of patent furniture for libraries. Another important type of furniture which they produced in fairly large numbers were expandable dining tables. These were dining tables which, when closed, might seat only four to six people, but, by the use of a series of chains and pulleys, or a geared mechanism, could be made to extend in length so that they could seat up to twenty people or more. This technology was also applied to Pembroke, tea and gaming tables by the Regency period. In addition to expandable tables, Morgan and Sanders also made sideboards which could be expanded into a large table. These sideboard/table pieces were particularly popular with people who used their dining rooms for other purposes than the service of meals, since the table did not take up space in the room unless it was set up for use. One type of sideboard/table combination was named the "Nelson Sideboard," in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Other types of patent furniture which were popular during the Regency had their roots in campaign furniture. Morgan and Sanders made a number of different bed frames which could fold up, into a sofa, a chair, or even what appeared to be a chest of drawers. Such beds were very convenient when a house had a large number of overnight guests. Though these beds were not always that comfortable, they were usually better than sleeping on the floor. And, when such pieces were not in use as a bed, they were still useful, while taking up less space than would a bed. In addition to these convertible beds, Morgan and Sanders had also developed a bed frame made of iron, which was advertized as being inhospitable to bed bugs, a common problem at the time. It was believed that the bed bugs hid in the various holes which had been drilled in wooden bed frames in order to assemble them. In fact, most people who kept a clean house and changed their mattresses regularly had no bed bug problems. Even so, there were still people who preferred to use iron bed frames.
Another type of mechanical furniture, though not truly metamorphic, was made for exercise. Many gentlemen were known to have what was known as a chamber horse, which was used to simulate the up and down motion of riding on a horse. The chamber horse was typically used in bad weather, when one did not want to ride outdoors. However, there were some gentlemen who got all their exercise from a chamber horse and seldom, if ever, mounted a real horse. Essentially, a chamber horse was a chair, or stool, with a seat situated above a set of heavy concertina springs, enclosed in leather or heavy canvas. In order to take their exercise, the user bounced up and down on the seat for as long as they felt necessary. [Author’s Note: A search on Google Images provides several photos of antique chamber horses. ]
One of the most distinctive pieces which was produced by Morgan and Sanders they dubbed the "Pitt’s Cabinet Globe and Writing Desk," in honor of the former Prime Minister, William Pitt, the Younger. It is believed that small, spherical silver inkstands, which became popular during the 1790s, may have been the inspiration for this unique type of desk. Made of wood, often with gilt brass fittings, Pitt’s Cabinet Globe and Writing Desk looked very much like a gored wooden globe when it was closed, supported on from three to four curved legs. The desk itself could be opened in different ways, depending upon the model. With one version, the upper half of the globe section opened as two quarters, revealing the upper half of the back section. This version of the desk typically had multiple small drawers and cubbyholes in the upper portion, while the lower half of the glove contained a sloping writing surface which could be raised and angled as desired. In another version of the globe desk, the upper half of the globe could be raised and tipped back until it was perpendicular to the lower half. In some versions, the upper half of the globe was fitted with drawers, while in others it contained fanciful architectural scenes, some of which concealed drawers. The third version of the globe desk was opened by allowing the upper half of the globe to rotate completely below the lower half of the globe. In this version, all of the drawers and other fittings were to be found only in the lower half of the globe section.
Initially made only as a writing desk, the Pitt’s Cabinet Globe was also made as a lady’s sewing or needlework table, beginning about 1815. When made as a needlework table, typically, the upper section of the globe was empty and simply rotated beneath the lower section, where the lady’s needlework implements and supplies were stored. However, within a couple of years, globe-shaped needlework tables were made so that the upper half of the globe could be raised and tipped back to reveal some type of decoration or a design made of mirrored glass. At about the same time, some of the Pitt’s Globe Cabinets were made as a combination needlework table and writing desk, which included fittings for both uses. Some of these pieces were known to have had secret compartments built into them. Queen Charlotte herself commissioned a Pitt’s Cabinet Globe style needlework table from Morgan and Sanders. Those gentlemen who acquired a Pitt’s Cabinet Globe and Writing Desk from Morgan and Sanders generally kept it in their library or book room. However, ladies who acquired a version of Pitt’s Globe which was made as a needlework table, or as a combination needlework table and writing desk, usually kept it in their bedchamber, or in their private sitting room, if they had one.
By the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, Morgan and Sanders were considered to be the premier patent furniture makers in London. During the Regency, as this type of furniture became increasingly popular, there were a handful of specialty furniture manufacturers who also produced this type of furniture. Thomas Butler made some patent furniture, but he was usually overshadowed by Morgan and Sanders. William Pocock was one of the better known of these patent furniture makers, and he, like Morgan and Sanders, had manufacturing premises in London. The firm of Gillow was also offering a selection of popular patent furniture types during the Regency. But, unlike Pocock, Butler and Morgan and Sanders, the Gillow family only had a ware room in London. As they had always done, they continued to manufacture their furniture in Lancaster, then shipped it to London for sale. Following the lead of Morgan and Sanders, by the Regency, Thomas Butler, William Pocock and the Gillows all advertised their furniture in Ackermann’s Repository and other fashionable periodicals of the time.
Though Morgan and Sanders never applied for a patent on any of the patent furniture they made and sold, most of that furniture was patented. Typically, an independent inventor would design a new form of patent furniture and they would apply for a patent. However, in most cases, those inventors did not have the connections or the resources to enable them to produce their furniture on a commercial scale. But firms like Morgan and Sanders did, and they regularly licensed the rights to make a new piece of patent furniture from the inventor. Butler, Pocock and the Gillows did the same, though most inventors preferred to off their invention to Morgan and Sanders first, as they would generally be paid more by that firm.
In September of 1814, Thomas Butler once again retired from the furniture trade. Within a few months, he had sold most of his business to Morgan and Sanders. It appears that Morgan and Sanders took over Butler’s premises on Catherine Street, since it was very close to theirs, and advertised that fact once the takeover was complete. They continued in business together through the end of the Regency. Joseph Sanders died late in 1818, and during 1819, the firm was known as Morgan & Company. However, it seems that Thomas Morgan either wished to retire, or he did not wish to continue on without his partner. For whatever reason, in 1820, he sold the business to his foreman, John Durham and gave up the furniture-making trade. Therefore, the firm of Morgan and Sanders came to an end at about the same time as the Regency.
Dear Regency Authors, might you furnish one or more of your upcoming stories of romance with a piece or two of patent furniture? Could it be that the heroine finds herself atop the steps of a Metamorphic Library Chair while trying to get a book on one of the higher shelves of the library in the house in which she works as governess. Since there are no hand rails on those steps, when she loses her balance, will it be the hero who saves her from a fall? Then again, might one of your characters make some much needed money by inventing an elegant piece of patent furniture, which they then license to the firm of Morgan and Sanders to produce. Will that character be male or female? Or, mayhap the heroine has a Pitt’s Globe Cabinet combination needlework table and writing desk. What could she have hidden in one of the small secret compartments within it? How else might a piece of patent furniture or one of the firms which produced it figure in a tale of romance during the Regency?