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The Protecting Settle

Take a bench, add a high back and side pieces and you have a settle. A simple piece which could be made by anyone handy with tools, by late Tudor years it had become common in English manors and farmhouses. It was placed near the great open fireplace at right angles to the hearth. There, protected from drafts by the tall back and solid ends, its occupants could toast in comfort. By the time the first colonists left for America, the settle was an accepted and necessary piece of country furniture. So, as our early pioneers erected the first modest houses and made the essential furniture items, the settle was one of the important pieces. The oak of old England was lacking but there was plenty of native wood.

Pine or other soft wood was the favored material since it was easy to work and, as the settle was a strictly utilitarian piece, no time was wasted on carving. It did not matter if more than one kind of wood was used, since the finish was a coat of paint, frequently greenish blue. Sometimes there was storage space underneath the seat . Sometimes there was a shelf at the back for accommodating a candle. But the average examples were just settles and nothing more.

Surviving English settles date from no earlier than the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. These have a low paneled back, sometimes handsomely carved, and arms at either end that resemble those of chairs of the time, showing that settles, settees and sofas are merely elongated chairs.

In America, with the more rigorous climate and drafty houses, there was no shortening of the hooded back, and the side pieces bore little resemblance to either wainscot or slat-back chair arms. Settles here were pioneer furniture. They were part of country home furnishings from 1650 on through the eighteenth century along the Atlantic seaboard and appeared in homes along the westward trek during the early 1800's as well. Being of soft wood and in constant use, the majority were worn out or destroyed.

As a result, old settles are scarce items today. They are worth owning, especially for use in old country homes. That any made during the seventeenth century are still around is most unlikely but those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are desirable, especially since these pieces were unaffected by changing styles. Variations in treatment of side pieces, paneling of back or other details were the ideas of individual makers. In such manner does a humble piece have much in common with its more pretentious relatives, the sofa and the settee.



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