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JOEL Joel's Blog

What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices"


A round corner table
A round corner table, with telescope sliders, on pillar and claws

I love old catalogues, and I've collected many in my time. I am the proud owner of two original editions (1811 and 1831) of the London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices (LCMUBP) and a reprint of the 1793 edition. I recently found myself looking over my little collection and wondering what the price variations shown in the different editions could tell us about the cabinetmaking industry of its time. The 1811 edition was a greatly expanded and new reworking of earlier editions from 1793 and 1805. The 1811 edition of the Guide to Prices became the standard for the next half century (at least).

Some background: The LCMGTP is is a compendium of woodworking projects, with information about how much the cabinetmaker should be paid for a basic job, and all sorts of extras and extensions. Books like this existed all over Great Britain, but the London book was the most comprehensive. Other trades such as chairmaking had their own books. The 1831 edition I have is bound with a copy of "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices for The Most Improved Extensible Dining Tables." That volume is from 1856, although the Dining Table editions date to at least ten years earlier in 1846. The 1811 copy that belongs to the New York Public Library has a short addendum for inlaying small details on furniture - much like we would see on furniture from the period. As shops specialized, and the books were not inexpensive, it would be common for craftsmen only to have the volumes that apply to them. What I do not know is if my 1831 and 1856 editions were put together by a collector, someone later in the 19th century, or if a working cabinetmaking shop in the 1850's got both editions and decided to put them together.

What surprised me is that the two main editions, 1811 and 1831, are identical in content and pricing -- despite being separated by 20 years.

How could this be the case? I had a tip-off -- interestingly enough, from my original source of information about the Book of Prices: Henry Mayhew, a journalist whose 1850s writings in "The Morning Chronicle" became the basis of one of the pillars of my library, "London Labour and the London Poor." Mayhew mentions that the 1811 edition of LCMGTP was a standard for pricing, but was heavily discounted except in the best of workshops.

The major difference between the 1793 edition and the 1811 edition is that the latter edition is a complete reworking and much expanded. While some of the projects stay the same, many were dropped. Pricing in the 1811 edition is, as near as I can tell by comparing similar projects, roughly the same, but some initial pricing is a little higher. The base price for a Pembroke Table, for example, is 10£ 6s in 1793, but a pound more expensive in 1811. There are more extras and options affecting size and complications, and similar options go up in price a little too. In either case, a pound is a huge amount of money for most people and reflects about a weeks' salary for a cabinetmaker. From 1811 and later editions official prices remain exactly the same.

What does that imply? First of all, these prices reflect only the high end of the market. As London grew by leaps and bounds in the nineteenth century, the upper middle class expanded too, but not at the same rate as the middle class - which still could not really afford fancy bespoke furniture. While there was a huge increase in consumption, rapid industrialization kept prices low. For most people, the wooden bed was replaced by a mass-produced iron bed. Chairs might be made locally by London-based chair makers and upholsterers (another group with their own price book), but most people got their much less expensive chairs from the mass-produced chairmaking industry based in High Wycombe. So wage pressure from industrial sources kept bespoke pricing in check.

Another potentially interesting observation is that these prices are evidence that real wages for skilled craftspeople didn't rise in the period. We often hear nowadays that the real wages of American labor haven't risen much at all since the 1980's - and the reasons are basically the same: a massive increase in automation/machinery, and with that, a concentration of capital and business such that the actual employee is further and further away from the customer and the decision-making process.

"The Most Improved Extensible Dining Tables" raises some questions. I have included some plates from the book. Why wasn't this included in the 1811 edition? Why is the earliest edition I know of from 1846, not, say, 1811? Why was the price guide for ornament available in 1811 but seems to have disappeared a short time later? Did it really disappear - or have I simply not searched hard enough? Or did tastes change so much that there wasn't enough demand for that type of detailing to warrant a new edition?

On the inclusion of the 1846 edition of "The Most Improved Extensible Dining Tables," which at a glance is about making folding giant dining room tables, I can suggest something else. London in the early nineteenth century was the center of the economic world. Lots of very newly rich people built lots of very big mansions. With technological improvements such as better roads and the growth of gas lighting, entertaining for rich people in cities became more widespread. I suggest (with no real proof, other than a snippet of information and a dollop of conjecture) that the demand for large extensible dining room tables came about not in 1811, when the Industrial Revolution was getting started, but a generation later when the new generation of smaller industrialists started cashing in. And that's when they built larger mansions, and needed larger tables. Why extensible tables? For that I can only guess (as opposed to speculate). Even if you are pretty rich, London real estate was pricey. You might have a couple of rooms big enough to have a big party, but after dinner was eaten, and the room cleared, folding up the table for dancing gives you more space. Also being able to size a table appropriately to the number of guests makes the evening a lot less pathetic than having a few people over one night and sitting at an empty table for twenty.

Another minor observation regarding the respective editions of the LCMGTP: the books are identical in layout and pagination. They were most certainly printed from the same plates. But the paper in the 1811 edition is heavy and has a matte surface. I can't see any watermarks or lines from a mesh used to make it. The paper in the 1831 edition is slightly thinner, smooth and slightly shiny. I don't see a watermark, but there are definite grid lines from the wire mesh it was formed on. The paper in neither book is yellowed or crumbly because both are still 100% rag paper. But the different surfaces shows the changes in manufacture.

N.B. Unions these days have regular guidelines on wages and benefits. In the 19th and earlier centuries when work was paid piecework, the price books functioned in very similar ways (albeit not by hour). They were extremely handy for bidding out a project. These days, there are no publicly available price books like this that I know of, but every cabinet shop that wants to stay in existence keeps close track of every phase of every project - how long it took, what it cost, material rates and lead times, essentially making up their own (confidential) price book. Or price spreadsheet.

What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 2

What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 3
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 4
A square table
A square table, with telescope sliders

A round corner table
A round corner table, with angle frames and folding top

The Pages and Some of the notes for the Pembroke Table

Here is the bulk of the pages dealing with the Pembroke Table. A Pembroke Table is a small table used for things like a place to put your teapot set down on, Or at bedside for putting a candlestick on. Like most of the furniture described in the book there is no illustration. The few plates that do exist are there to clarify complexities in execution, not explain what the item is. We do stock plans by Carlyle Lynch for a simple Penbroke table if you want to get a hint on what they look like.
Do make everyone's life easier here is a link to a PDF of the six main Pembroke Table pages in LCMUBP.

What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 7
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 8
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 9
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 10
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 11
What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 12

What We Can Learn From "The London Cabinet-Makers' Union Book of Prices" 13

Join the conversation
01/04/2023 Jason
I worked in a research library for a year. I notice that the binding of that book is just the same as many from the early to late 19th century. Leather binding with that almost tie dye cover.

You are employing archival practices of preservation, I presume? Humidity is the big one.
01/04/2023 Dick Yanikoski
Consider this analytical test: If you price a range of furniture pieces from a single large furniture manufacturer today, and then compare these prices to the closest counterparts in your 1831 price book, do you find any pattern in price ratios between comparable pieces across time periods? For instance, if a 7' solid quartersawn white oak extension table is priced today at 2.3 times the cost of a similar 4' pedestal table, was that also true in 1831? [Admittedly, finding comparable pieces across almost two centuries may be difficult since so little manufactured furniture today is made from solid wood.] After calculating a series of such comparisons, try arranging them in presumptive order from items "requiring most hand work" to those "most amenable to automation." The results might confirm (or not) one of your hunches. As always, I appreciate your musings and references to woodworking books. My own collection includes more than 600 volumes but few that I would classify as antiquarian treasures.
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