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American Furniture Styles
( Article orginally published December 1944 )
The study of American furniture and decoration is probably much more interesting and is certainly considerably more complex than the study of the furniture and decoration of any of the European nations. America was from its very inception a melting pot for all the rest of the world, so in the production of the furniture and decoration of this country we have all of the styles of England, France, Spain and the Low Countries of Germany and Holland to consider.
II. EARLY COLONIAL OR PROVINCIAL PERIOD: 1608-1720
A. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
1. Norwegian. So far as is known, white men first set foot on this continent about the year 1000 A. D. when Lief Ericsen of Norway and some of his followers landed at Cape Cod. Their discovery is. of no great note to us, since they founded no colonies and certainly left no traces of their furnishings or decoration. 2. Spanish. In 1492 white men again came to America under the leadership of Christopher Columbus, who claimed the entire continent for Isabella of Spain. In 1565 the Spanish settled St. Augustine, Florida. No Spanish settlements were ever made along the Atlantic seaboard, but their influx and settlements through the southwestern portion of the U. S., particularly California, and their domination of Mexico for so many years have had some influence, although it has not been a predominant one, in American furniture and decoration even to the present time.
3. English-Jamestown. The English made their first settlement in 1607 at Jamestown, when James I of Scotland was on the throne of England. This settlement was a dismal. failure. All of us know the romantic story of John Smith and Pocahontas. The only thing remaining today of this settlement is the lone stone church which the Colonial Dames of America now maintain as a museum.
4. French. The French settled Quebec in 1618 and brought with them their culture, the French language and French provincial decoration. Quebec to this day is a thoroughly French city.
5. Dutch. In 1614 the Dutch settled Manhattan Island. However, this settlement did not last long, and in 1664 the English took Manhattan from the Dutch.
6. English-Plymouth. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth and formed a thoroughly enduring English civilization in America in 1620. This particular group of people had come to America purely and simply to escape the religious persecutions of the civil wars in England.
The Pilgrims were definitely religious fanatics who believed in worshipping their God in their own way and allowing no one else to worship in any way but their way. Their dress and furnishings showed the greatest simplicity. There were no wealthy people or persons of great taste or culture among the Plymouth settlers. They were primarily lower middle class yeomen and tradespeople.
7. English-Southern Colonies. The Virginia Trading Company and various other trading enterprises were formed at this time and later during the reign of Charles II. Huge acreages of American colonies through Virginia and the Carolinas were given to various favored nobles of the court. The permanent settlers of Virginia and the southern part of the country were in strong contrast to those at Plymouth. The recipients of these land grants lived almost from the beginning of their tenure in America in the same lordly manner in which they had lived in England. Their clothes were tailored in London; their furniture was made in London; even in many cases the timbers which went to construct the interiors of their homes were imported from London. Comb Back Rocker, hand turned in pine, the delicate turnings of the splats and the cant of the back shows how expert the local craftsmen of the early period became.
There was in the days of the earlier settlements no intercourse between the colonies of the New England coast and those of the South; a trackless waste inhabited by Indian tribes separated them. It was very much easier to go to England from Virginia than it was to go to Boston.
The period in Virginia from 1608, the founding of Jamestown, to 1720 and in New England from 1620, the founding of Plymouth, to 1720 is known as the Provincial or Early Colonial period in furniture and decoration.
B. DECORATION1. New England. In New England the provincial middle class colonists, possessed with their religious zeal, had left England shortly after Elizabeth's death and built their homes in the New World in direct memory of the late Elizabethan tradition. Novelty of decoration was excluded because of their religious principles, economy and possibly lack of skill. Furniture. The furniture is largely distinguished by' its persistence of Jacobean characteristics. We find panels recalling the linen-fold decoration of the Gothic; chests and cupboards bear the distinct rectangular panel construction; tables of the trestle type of the Elizabethan age were supplemented by simple drop-leaf tables. Desk boxes, Bible boxes, stools and a very crude bed composed the interior furnishings in most of these houses. The materials for the construction of this furniture were usually those that were closest at hand and those that were most easily worked. Pine was used in large quantities, also oak, birch and maple. The wood was generally left raw without any finish whatsoever and acquired its color and depth by use.
2. Southern Furniture. Virginia and most southern colonies were settled by a wealthier, much more secular group. Their earliest furniture comprised the more elaborate Jacobean styles. Although it is not known for a fact, it is likely that they actually imported much furniture from England even at this early time.
C. GROWTH OF CULTURE
The crude styles followed the pioneers and pushed away from the coast to the frontiers, while the coastal settlements advanced closer to the current European models. By 1680 there was a well-established merchant class on the seaboard. Wealth and fine houses began to come to the trading towns like Boston as well as to the elaborate Southern plantations. England, you remember, at this time had restored the monarchy in 1660. Louis XIV was bringing culture and grandeur to France and all Europe was extremely prosperous. The prosperity was reflected in colonial possessions in America, so that by the turn of the century we have a bustling, growing group of communities stretched along the Atlantic seaboard, all of them in close touch with their mother country and all anxious to emulate her every form.
III. COLONIAL PERIOD: 1720-1780
Authorities differ as to just when the American colonies blossomed from, the crudest of carpentermade furniture into a more sophisticated decoration. Certainly it was not before 1710, and by 1740 it was well eveloped.
A. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Let us go back now and look at the various, European trends that were being copied. Louis XIV was on the throne of France until 1715. The French and English at this time were hated enemies and the American colonies along the Atlantic seaboard were always in fear of raids by the Canadian French, so that we see little interest in French decoration in America at this time.
William and Mary with their heavy Dutch furniture, you recall, ruled England from 1688 to 1702, and from 1702 till 1714 Queen Anne was on the English throne. The cabriole leg was developed and the groundwork was laid for the beautiful work of' Chippendale. The Early and Middle Georgian periods in England are strongly reflected in America, both in the prosperous homes of the New England sea captains around Boston and in the elaborate luxurious country estates of the plantation owners of the southern colonies.
Furniture. General Characteristics. The latter portion of the 17th century is identified in American furniture by the use of walnut, by turnings of trumpet or inverted cup shapes, spiral turnings and elementary forms of the cabriole leg, much after the manner of William and Mary, whose styles were contemporary.
We have highboys, lowboys and upholstered chairs beginning to make their appearance and the roots for the furniture progress of the 18th century are laid.
With the 18th century came mahogany and the development of separate style centers in various cities. Remember that even at this time communication between the various colonies and England was very much easier than within the colonies themselves. There were few roads and they were infested with Indians, so that each city made its own adaptation of the English original.
The country or village styles of colonial American furniture developed many utilitarian types scarce in city life. Furniture was produced in pine, maple, hickory, oak, apple or cherry. Beds with short posts, the Windsor chair, ladder-back chairs, rocking chairs and writing chairs are unique American developments, and typical of the village or country styles.
The American Queen Anne style is a generalization of the use of cabriole legs with shell carvings, pad or animal feet. The Georgian styles were sometimes executed in walnut, but mahogany soon came to the fore. The new emigration of the 18th century brought many craftsmen from England who had made the furnishings for the luxurious dwellings there. Social living was developing in the colonies. Tea and coffee drinking were the fashion; parlor games of chance were played, and the colonies were eager to adopt the rapidly changing manners and customs of the mother country. They were extremely style conscious and bought furniture for its design merits as well as for its usefulness.
Curved lines began to dominate in the design of many pieces. China cabinets to hold the precious collections of imported earthenware and porcelain were made as separate pieces of furniture, after the English manner. Oriental lacquer finishes were introduced, as well as Japan finishes. Desks and secretaries with slant lids were popular and richly treated. Sofas, day-beds and couches were upholstered. Consoles, pier tables, knee-hole desks, the tilt-top and the piecrust table were adapted. Framed mirrors with beveled glass were imported and copied. Tall grandfather clocks came into vogue. For the first time in America, furniture was turned out in matching pieces or sets for use in the same room.
From 1750 onward the furniture of the popular cabinet makers in England was both imported and reproduced, and there were distinct styles of cabinetmaking in Boston, Newport, New York and Philadelphia.