Rote imitation of period furniture and its related design elements has never appealed to me. I’ve always been much more interested in why certain elements are associated with particular styles of furniture and how each style evolved than I have been with how its hallmark elements can be replicated either with hand tools or machines. One such detail is the reeding found on European neoclassical and American federal furniture, both in their high-style and vernacular manifestations. A cursory survey of furnishings produced between the last quarter of the 18th century and the second quarter of the 19th century reveals the widespread use of reeding on the edges of table tops, turned elements, tambours and on the face of sabre legs, among other applications.
The origins of this neoclassical staple can be traced to a symbol of power in ancient Rome – the fasces. Derived from the word fascis, meaning a bundle, banding, or binding, it shares the same root as the architectural term fascia which is a plumb horizontal band located at the bottom of the entablature of most Classical Orders, and at the end of rafters on most buildings. The word fasces is itself a Latin plurale tantum occuring only in the plural form much like the English words clothes, pants, scissors, etc.
In ancient Rome, the fasces was a bundle of wooden rods – elm or birch – lashed together with a band of red fabric. Protruding from the bundle, was the head of an ax. It was carried by a lictor, or magisterial attendant to indicate the importance of the government official. To the citizens of the Roman empire, the symbolism was multifaceted: The ax represented the alleged power of capital punishment held by the magistrate while the rods symbolized corporal punishment for lesser transgressions. In toto, the fasces was a daily reminder to its subjects of the power that the state wielded over their lives. The 20th-century Italian dictator Mussolini was so enamored with this ancient symbol of Roman power that he appropriated it for his Fascist Party.
More than a century before it became synonymous with a slur to describe one’s political opponents, however, the fasces became a staple of neoclassical decoration, evoking the finer aspects of ancient Rome. During the end of the 18th century, the bundle took on yet another meaning, representing strength in numbers: A single rod can easily be broken, but when many are bound together, the collective strength of the bundle makes it virtually unbreakable.
This aspect of the fasces, as well as its origins in the Roman Republic, likely appealed to the new American republic whose 13 original states had banded together to defeat an enemy much more powerful than each colony individually.
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