Ernst Plassmann, carver, New York. Gustave Herter, designer, New York. Bulkley & Herter, cabinetmaker, New York. 1853. Oak with pigment and gilding. 21 3/4 × 21 × 14 in. (55.3 × 53.3 × 35.6 cm). Collection of Elizabeth Plassmann-Bassett.

From the Exhibition:
New York Crystal Palace 1853

This remarkable wood carving provides a glimpse into an ambitious collaboration between one of the best-known figures of the nineteenth-century New York City furniture industry, Gustave Herter (1830–1898), and Ernst Plassmann (1822–1877), a fellow German immigrant and talented wood-carver and sculptor, when both men were at the beginning of successful careers in New York.

Gustave Herter went on to become one of the most celebrated designer-manufacturers of high-style furniture and house decoration in New York City, achieving lasting renown with the Herter Brothers, the firm he founded with his younger brother, Christian, in 1864. Although his name is little known today, Ernst Plassmann would become an influential figure in the German-American trade community that dominated New York City’s furniture industry by the second half of the nineteenth century: he was an admired teacher of wood carving, sculpture, and design at a school he established in 1854; he was a key founder of the Verein für Kunst und Wissenschaft, a professional and fraternal association of mostly German-born artists and tradesmen; he produced designs and full-size casting models for some of the earliest large-scale bronze statuary erected in New York City and published two books of original designs for ornament and furniture. After his unexpected death at age fifty-four, friends and colleagues expressed their admiration with a bronze bust of his likeness by fellow sculptor Caspar Buberl (1834–1899), erected at his gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Today, two of Plassmann’s own bronzes are still on public view in New York City: the greater than life-size figure of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt that stands above Park Avenue on the southern facade of Grand Central Terminal and a figure of Benjamin Franklin in Printing House Square, an area adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge that was once at the center of New York’s newspaper publishing district.1

The object featured here, a fragment of a much larger piece of furniture, was carved by Plassmann when he was a recent arrival in New York City, having probably immigrated sometime in early 1852.2 It is a remarkable survival—one of only two known fragments of a monumental “buffet” exhibited at the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, a commercial venture inspired by the success of London’s groundbreaking Great Exhibition two years earlier. Held in its own Crystal Palace, the New York exhibition opened in July 1853 and was chronicled in several publications, including The World of Science, Art, and Industry, a lavish “illustrated record” edited by Benjamin Silliman and Charles Rush Goodrich, with a companion catalogue of the exhibits edited by Goodrich.3

Silliman and Goodrich’s illustrated volume—the Record, as it was known—devotes considerable attention to the buffet, depicting it in a two-page spread of text and wood engravings, which include a nearly full-page view and seven details (fig. 1).

1 of 9
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.
Fig. 1 Bulkley & Herter Buffet and sculptural details (carved by Ernst Plassmann) in The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated, from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54. Pages 168–69.

A lengthy description notes that the exhibitor was the New York firm of Bulkley and Herter but credits Gustave Herter and Ernst Plassmann jointly for supervising construction of the buffet, naming Herter as the designer and Plassmann as carver. Bulkley was Erastus Bulkley (1798–1880), the prosperous owner of a successful furniture manufactory established about 1820, who was nearing retirement when he formed a partnership with the much younger Herter in the early 1850s.4

The compilers of the Record were evidently impressed.5 No other piece of furniture—or any object in the “ornamental” departments—received such extensive coverage, and none was as well illustrated. They made their approval of the “truly magnificent” buffet clear: “This excellent production deserves something more than a passing glance of curiosity or admiration. It is one of the most noticeable objects that challenge the attention of the visitor to the Exhibition, and one which will repay a careful study as much as any other of the thousand articles of luxury there displayed. In its own class, on the whole, we regard it as the best example of the art it exemplifies.”6 The art the writer refers to was Ernst Plassmann’s high-relief sculptural carving, which was the dominant feature of the buffet’s design: “The carving has been executed with masterly skill, with the boldness which the material requires, and with a due regard to the limitations which it imposes. The artist has wisely, we think, refrained from minute finish and prettiness of detail, such as are proper in other materials, and give their value to bijoux.”7 Carved furniture was a subject that the authors of the Record and its companion catalogue frequently commented on, finding fault with carving that was excessive, impractical for normal use, or overly smooth and polished. “No elaboration of surface,” the reviewer wrote, “can compensate for the loss of the spirited touches of the carver’s tool.” Herter and Plassmann’s buffet was a welcome contrast: “in the sharp lines and rich surfaces of its carved work it shows the peculiar beauty which disappears under the hand of the polisher.”8

The reviewer’s comments suggest that the gilding and coloration of the carving shown here—a golden horn, painted yellow pineapples and wheat sheaves, and green leaves—are not original. Such treatment was uncharacteristic of American or European furniture of the period, and Goodrich’s catalogue of the 1853 exhibition describes the buffet as “oak … of the natural color,” indicating that the darkened finish we see today may also have been applied later.9 The painted treatment does, however, link this piece to other types of carving that were prevalent in nineteenth-century America, including ship carving (such as figureheads) and shop figures (the tobacconists’ emblem, the “cigar-store Indian,” being a familiar example). The pigment, which is expertly applied and appears to be old, might eventually provide a clue to what happened to Herter and Plassmann’s buffet after the 1853 exhibition. Until Bonhams New York auctioneers sold the carved fragments on behalf of an anonymous consignor in 2010, its whereabouts were unknown.10

If one is to judge from the surviving carvings, the buffet was enormous. The illustrations in the Record, drawn from photographs, show a piece of furniture about seven times the height of this twenty-two-inch carving, suggesting that the buffet was nearly thirteen feet tall.11 International exhibitions were still new, but in their short history it was already clear that exhibition pieces were intended not so much for practical use as to dazzle, as competitive tours de force of technical innovation, superior craftsmanship, and ambitious design.

It would not be surprising if Plassmann, the carver, had collaborated with Herter on the buffet’s design in addition to helping supervise its construction. Plassmann was, after all, a skilled designer in his own right. In the four years before emigrating to New York, he had lived in Paris, working at least part of that time in the studio of Michel Liénard (1810–1870), a Belgian-born sculpteur-ornemaniste who was one of the most influential designers in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. Plassmann’s European training as a sculptor would have incorporated drawing and design, and design was one of the subjects that he taught as early as 1854 at his own school in New York. He went on to supply designs to metal-casting firms, such as Mitchell, Vance and Company and Nicholas Muller’s Sons, for bronze chandeliers, clocks, small sculpture, and other ornaments, and he also produced original designs for publication, including two books: a thirty-two plate Collection of Modern Gothic Ornaments (1876) and the serialized Designs for Furniture (1877).12

Plassmann’s surviving drawings from the period strongly suggest that he played a role in the buffet’s design along with the younger Herter, who received the sole official design credit. A sketchbook dating from 1852 to 1853 contains several pages of rough drawings of the buffet, which include details that match the finished piece as well as alternate schemes. The drawings are informal sketches, but the inclusion of clear variations of the details suggests that Plassmann was working out design ideas. At the top of one page, a loosely scrawled annotation reads “P H & B,” which probably refers to “Plassmann, Herter, and Bulkley” and perhaps reflects how Plassmann viewed the collaboration and the relative roles of the individuals involved (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Sketch for carving from Ernst Plassmann’s New York sketchbook, 1852–53. Collection of Elizabeth Plassmann-Bassett and Truman Bassett. Photograph by the author.

It is tempting to contemplate the ambitions Plassmann and Herter might have had for their participation in the first world’s fair in the United States and for the wide exposure it would bring: the chance to be noticed in the precarious world of the nineteenth-century tradesman, where the fortunes of even prosperous men could change quickly and most lived on a razor’s edge, just one bit of bad luck away from ruin. Herter, at twenty-three, seems to have been a young man very open to opportunity, whether he sought it or accepted it when it came his way. From his arrival in New York at age eighteen, he had moved in and out of working relationships with other tradesmen, first designing silver for Tiffany, Young and Ellis before he “attracted the attention” of the cabinetmaker Edward W. Hutchings. It may have been at the Hutchings shop that he met Auguste Pottier, then another young craftsman and later a competitor in the fine furniture trade. They formed Herter, Pottier and Co. around 1851 and, at the time of the 1853 exhibition, Herter had apparent overlapping partnerships with both Pottier and Bulkley, maintaining different business addresses with each.13 For the New York Crystal Palace, Herter exhibited not only the oak buffet created with Plassmann but also a similarly monumental Gothic-style oak bookcase for Bulkley and Herter, and he designed a carved walnut étagère (also described as a buffet) for the Brooklyn cabinetmaker Thomas Brooks.14 Plassmann’s role, if any, in creating the bookcase is unclear, but he may well have been involved in the design or carving of the now lost Brooks étagère. Sketches in Plassmann’s 1852–53 sketchbook closely resemble the overall form and details of the large-scale, impressive piece, which was illustrated in the Record and won a bronze medal for Brooks at the fair.15

For his part, Plassmann, talented, well trained, and fresh from an elite workshop in Paris, must have been highly motivated to work with peers of his stature and establish himself. Despite his early opportunity with Herter and Bulkley, his first year in New York may not have been easy. The same sketchbook that contains his exploratory drawings for the exhibition buffet also contains his first known New York address, 12 Laurens Street, recorded with the date 1852. Located between Canal and Grand Streets, this part of Laurens Street was considered one of New York’s most wretched, squalid neighborhoods, called “Rotten Row” by contemporaries for the foul and crowded living conditions there.16 It was likely temporary quarters for the new immigrant, because by the time the New York Crystal Palace opened the next year, Plassmann had established both home and workshop on Elm Street at an address shared by three other wood-carvers in an area that was a locus of the carving trade. The following year, 1854, he opened Plassmann’s School of Art and listed himself as both a sculptor and a modeler in the city directories, indicating early the range of skills he was ready to offer.

The carving featured here—and the Herter-Plassmann collaboration it represents—offers a tantalizing but incomplete peek into the business relationships and trade practices that existed within New York City’s furniture industry. Questions abound. Two highly skilled craftsman-designers, in the figures of Plassmann and Herter, came together to create at least one and perhaps as many as three extraordinary and attention-getting pieces of furniture—but did they ever work together again? While much of Herter’s most significant later work required the elite skills of a “first-rate” carver like Plassmann, there is no surviving evidence to indicate that they did, or that they maintained social ties in the tight-knit German-American trade community, such as through the Verein für Kunst und Wissenschaft. Did Bulkley and Herter employ Plassmann as a journeyman carver at their workshop, or was it the collaboration of two sculptor-designers on more or less equal footing? Did he use earnings from the work to stake his own shop? Where did he work while executing the carving? What was the relationship between Plassmann and Herter and Thomas Brooks? Was the intriguing fluidity in Herter’s career in these years a function of unregulated freedom within the trades in New York City or the uneven but normal path of a journeyman tradesmen of modest means looking to establish himself as master of his own shop—or was it the product of his own personality and ambition?

The Herter-Plassmann collaboration is all the more interesting because evidence for such relationships in the New York furniture trades is rare. In the absence of major repositories of trade records for New York City, the scarcity of detail about the internal workings and contracting practices of cabinetmaking firms and related trades, like wood carving, makes it even more important that researchers probe available examples deeply to consider what questions they may spark and to try to answer them. Even scant evidence can be plumbed by comparing related documentation and, most important, with complementary contextual research. The story of cabinetmaking in nineteenth-century New York widens one discovery at a time.

1.Plassmann’s life and career is the subject of the author’s 1998 master’s thesis, Heather Jane McCormick, “Ernst Plassmann, 1822–1877: A New York Carver, Sculptor, Designer and Teacher” (Master’s thesis, Bard Graduate Center, N.Y., 1998).

2.Ernst Plassmann, Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States, 17 May 1852, Superior Court, New York County, bundle 110, record no. 161 A, National Archives, New York City, cited in McCormick, “Ernst Plassmann,” 21.

3.Benjamin Silliman and Charles Rush Goodrich, eds., The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated from Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853–54 (New York: Putnam, 1854) contains essays on various trades and technologies and reviews notable exhibits, mainly from the fine and decorative art departments. The companion volume featured more essays and an annotated catalog of all the exhibits; Charles Rush Goodrich, ed., Science and Mechanism: Illustrated by Examples in the New York Exhibition, 1853–4. Including Extended Descriptions of the Most Important Contributions in the Various Departments, with Annotations and Notes Relative to the Progress and Present State of Applied Science, and the Useful Arts (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1854). As of this writing, both volumes are available as full-text resources on the website

4.Bulkley and Herter’s connection, if not partnership, may have begun as early as 1851; see Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, “From the Bowery to Broadway: The Herter’s Brothers and the New York Furniture Trade,” in Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Freylinghuysen, and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age, ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994), 63 and 244, esp. note 45; and the Herter Brothers chronology by Sophia Riefstahl in the same volume, 226. For a greater understanding of the extent of Bulkley’s career, including his successful business supplying New York–made furniture to the Southern market in Charleston, South Carolina, from the late 1810s to the 1840s, see Maurie D. McInnis and Robert A. Leath, “Beautiful Specimens, Elegant Patterns: New York Furniture for the Charleston Market, 1810–1840,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation, distributed by University Press of New England, 1996): 137–42.

5.Benjamin Silliman and Charles Goodrich were both scientists, not art critics, but the contributors to the book’s articles on art and design are unnamed.

6.Silliman and Goodrich, World of Science, Art, and Industry, 168.

7.Ibid. One might reasonably question whether such praise was simply fulsome promotion for the New York Crystal Palace, but in their preface Silliman and Goodrich make the point that they aimed to educate an American audience of craftsmen and manufacturers by illustrating examples of both excellence and failure in design. For instance, another sideboard, exhibited by the prestigious New York City cabinetmaker Alexander Roux, attracted approval mixed with criticism from the reviewer: “The high relief of the groups in the panels is objectionable, if for no other reason, as rendering the carving liable to accident and damage.” The work of a Swiss exhibitor, whose table was illustrated “to point out the errors committed in the decoration,” was excoriated: “It bristles all over with carvings, which are spoilt by the want of contrast, and lose their beauty it its own excess.” Ibid., xi–xii, 158–59, 163–63.

8.Ibid., 185.

9.Goodrich, Science and Mechanism, 226. For comparison, see note 14 for a description of the surviving 1853 Bulkley and Herter oak bookcase with its lighter finish.

10.Bonhams 1793, American Furniture and Decorative Arts (auction catalog, New York, January 27, 2010), lot 1214.

11.According to the publisher, the wood engravings in the Record were all derived from daguerreotypes made for the publication; Silliman and Goodrich, World of Science, Art, and Industry, v–vi. In the case of the illustrations of the Herter-Plassmann piece, one detail is clearly a pastiche. The surviving carved putti, including the one featured here, are shown together with a mask panel from the base of the buffet. A comparison with the image of the entire buffet shows that this is a composite of three separate elements, combined perhaps for the benefit of the book’s design.

12.Ernst Plassmann, A Collection of Modern Gothic Ornaments, for Architects, Sculptors, Modelers, Designers, Painters, etc. etc. (New York: E. Plassmann and Co., 1875); Ernst Plassmann, Designs for Furniture (New York: E. Plassmann and Co. and Ed. W. Welcke, 1877). Designs for Furniture, which was to be issued in eight installments of four or five plates each, was incomplete at the time of Plassmann’s death; McCormick, “Ernst Plassmann,” 109.

13.Howe, Freylinghuysen, Voorsanger, Herter Brothers, 39–40, 61–63, 225. Herter’s partnership with Pottier presumably also involved other principals, indicated by the business name Herter, Pottier, and Co.

14.The carved oak bookcase survives in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which attributes the carving to Ernst Plassmann but has not published supporting documentation. In Art and the Empire City, Catherine Voorsanger speculates that Plassmann or Herter himself might have been the carver, illustrating the bookcase, which was then in the Nelson-Atkins but not yet attributed to Plassmann; Voorsanger, “’Gorgeous Articles of Furniture’: Cabinetmaking in the Empire City,” in Catherine Hoover Voorsanger and John K. Howat, Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825–1861 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 316n198. I have not had the opportunity to examine the bookcase closely to compare it with other carvings known to be by Plassmann, but a comparison with the carving featured here and its mate, as well as two signed Plassmann carvings in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, would be instructive. The Kansas City attribution may have predated the rediscovery (2010) of the carvings from the 1853 buffet, so curators could not benefit from that comparison at the time.

15.McCormick, “Ernst Plassmann,” 66; Silliman and Goodrich, World of Science, Art, and Industry, 67; Association for the Exhibition, Official Awards of Juries, 58.

16.In 1834, an assistant city alderman had complained that this part of Laurens Street (now known as West Broadway) was “very much broken up, and abounds with filthy pools of stagnant water, and heaps of garbage and offals”; “Laurens Street, New York,” Niles Weekly Register, June 28, 1834, 303, cited in Voorsanger, “Gorgeous Articles of Furniture,” in Voorsanger and Howat, Art and the Empire City, 17. In 1853, a report described the “poverty, filth and degradation” of Rotten Row, where “The pestiferous stench and filth of these pent-up tenements exceed description. ‘In one room,’ says a Visitor, ‘six people are living, with hens scratching about on the bed. Every corner of these buildings is occupied—cellars and garrets. All the lower rooms and basements pay $4 50 a month for rent. If the statements of the people are correct, the rent of each house is about $480 per annum, which would give for this block of miserable buildings, an annual return to the owner of $7680.’” Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, First Report of a Committee on the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Classes in the City of New-York with Remedial Suggestions (New York: John F. Trow, 1853).