DERIVED FROM THE Swedish word vikker (willow), wicker is a generic term for furniture made of willow, bamboo, fiber, reed, raffia, rush, grass and rattan. (Rattan is so strong and flexible that Asians used it to build suspension bridges; the Japanese still build scaffolding of bamboo.)
Wicker furniture first arrived here aboard the Mayflower, but none was produced domestically until 1844. Clipper ships returning from the Orient used rattan poles to keep cargo from shifting, then discarded them in Boston Harbor. A young grocer named Wakefield fished out the rattan poles and turned them into lawn chairs. Next, finding the inner core of the poles even cheaper and more pliable than the rind, Wakefield spun the rattan into matting. This woven "fabric" was used for skirt hoops, railway-seat covers and America's first mass-produced wicker furniture. Water-resistant, durable and adaptable to baroque Victorian designs, it was ideal for outdoor use.
By the turn of the century, central heating permitted wicker (not as insulated as overstuffed furniture) to be used indoors. Glassed-in sun porches suddenly abounded with wicker plant stands, phonograph cabinets and matched furniture sets.
In 1921, a manufacturer by the name of Lloyd developed a machine for inexpensive close weaving, flooding the market with tightly woven wicker furniture sets embellished with the contrasting diamond motif which distinguishes genuine '20s pieces. His Lloyd Loom chairs, especially, were so widely and cheaply sold that by 1930, wicker finally went out of fashion. In the past decade, wicker has again become popular for indoor use.