Jeni Sandberg is a dealer, appraiser and consultant in 20th century design. She has worked in museums, was a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, and also appears on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. She writes about fun objects on her blog. In this series, she will explore the history of decorative objects. Today’s subject: the delicate and beautiful wood-burning technique that is pyrography.
Practiced for centuries all over the world, pyrography — the art of burning designs into wood — enjoyed a surge in popularity during the late 19th century, particularly in the United States and Australia. Pyrography literally means “fire writing,” an apt name for the branding process. Sometimes called pokerwork, this technique had a broad appeal and is still practiced today.
At its simplest, all that was needed for pyrography was a pointed metal tool, a heat source and wood. A pen-like nib was heated, then pushed into the wood surface. The wood was burned and incised, then sometimes stained, painted or varnished to enhance the design. This burning technique could be executed on leather, velvet, gourds and even glass, although finely grained woods, such as basswood, holly or sycamore, were commonly used.
Artists such as Robert Ball Hughes and J. William Fosdick gained some acclaim for their pyrographic works during the second half of the 19th century, but the greater part of work in this medium was done by women in the home. Books and magazines of the time urged women to beautify their homes through handiwork — china painting, embroidery, beadwork and many other crafts. Pyrography was just one of Three Hundred Things a Bright Girl Can Do (by Lilla Elizabeth Kelley, 1903), which delineated the many projects that could be undertaken at home.
Pyrography kits were sold through various mail-order sources including the Sears catalog and advertisements in ladies’ magazines. These kits generally included tools, wood blanks and patterns, though designs could be taken from magazines, prints or the creator’s own imagination. Reused scraps of wood from crates and cigar boxes were sometimes used for small works.
Wood burning was also featured in Fancy Work For Pleasure and Profit (Addie E. Heron, first published in 1894), which encouraged women to create decorative works for their own homes, as well as making work for sale to earn additional income for their family. Pyrography required relatively few tools and was called “a delightful and profitable pastime for long winter evenings.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces created in the years around 1900 were in the Art Nouveau style. Generally characterized by flowing, sinuous lines and natural motifs, pyrography from this period was often decorated with flowers such as poppies and poinsettias, leaves, vines, fruit and beautiful women as depicted by Charles Dana Gibson and Alphonse Mucha.
Small, manageable pyrography projects were common, with glove and handkerchief boxes, frames and wall plaques seen most frequently today. More ambitious projects were executed as well, including large-scale furniture — hanging cabinets, wardrobes, chairs and tip-top tables were all burned with intricate designs.
Pyrography grew so popular in the years around 1900 that the Flemish Art Co. of Brooklyn began producing it commercially, and “Flemish Art” became almost synonymous with the burned decoration. The company manufactured finished pyrographic works that were mainly handmade (often by their female employees), as well as kits with wood blanks and tools. Some commercial pieces were also made by pressing a heated, engraved metal plate into wood — these often have more intricate designs, but lack the subtle variety of hand work.
Pyrography is still a popular means of decorating wood today, one that many Etsy artists use. Aided by electrically heated tools, artists explore numerous and diverse styles in their work.