Spotting The Elusive — And Important — Shopmark
As collectors, we never tire of spotting a shopmark, whether it be initials scratched on the bottom of a vase, a decal inside a top drawer or a die-stamped cipher on the underside of a hammered copper bowl. With the rare exception of a forged mark (more on that in two weeks), the shopmark unlocks a door to a wealth of information about the piece we hold in our hands.
Shopmarks were not unique to Arts & Crafts makers, but the practice of signing a piece of furniture had largely fallen out of practice during the Victorian era of mass-produced household furnishings. Oftentimes there was no “craftsman” involved in the production process. Just as often, the owners of the factory had no incentive to be associated with the products their workers were pushing out the door. If a piece of furniture from that era did have a label, it most likely was that of the retail store where it was sold.
With advent of the Arts & Crafts movement and the renewed emphasis on hand-craftsmanship came the return to the practice of attaching a shopmark to each piece. The shopmark served a dual purpose: it served as a guarantee of the workmanship inherent in the piece and it provided the homeowner with a daily reminder of who made it.
Deciding where to place the shopmark, whether it be a decal, paper label, brand or stamp, undoubtedly resulted in some heated debates inside each workshop. Elbert Hubbard, who in 1895 could lay claim to being the first American Arts & Crafts business to use a shopmark, had a simple solution: put the Roycroft “R” in a prominent spot on the piece. What some collectors today might deem distracting, others now see as a decorative element they point to with pride on Roycroft magazine stand or Morris chair.
Most other Arts & Crafts firms took a more modest approach, placing the shopmark in a location where the customer could easily find it while standing in a furniture showroom, yet not having it be a distraction to the design of the piece.
In some instances a shopmark can also serve as a means of establishing a date when the piece was made. For that to happen a researcher would have to have documented the introduction of a new variation of a shopmark, such as Gustav Stickley’s announcement in 1912 of his new branded shopmark.
The problem, of course, is that a workman might well have later found an earlier version of a shopmark and, rather than throw it away, stuck the 1902 red decal (pictured) on a piece of 1914 furniture. As author David Cathers warned as early as 1979, use design and construction details to identify and date a piece, then let the shopmark confirm it.
For those of you interested in more information on Arts and Crafts Shopmarks, purchase Bruce’s book, Arts & Crafts Shopmarks: 1895-1940.