Wicker Patio Sets – Then and Now

A lot of folks might associate wicker patio sets with quaint American tradition, the kind of Americana you find on porches in old southern villas. While that may ring true, the history of wicker begins much farther away, and millennia before the United States had even been looked on by Europeans. Starting from ancient Egypt, the evolution of wicker has been both diverse and globally reaching. See how this unassuming material is more than meets the eye.

Wicker is one of the oldest materials used for furniture, but this discovery was made quite by accident. While archaeologists were excavating the remains of pharaohs, they came across the discovery of wicker that had been woven around 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians had used reeds and swamp grasses to weave baskets, chests, chairs and even wig boxes out of the wicker material.

From its original popularity, wicker spread to the Roman Empire where the ruling classes looked favorably on the simple yet appealing new style. Eventually, the Romans began to exert their own influence over wicker designs and create unique variations.

After Rome, wicker spread across most parts of Europe. Once maritime trade routes had become well-established, wicker was then transported to the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal where it was universally praised, despite a decline during the Dark Ages. As European explorers ventured further east, the discovery of rattan was made as an alternative to the traditional reed wicker. Indeed, rattan proved to be much stronger than reed. By the nineteenth century, wicker patio sets were common fixtures in Victorian England households. Their simplicity and natural appearance was thought to be cleaner and thus more proper for both indoor and outdoor use.

While the first wicker furniture came to the Americas via the Mayflower, it was not until the mid-1800s that it became well known. Up until that time, rattan had been used for storing and affixing cargo. One entrepreneurial man by the name of Cyrus Wakefield, also known as the father of American wicker furniture, came across large quantities of rattan in a Boston shipyard and had an idea to start his own furniture company. And that’s just what he did. Started out of his hometown, Wakefield began importing rattan and fabricating furniture pieces for sale to the public. Once his idea caught on, others followed suit, but Wakefield retained his edge in the business.

The Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century brought about yet more advances in the construction of wicker patio sets. Until then, all wicker had been hand-woven, which proved to be an arduous and time-consuming process. In the 1860s the Heywood Brothers (one of Wakefield’s competitors) commissioned an inventor to come up with an automated wicker weaving loom. Not only did this breakthrough save time, but it also saved on labor and overall production costs. As the two competing companies vied for the top spot, prices fell and people could purchase wicker furniture for next to nothing. After a time, Heywood and Wakefield merged, thereby dominating the wicker industry until the 1920s.