Saratoga Trunk, a 1945 film, partly set in New Orleans, was based on a novel by Edna Ferber. Ferber, a careful researcher for her historical fiction, had as her heroine “Clio Dulaine,” the daughter of a white father and a free woman of color, who returned to New Orleans from Paris looking for a rich husband. Playing Clio in the movie was Ingrid Bergman, who ultimately married Texas gambler Gary Cooper and lived happily (and luxuriously) ever after.
Besides singing a little French song (her only onscreen singing,) Bergman had one great line, supposedly quoting a local proverb: “give a Creole a crystal chandelier and two mirrors to reflect it, and he is satisfied.”
Orleanians know that, besides the chandeliers and looking glasses, no New Orleans home of a certain vintage was complete without some ornate dark wood Victorian furniture credited to Prudent Mallard.
Ned Hémard, in an article for the New Orleans Bar Association, pointed out that Mallard, born in Sèvres, France, in 1809, first went to New York, but came to New Orleans in the 1830s and opened a furniture shop on Royal Street. At various addresses along Royal, Mallard sold his furniture and decorative objects and gave his advice on design to receptive Orleanians until a few years before his death in 1879.
Louisiana has a rich history of furniture manufacture. The Historic New Orleans Collection in 2010 published a mammoth illustrated volume, “Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1835,” by Jack D. Holden, H. Parrott Bacot, and Cybèle T. Gontar.
Among the early New Orleans furniture manufacturers were local free men of color (Dutreuil Barjon – father and son, and Michel Honoré, for example.) And, there was another Frenchman, Françoise Seignouret, who was active in local furniture making from around 1810 until the 1850s. Seignouret actually sold furniture to Andrew and Rachel Jackson in 1823 – probably from his shop and residence at 520 Royal Street (once WDSU-TV and now part of the Historic New Orleans collection.)
While Seignouret possessed machinery and tools with which he built furniture, Mallard seems to have been an importer and furniture merchant only, contrary to local lore.
In 1997, Stephen Harrison, Curator of Decorative Art and Design at the Cleveland Museum of Art, published an article in Antiques Magazine on the New Orleans 19th century furniture trade. It appears that Mallard might not have built, but might only have assembled, the furniture he sometimes labeled and sold in his shop.
Orleanians were true believers in Mallard as furniture maker. A 1966 article in Dixie Roto (The Times-Picayune Sunday magazine) described an uptown home whose owners prized a large collection, including “a suite of five beautifully preserved Mallard bedroom pieces.” In fact, while Hurricane Betsy raged in 1965, the family, searching for matches, discovered a secret drawer in the dresser and spent the rest of the storm searching for others.
After the Civil War, the local market for furniture dwindled, and, following business reverses, Prudent Mallard was bankrupt and his stock was sold at auction January 28, 1876.
Included in the sale were all the necessities for a well-dressed New Orleans home in the not-too-distant past: “Rosewood, mahogany and walnut Victorian bedroom sets, with glass door armoires; French covered oak and walnut dining room sets, parlor sets, heavy French plate looking-glasses, oil paintings, Sevres, Parisian and china vases, crystal toilet sets and mantel ornaments, English and American plated ware, Baccarat and Bohemian Glass war, bronze chandeliers and candelabras, window shades, cornices…”
And, as the advertisement noted, “This is the last opportunity the public of New Orleans will have to secure the bargains of the manufacture of P. Mallard’s hand made Furniture.”