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Very little American furniture is to be seen outside the United States, and the majority of English and Continental museums, large and small, show none whatsoever. The reader (U.S. or British) may be interested to know how it differs from the European. Occasionally, pieces are found in English homes, whence they may have been brought back by returned settlers, and if offered by auction it is found they fetch high prices in comparison with similar English articles. This higher valuation is justified by the fact that old American furniture is rarer than English, much of it is already in museums in the United States, and there is a large number of keen collectors to compete for every piece.
Seventeenth-century American furniture resembles that made in England some fifty years earlier, and this lag in time continued to be present through most of the eighteenth century. However, by 1800 or so, with improved conditions in the new country and better shipping facilities across the Atlantic, there was very little difference between the interior of a fashionable mansion in New York and one in London. As the early settlers in New England were from the British Isles it would be expected that the furniture they made was like that of their homeland as they remembered it. So it was, but local variations occurred very soon. For instance, the tall cane-backed Jacobean chair was copied continually in America and remained popular throughout the eighteenth century, but instead of the back being filled with a panel of caning often it was given a series of shaped uprights and became the 'banister-back' chair.
Similarly, when mahogany became fashionable, English-style straight-fronted kneehole desks and chests were made in Newport, Rhode Island, with what is termed a `block front'; a type of break-front of serpentine shape, with one or more of the flat `blocks' carved with a sunray or shell. Such variations on the designs from London became popular in the locality where they were made, but they did not spread far. The various districts that had been colonized each had their speciality, but the most notable was certainly the furniture made in Philadelphia. Basically of mid-eighteenth-century English design, these chests, tables, chairs and other pieces were ornamented with carving and fretwork in a style that differentiates them clearly from London work.
Later, in the first half of the nineteenth century, an American version of Sheraton furniture was very popular. The most famous examples were the work of Duncan Phyfe, who had emigrated from Scotland, and whose name is probably the best known of that of any American cabinet-maker. Born in 1768, he died in 1854.
Apart from pieces made in the cities, American collectors eagerly seek old country-made furniture, and there is great interest in Windsor chairs and similar pieces which ,resemble closely their European originals. Eighteenth-century German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania made versions of their home furnishingknown as `Pennsylvania German' or `Pennsylvania Dutch'mainly in light-coloured fruit woods, and these also are very popular in the United States.
One noticeable difference in cabinet-making on both sides of the Atlantic is in the timbers that were used. Much furniture was made in America from local woods: such as apple, cherry, and maple. Walnut remained in use in some districts long after mahogany had become fashionable elsewhere, and in Pennsylvania it was the principal wood until about 1850. Thus, one finds a piece of American furniture in a recognizable rendering of the Chippendale style, but instead of being made from mahogany, as would be expected, it is in walnut, or even cherry wood.
Certain pieces of furniture are named differently in America from what they are in England. Four of the most important are:Lowboy: a modern word describing what is called in England a dressing table; a low table fitted with drawers and raised on legs.
Highboy: a lowboy with, in addition, a chest of drawers on top.
Bureau: described in England as a chest of drawers: the English bureau or writing desk is known in America as a 'slant-front desk'.
Secretary: called in England a bureau-bookcase: a slopingfront writing desk with a bookcase above it.
In addition to Duncan Phyfe, mentioned above, other important cabinet-makers are:
William Savery, of Philadelphia (1721 to 1787).
John Townsend and his brother-in-law, John Goddard, of Newport, Rhode Island (both lived about 1730 to 1785).
John Cogswell, of Boston (about 1769 to 1818).