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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Provincial, Peasant, And Cottage Furnishings

( Original Published 1935 )

Although the term traditional furniture ordinarily refers only to the type of furniture that was used in the past in the palaces of the wealthy, the furniture of the poorer classes of the same periods should also be classed as traditional or period. Naturally it has not been preserved to the same extent as the more valuable furniture; in fact, in many countries the peasants had little furniture of any kind.

The terms provincial, peasant, and cottage furnishings have different meanings, although these terms sometimes apply to the same furnishings. The kind of furniture used in provinces away from the capitals is called provincial. It is not necessarily peasant furniture; indeed, most of the French provincial furniture reproduced today is bourgeois. Naturally provincial cabinet makers simplified the elegant court furniture, and thereby often improved it. Peasant furniture refers, of course, to the type of furniture used by the petty farmers in Europe. Peasant fashions change very little, so the peasant furniture of today is often much like that of the past. The term cottage furniture generally refers to any furniture that is simple and appropriate for use in small homes. This includes furniture of the city and of the country, traditional or modern in style.

It is possible to use together all these unpretentious forms of traditional furniture, in small houses or apartments; but it is not always possible to find them in shops. It is only within recent years that Americans have been much interested in cottage furniture. Since the coming of swift and easy transportation between country and city, it has been possible for people with city interests to live in the country. For their small country houses they want cottage furniture, which has now been manufactured to meet this demand. Fortunately, it was soon realized that cottage furniture is as charming and appropriate in small town houses and in small apartments as in the country.

Much of the cottage furniture used in this country is of the American Provincial type, which deserves careful study. Appreciation of good lines and proportions in this furniture can be developed by study of the examples in the American museums. Mr. Henry Ford's museum at Dearborn, Michigan, has an excellent collection of such home furnishings.

The popular Early American style has already been discussed on page 87. The French Provincial, Pennsylvania German, Dutch Colonial, English Colonial, and Spanish Colonial styles are briefly considered here.

French Provincial Furniture. Provincial furniture was very scarce and plain in France until the time of Louis XIV, because of the impossibility of establishing secure homes during troubled times. When internal peace permitted at last some attention to home comforts, furniture design in the provinces was affected by the Italian Renaissance influence. The Louis XV style later became widespread, but the Louis XVI was less influential, and the Empire style had no effect outside of urban centers.

The peasants lived very simply, their furniture consisting of chests, wardrobes, and cupboards made by the Joiners' Guild, and four-post beds, trestle tables, and straw-bottom chairs made by the Turners' Guild. Bourgeois furniture was copied from Paris types, often found in design books. There was, therefore, a general national relationship in the furniture styles in all the provinces, although local needs and climatic conditions necessitated certain variations; for example, there were closed cupboards for dishes in the dusty south, and open-shelved dressers for dishes in the north. Some pieces, such as two-storied armoires, straw- and rush-bottom chairs, tables, and gay china dishes, were much alike throughout all the provinces.

This bare outline gives no hint of the romance of French provincial furniture. The gaily decorated bread holders hung on the wall in Provence, the rack suspended over the table to hold the spoons in Brittany, the master's chair-table in the Basque country, the table chests in Poitou, the gaily painted German furniture in Alsace, the cupboard beds in Brittany, the half-closed beds in Burgundy, the built-in furniture in Lorraine, the open dresser shelves filled with Ouimper pottery in Brittany, the rose copper and brass kettles in the Dutch kitchens in Flanders, are but a few of the fascinating things to read about or better still to see.

The person interested in French provincial furniture can find excellent material to read on this subject. The many provincial museums of France have preserved extensive collections of old furniture that well repay a visit. It is regrettable that Americans have not been as much concerned about establishing museums to preserve the old furnishings in this country.

Pennsylvania German Furniture. The German settlers in Pennsylvania naturally created homes as much as possible like those they had left in Germany. By 1750 they were well established and had built substantial houses, the main feature of which was a great hall or living-room-kitchen. The fireplace crowned by an enormous log mantel was used for cooking, but heat was provided also by iron stoves, which were often decorated with biblical scenes cast in the iron.

The chief distinction of Pennsylvania German furniture was its colorful, painted decoration. It was generally made of walnut, but oak and pine were used occasionally. The furniture was like the German, but had an American freedom in its decorative details. It was strong but not too bulky. Its ornamentation often consisted of turning and molding, which provided a structural type of decoration conducive to art quality.

In the living rooms there were large dressers open above to hold pewter and pottery, and closed below to form cupboards. Tables were of various kinds, including saw-buck tables, long oak refectory tables, tables with low stretchers, and round-topped, splay-legged tables. The chairs also had considerable variety, including solid panel-back, vase splat back, and banister back chairs, in addition to a well-known European peasant chair with raked legs and a solid, shaped back.

Among the most interesting textiles of the Pennsylvania Germans was the hand-woven coverlet made by the traveling weaver, who carried his own book of designs. He lived with a family while he wove for them. Embroidered samplers and long homespun towels decorated with cross-stitching were hung on the walls as decorations. "Fractur" work was illuminated handwriting used on birth, marriage, and death certificates, hymn books, and cards. Birds and tulips were favorite motifs for this work, as the bird represented the spirit and the tulip was the symbol of love.

One of the most famous Pennsylvania Germans, Henry William Stiegel, established the first flint or lead glass factory in this country in 1763 and sold his fine glass to all the Colonies. Slipware and scratched pottery (sagraffito) were made in Pennsylvania in 1733 in the same manner as in Germany.

The Pennsylvania Museum of Philadelphia has installed several excellent rooms from the house of the Miller at Millback, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, which is dated 1752. These rooms have been furnished with original Pennsylvania German articles worthy of careful study. Most of the information given here comes from these rooms and from the museum publications. Although reproduction of Pennsylvania German furniture probably can not be obtained in the shops, the person who is interested in this furniture can have it made. Moravian tiles and reproductions of old glass and textiles are now being manufactured. This type of furniture combines well with New England Colonial forms, which are better known. For homes in Pennsylvania the use of this style native to the state is particularly recommended.

Early Colonial (United States). The early Colonial furniture in this country was brought from England, therefore it is practically the same as the English cottage furniture. It was used here in the seventeenth century.

Dutch Colonial Furniture (United States). The Dutch influence was strong around New York, on Long Island, and in New Jersey. It developed from the use of the domestic furniture of Holland, the same type that was brought to England by William and Mary and continued through the time of Queen Anne. This simple curved-line furniture was usually cottage or provincial in character, being rather heavy. It was often made from the native wood which was left natural or was painted with naive effects. Sometimes low relief carving decorated these pieces, and either the pattern or the background was painted in bright colors. The kas or linen cupboard was a favorite article, as was also the highback settle. Rush-bottom chairs painted black or flowered were used. The more prosperous Dutch settlers imported imposing inlaid or lacquered pieces from Holland. The Brooklyn Museum has many interesting Dutch Colonial articles. In fact, there is a small Dutch house near the Museum.

Provincial Colonial (United States). So-called Colonial furniture on the Atlantic Coast was largely curved-leg, mahogany furniture. The provincial version of this Colonial style, which was often an improvement upon it, was used in the country and in the plainer city homes. The furniture was copied in inexpensive wood, such as pine, oak, and fruit woods, without ornamentation. The curved-leg maple pieces that we see in the shops today are reproductions of provincial Colonial furniture. These pieces combine well with other cottage furniture.

Spanish Colonial (United States). The unpretentious Spanish Colonial furniture which is manufactured today is an unusual and pleasing type of cottage furniture, known in some localities as Monterey furniture. American Indian rugs, basketry, and pottery combine well with it.

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