The Lincoln “Courting Couch” dates back to 1840, where it was situated in a parlor room at the home of prominent locals Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois. During this time the young Abraham Lincoln, then a struggling lawyer, would frequent the couples’ home to visit Mary, sister to Elizabeth. Throughout their courtship, Lincoln would often gaze at Mary during conversation while sitting on this Empire-style, horsehair upholstered sofa. After a tumultuous relationship and a broken engagement, they finally exchanged vows on a rainy night in November of 1842 with the courting couch as a backdrop for the wedding guests.
Sadly in 1917, the Edwards’s home was demolished—but the surviving loveseat is now part of the Springfield Art Association’s collection. Although many artifacts associated with Abraham Lincoln exist, there are very few related to his early life, which makes this “courting couch” extra special.
After a nearly 180 year-old existence, the couch remains solid as a rock: structurally it’s in amazing shape, but age-related wear and tear is obvious. Upon examination, the team at The Conservation Center identified problem areas such as loose castors, ripped upholstery, and grimy mahogany veneers. The Center’s Antique and Fine Furniture department had the honor (and challenge) of restoring this beautiful piece of American history.
As Narrated by Stephen Ryan, Senior Conservator of Furniture, and Michael Young, Associate Conservator of Furniture:
“When the Lincoln “Courting Couch” first arrived at The Conservation Center, we were asked to inspect its structural integrity—to see if it needed to be drastically repaired in any way, and to replace the fabric in something more sympathetic to the original. Upon closer examination, we found several immediate issues: first of all, the veneer surface was very loose and missing in some areas, especially on the legs. The couch’s backing board had also shrunk so much that it caused the veneer to sheer and tent out. But overall, surprisingly, this is a very structurally sound piece of furniture even after surviving almost two centuries.”
In the process of further assessment, a couple of thrilling discoveries were made: the original horsehair fabric was not only hidden in the cavity of the armrest, but more was uncovered from the backing of the couch. This was truly a breakthrough moment and made this piece of furniture even cooler than originally thought.
“What we found was a layer of history that was essentially considered lost: the original horsehair upholstery hidden under replacement fabric on the seat back and arms. Whoever reupholstered the couch had foresight. Someone back then stuck the extra fabric inside the arm cavity, probably with the understanding that this piece of furniture had value, and tried to preserve that as much as possible. It was a stroke of luck that the arms of the sofa were made in a box construction, which allowed for cavities in the arms that sofas don't normally have. So the design itself facilitated what the upholsterer wanted to do: to preserve more fabric, and there was space in the couch to do so.”
The experts in The Center’s furniture department first disassembled the major parts of the couch, with the arms taken apart and the back removed from the base. A big challenge was the seat itself: the upholstered section was nailed to the base and could not be taken out. The team had to work around the original fabric, which proved to be difficult. Loose veneer had to be stabilized on the legs of the couch. The surface was also in need of a thorough cleaning and polishing. “We wanted to revitalize the couch with a nice, soft glow and give the impression it had been cared for throughout its entire life,” said the conservators.
After careful cleaning and polishing, colorwork was next on the treatment list. The patchwork done by the conservators was lighter than the varnished wood, so they were delicately tinted and polished to match the hue and luster of the original surface. Next, the surface was waxed, and the arms were reupholstered by Textiles Conservator Iola Gardner. The final step was to reassemble the repaired parts of the couch.
“Having worked on so many pieces of furniture over the years, the Lincoln “Courting Couch” was particularly enjoyable to restore. We felt like history detectives—the original horsehair fabric that we discovered was a real coup. Embroidered horsehair fabric is considered a luxury in 2014 and would be astronomical in cost to replace. We’re thrilled to a part Abraham Lincoln’s history and preserving this piece of furniture for generations to come.”
All photography for The Conservation Center: Robin Hann and Victor Leon