Millwork for the great majority of the historic buildings in existence today, those built between the Civil War and WWII, was produced under a nationwide distribution system more uniform and comprehensive than any in existence today. This means that your historic molding was very likely distributed nationwide by one of a very few companies who all shared the same molding profiles and sent out the same catalog. Understanding this can give you a better idea about where to look today to find affordable reproductions of this historic millwork. This system came into being rather abruptly after the Civil War. Proprietary millwork catalogs were first issued in the 1870’s. In the 1880’s several large Midwestern manufacturers banded together as the Sash, Door and Blind Association of the (so called at that time) Northwest to establish grading rules for the then dominant species, eastern white pine. In 1890, they commissioned publisher Rand McNally to issue a single comprehensive molding catalog. These catalogs were hardbound with different covers for each manufacturer and distributed to local lumber yards across North America. Soon after, the Association established the “8000” series numbering system to identify each item. Vestiges of this scheme (four digits beginning with “8”) can still be seen in reference to items in millwork catalogs today, even though the system itself no longer has any meaning or coherence. Through changes in taste, struggles for dominance in the industry and through the migration of the centers of lumber production to the south and west, these “Universal Standard Molding Catalogs” were reissued every few years throughout the period. As long as they stayed popular enough to enjoy steady sales, moldings remained in the catalog and were distributed across the country without variation.
By placing these “Standard” moldings in the bigger story of the development of architectural decoration in America, we can see trends that affect their present availability. Before the Civil War, catalogs were little known. Taste was guided by “pattern books”, illustrated essays on the principles of design produced by celebrated master builders such as Asher Benjamin and his successors. These were intended to teach design skills, not to furnish design elements and they rarely presented full profiles of millwork. Certainly anyone who has worked with “antebellum” structures can attest that moldings from the period don’t always match up from builder to builder, never mind across any significant geographic area. With the rise of industrialization after the Civil War, however, and the resulting concentration of millwork production with a few companies, the producers found it necessary to standardize production and to take control of the public’s taste, hence the creation of the “Catalogs”. For a long period after WWII, the role of wood in architecture diminished, but now with the emergence of a new set of influences, period structures and styles have made a modest but solid return to viability. The same “Universal Standard” profiles, uniform documentation and wide distribution that served the timber industrialists so well a century ago, are now making the moldings of the “Universal Standard Catalogs” well adapted for a second wave of distribution.
By following their story since going out of style and out of production, builders can more easily know where to find these moldings. For many years, reproduction of “Standard” moldings has required the grinding of a new molding knife. This was a steep initial investment with limited return. After the molding was run, the knife in question would most likely lie forgotten in the millworker’s archive, identified only by the name of the contractor or project, too expensive to throw out and too useless to sell. In effect, what has transpired over many decades is the steady but piecemeal and poorly documented restoration of “The Universal Standard Molding Catalog” in custom millwork shops dispersed across the original area of distribution. Some shops have in this way accumulated thousands of profiles and now, in the information age, they are circulating these archives on cd-rom and on the Internet. Other shops have issued lines of “Victorian” and other period moldings. While some are undersized reinterpretations meant to appeal to modern nostalgia for the period, others are authentic reproductions. These are all faithful “Standard” moldings, modeled from historic samples and from the original catalog cuts. Somewhere in the country, a knife has probably already been ground for your molding, and now, between the rising interest in period work and access to the tools of the information age, you may actually be able to find it.
By John M. Corbett