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Antique Pyrography

by Kathleen Menendez

Antique Pyrography, page two
The Advent of the Ladies Magazines, That Marvelous Invention--The Victorian Pyrographic Kit!, The Factories

The Advent of The Ladies Magazines

If the invention and manufacture of the benzine-fueled pyrographic tool at the beginning of the century was the means by which many artists, folk artists, and hobbyists could more easily experiment in pyrographic art, nothing else accounted for the surge of interest in this art form more than the ladies magazines.

Wood cabinet, detail,
circa 1920,
Art Nouveau design of two musicians
attributed to Fred Stewart Greene

The North Stonington Historical Society
N. Stonington, Connecticut

Pyroengraved, stained piece
Photographed in place in the attic
of the Historical Society

Photograph by Sharon H. Garvey

From the October 1891 issue of Art Interchange:

Miss Osgood, of the Osgood Art School (Broadway and 14th St., N.Y.) announces classes in Burnt Wood (or, as it is sometimes called, 'Poker Decoration'). This pastime has had a great vogue in England and it is likely to be popular here. Some charming and ambitious examples of it were at an art studio exhibition a year ago.

In 1949, the above was reprinted in an article in The Spinning Wheel's Complete Book of Antiques, with the following comment by Bettye Lawson McCurley:

Miss Osgood's enterprise heralded the revival and refinement of hot poker decoration, a studio art form recognized fifty years earlier (Jan. 1856). As the technique of the medium spread from the studio into the home in the two decades from 1890 to 1910, individuals of creative bent welcomed pyrography as a parlor pastime and produced hundreds of useful and ornamental pieces of burntwood.

That Marvelous Invention--The Victorian Pyrographic Kit!

Since the time of Bob Boyer's hypothetical cavemen ("The Amazing Art of Pyrography") who heated metal implements in the fire and transferred designs onto other materials such as wood and leather, the technology really didn't change much until the invention of the benzine-fueled tool of the Victorian era. Always before that, heat control was a big factor in the capability to produce varied work.

Pyrographic Kit
Benzine-fueled tool dating
from the beginning of the 20th Century.

Pyroengraved box with color and
Pyrographic Tool in its own wood box,
Also partially decorated in pyrography
Recently acquired from the estate
of Hazel Schmoll
who lived from 1890 to 1989

Museum of Art and History
Boulder, Colorado

Photographs by Jehnie Burns

In his research on antique pyrographic tools, Bob Boyer found that the earliest patent for a wire-tipped tool similar to the ones used by most pyrography artists today was in 1916. (He shows the patent in his book.)

The Factories

It was inevitable that factories would materialize to supply the demand created by the invention of the benzine-fueled tool and the ladies magazines. First and foremost among suppliers of tools and wood items was The Flemish Art Company of New York, so much so that the name "Flemish Art" became one more generic term for pyrography, along with burnt wood and wood etch as well, and poker work or poker art from its earlier life.

The Sears Roebuck Company started to offer some of the Flemish Art Company's supplies in the Sears catalogue. Later they switched and got their supplies from the competition, Thayer and Chandler of Chicago, Illinois.

Commercial Box for Sewing Supplies, American
Bearing a factory-stamped pyrographed pattern

Inherited by Sharon H. Garvey
from her grandparents

Name given to a design-intense
pyrographic work popular at that time
in which every space was textured, shaded, or
outlined all in burning
and often enhanced with a little
(or sometimes more) color

Photograph by Sharon H. Garvey

According to antique collectors Richard and Carole Smyth of Huntington, NY, in their book, The Burning Passion, the factories were not only manufacturing the pyrographic kits, including instructions, unfinished wood pieces for the hobbyist to buy and decorate, and paints to further enhance the woodburned items, they were also selling some unfinished wood items with a design pre-stamped on them (usually in purple or brown ink) for the hobbyist to burn over. Not only that, they were supplying some unfinished wood pieces with a design already pyroengraved by means of a heated engraving plate, ready for the hobbyist to paint only. This type of preparation is called "scorched" and is also sometimes referred to as "stamped" (not to be confused with those stamped with ink).

A distinction in the appearance of this scorched pyrography compared to hand-done pyrography is that the pyroengraved line tends to be shallower. Another means to identify this type is that the design is often repeated from the outside of the box to the inside of the lid.

The factories even sold pieces to the general public and to other commercial concerns that were completely decorated in pyrography (by means of the heated engraving plate), painted, and finished. The box above, which was sold with sewing supplies, is an example of this last type. Shown in the picture is the inside of the lid bearing a design identical to the one on the outside.

There remain some questions, however. What happened to those factories? And what happened to the engraving plates when the factories disappeared? Research is already underway in the hope of answering these questions. Perhaps someone reading this article may help us by shedding some light on this mystery.

Australian Pyrographic Kit
Early 1900's

>From the private collection
of Jan Crawford, Australia

Photograph by Mixo Sydenham

In Australia, it seems, pyrography was no less a sensation than it was in America at the turn of the century. Above is the Australian pyrographic tool that emerged during that period, and below, two samples of pyroengraved work very representative of the most popular sorts of wood pieces available, and in styles, colors, and motifs typefying the taste of Australian pyrographers at that time.


Small Round Trinket Box with Lid and Tall Wood Vase
Australian origin, artist unknown, circa 1910

Well preserved pyroengraved pieces
In favored Australian motifs of that time period
>From the private collection of
K. J. Mixo Sydenham

Photograph by Mixo Sydenham

©1997 Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez

Continued Next Page

Forward to Page 3, Antique Pyrography Collecting Pyrography, Conclusion
Pyrograffiti: E-Museum Announcement, References from Article, Items of Interest, Bio

Back to Page 1, Antique Pyrography--A Look Into the Past of the Art of "Pyr," Just How Old Is This Ancient Art?, Far and Wide As Well

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