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Antique Barrister Bookcase

The beauty of the antique barrister bookcase

15th February 2021

Barrister bookcases are one of the most enduring styles of antique furniture owing to their solid lasting design, simple elegant aesthetics and historical significance.

What is a barrister bookcase?

Barristers are a member of one of the classes of lawyers within the legal profession. In English courts, a barrister is an expert on case law, representing clients in court. Therefore, barristers required a way to move large amounts of printed reference material quickly and safely from chamber to chamber.

Historically, barristers would require reference to many law books as they travelled on the judges’ circuit. Circuit judges travel to different locales within a region to cases, and legal professionals would be required to attend the courts in the same manner.

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Once standard equipment in the old law offices of England, the original barristers bookcases were designed to be sturdy and portable. They had two purposes – to be able to hold a large number of weighty books and be moved from place to place without damage occurring to their contents. Aesthetic style, suitable for a legal office, was of course also of the essence.

Bookcases were designed with a series of self-contained shelving units that could be stacked upon each other in a free-standing bookcase. This lawyer’s library of reference texts could then be suitably stored and moved and became known as the barrister bookcase.

Traditional barrister bookcases were designed without feet so that each unit could be securely placed upon each other to withstand the bumps of travel on the road. Several barrister bookcases would be stacked to form a cabinet. When the need to move chambers arose, each shelf would be carried separately without the need to unpack its contents.

More robust – and perhaps authentic – examples of barrister bookcases would be fitted with folding carrying handles on each shelf. The contents would be protected with a leaded glass frontage.

This carrying-case of books would be accessed by an ‘up and over’ door mechanism. This allowed individual shelves laden with books to be slid back into place. The better quality barrister bookcases have a metal scissor mechanism inside the shelves to ensure the doors can be opened in a fluid, parallel fashion.

Thomas Jefferson’s Book Boxes

In a similar vein are modular bookcases known as Jefferson’s Book Boxes. The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson acquired a huge personal book collection thought to number some 6,700 titles.

During the British invasion of Washington City in 1814, the resulting inferno destroyed vast numbers of this collection of books. Jefferson eventually agreed to cede to the rest of the library and arrangements were made for the transfer of the remaining volumes to pass to Congress.

The books had been carefully stored in a bookcase arrangement of pine boxes. When the time came for them to be moved, each was nailed shut and stacked onto horse-drawn carriages. This gave rise to a modular bookcase system all of its own named after the president who had once collected and owned the titles which entered the government library.

Why are barrister bookcases so appealing?

Part of the beauty of a barrister bookcase is that it was designed with function in mind, capable of withstanding a great deal. Because books were the preserve of the wealthy, their collection and display was viewed as a personal symbol of importance. Barrister bookcases enabled the elite to practically store large numbers while displaying them in an attractive fashion.

The popularity – and functionality – of the barristers bookcase meant that their use soon spread to other institutions. Those with similar needs to store large volumes of heavy books included the offices of companies, as well as schools, libraries and universities.

A barrister bookcase enables the owner to showcase their collections from behind an attractive glass frontage. The glass front piece protects the contents from dust and moisture and keeps out direct sunlight. Barrister bookcases are also a great option for those who welcome visitors to their properties by being able to deter curious onlookers from handling the items stored within.

Most notable manufacturers of barrister bookcases

The barrister style was marketed as an “elastic bookcase” by furniture manufacturer Globe Wernicke in 1898. Originally based in Cincinnati, the company also established factories in Canada, France, Germany and the UK. The name Globe Wernicke became synonymous with this barrister-style design.

The patented “elastic bookcases” were modular stacking designs made in oak, walnut and mahogany. The glass-fronted shelving system could either be arranged in congruous-sized units or made up of shelves differing in height and depth. Such Globe Wernicke elastic bookcases are much sought after today and can fetch hundreds of pounds when they come to market.

You may also find barrister bookcases referenced as being in the Eastlake style.

Another company originating in the US, the Gunn Furniture Company was founded in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1874. In the 1910s and ‘20s, the company produced sectional bookcases in the barrister style. Gunn bookcases were imported into the UK or manufactured under license to compete directly with the Globe Wernicke versions on the market.

You may also find antique barrister bookcases referenced as being in the Eastlake style. Charles Locke Eastlake was an architect working in Britain between 1860 and his death in 1906. Eastlake, like other members of the Arts and Crafts movement, extolled the virtue of craftsmanship while urging his followers to reject the excesses he saw in Victorian furnishings and so adopt cleaner lines and simpler forms. The modular makeup of the barrister bookcase appealed to the principles of Eastlake, and manufacturers would use his name in their designs.

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Another typical example of Arts and Crafts era antique barrister bookcases would be those made by the Lebus Company, specifically those manufactured between 1890 and 1910. The furniture company was founded in 1840 by Jewish cabinet maker, Lewis Lebus, who had emigrated from Germany to England.

It was Lewis’ son, Harris, who would later embrace the Arts and Crafts style, having taken over the running of the firm upon his father’s death in 1879. By the 1890s, Lebus had become England’s largest furniture manufacturer with over 1,000 employees. A number of Lebus barrister bookcases come to market, with different tiering configurations with stackable shelves.

Another American manufacturer who exported the barrister style of bookcase worldwide was the Skandia Furniture Company of Rockford, Illinois from the beginning of the 20th Century. At one time, Illinois was known as the “bookcase city”. Skandia bookcases were each given a name such as “Viking” , a range produced between 1900 and 1950.

The Minty Company of Oxford, UK, was another firm who produced barrister-style bookcases in a stacking style. The company was founded in 1880 and soon became a household name. Minty produced a range of furniture, known for its quality and comfort. It was once said that every undergraduate in Oxford owned a Minty wicker chair. Typical Minty barrister bookcases are sectional and made from oak with lead-glazed doors. Minty finally closed its doors in the early 1990s.

Antique barrister bookcases in interior design today

Antique barristers bookcases are sought after today because of their classic style and the versatility of their use. You can very much see the influence of the barrister bookcase and those who made them in the ranges of modular furniture popularised by Swedish furniture outlet Ikea.

Antique bookcases evoke a reverence to studious research and classic tomes. Their modular design means they can be a fine addition to almost any home, business and room within.

Barrister bookcases can house a large number of books, suitable especially for a selection of volumes. They can also be put to use to store and display record, CD, video and DVD collections. Barrister bookcases can be used in a single height or in several stacked combinations to provide as much storage as needed within the space available.

One cabinet barrister bookcase makes a fine piece of accent furniture while larger, four-to-six cabinet barrister bookcases can become a focal point within the room. The appeal of the barrister bookcase has stood the test of time and transcended furniture fashion trends. It is sure to do so for generations to come.

Featured Image by Clint McKoy

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