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Country Furniture - Part 1

[Country Furniture - Part 1]  [Country Furniture - Part 2]  [Country Furniture - Part 3]  [Country Furniture - Part 4] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

It hardly seems possible that there were as many cobbler's benches in use between 1700 and 1900 as are serving as coffee tables nowadays. Their popularity is a good omen for the simpler types of old tables, as well as the appealing painted chairs and interesting cupboards, that everyone finds sometime and somewhere. Look again at the rather battered side chair with peeling paint at your summer home or the long table brought from grandmother's and consigned to the cellar as a toolbench. Either one of these and many other utilitarian, taken-forgranted pieces of furniture are quite likely to be negotiable.

Call this sort of furniture Country, Cottage or Primitive, Shaker, Pennsylvania Dutch, or New England-depending on its decoration or lack of it. It's all good Americana, and in the 1960's Americana is fashionable. And if you know for certain that a chair, table, or bedstead, plain as it is, was made for Great-great-grandfather or Great-aunt Sally, someone will be willing to buy it before you can turn around.

Country furniture, all of it very simple, consists of essential household furnishings. Some of it, particularly the chairs, is reminiscent of elegant mahogany and cherry pieces modeled on Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Sheraton styles and made by cabinetmakers for urban homes. The country pieces, however, were of maple, hickory, chestnut, pine., and other native woods. With a few exceptions country furniture lacked decoration, having neither inlay nor veneer. Carving, when there was time or inclination to do any, was modest, and turnings plain. Paint was about as far as these practical, rural furniture-makers went in the matter of further embellishment, and often a piece was painted merely to disguise the fact that it was built of two or three kinds of wood.

All country furniture was practical and sturdy. Sometimes, in their emphasis on sturdiness, the makers lost sight of proportions and made chests and cupboards that looked topheavy, tables that were sound enough but ungainly in appearance. In new settlements and rural towns, cabinetmakers were a rarity. Carpenters and handymen made most of the furniture, and skillful as they were at cutting boards and driving nails, the results were hardly polished, even though acceptable.

You need not live in New England to be the unsuspecting owner of country furniture made between 1800 and 1900. Of course the very first pieces date from the days when Massachusetts Bay Colony and Providence Plantation, in what is now Rhode Island, were being settled, but country furniture continued to be made through the years of exploring and settling the country, first in the Western Reserve, which is now part of Ohio and Indiana, then across the Mississippi River, and, finally, in Oregon and Washington. Anywhere a person lives, the possibilities of discovering country furniture are good. Tables similar to early Colonial tavern and trestle tables were made as late as the 1850's and perhaps the 1870's. Women who cooked meals and cared for their families in isolated houses with no neighbors within hailing distance were grateful to have a trestle table on which to spread the food. Even if a woman knew that Duncan Phyfe in New York City was turning out tables with carved eagle pedestals, she realized not only that it would be foolish to try to bring one across the mountains and prairies, but that such a table would look too fancy in her raw new house.

The trestle and tavern tables, and the Windsor, the slat-back, and the rocking chairs so popular along the East Coast were copied as best the workmen could remember, as settlers moved westward. Thus, distinct styles in country furniture developed in different regions.

Pennsylvania Dutch or, correctly, German furniture came from a small area in southeastern Pennsylvania where rich farmland was cultivated long before the Revolution by settlers from the Palatinate. These people loved color and produced distinctive designs incorporating hearts, flowers, birds, angels, unicorns, and knights in vivid colors. Or they carved and then painted such designs on chests and other large pieces.

Not as well known is the brightly painted decoration typical of the Swedes who early settled along the Delaware River and the Scandinavians who later made their homes in Minnesota and the northwestern states. If these people did not bring their own chests, cupboards, and bedsteads with them, they made new ones as much like them as possible. Their painted decorations were gay but not as strikingly individual as those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Dutch families from the Netherlands who developed the Hudson River Valley were somewhat more sophisticated than the Germans in Pennsylvania. Their furniture was heavy and stable. Great chests and wardrobes might be carved but not painted in gay designs.

In the southeastern states, a great deal of fine furniture was imported from England or commissioned from local cabinetmakers. Probably at least an equal amount was made on plantations. Much of this was patterned after the best furniture in the main house, but some of it disregarded the fashion of the moment.

Shaker furniture was the plainest and most functional of all. A group of Shakers first came to New York City in 1774, and by 1874 had established fifty-eight centers of communal living in New York State, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and later, briefly, in Florida. They used light-colored woods such as maple, birch, and pine almost exclusively. Sometimes their chair uprights were given simply carved finials, but drawer pulls were plain wood knobs and ornament was strictly forbidden. Chair seats were rush, cane, or woven splint or tape. Occasionally chairs were painted red or blue. Chairs, boxes, and their ingenious cupboards and chests are probably best known. The Shakers made all the furniture for their communities, which were selfsupporting, and by the late nineteenth century sold a certain amount to outsiders.

Whether it bears a regional or ethnic stamp or could have been made anywhere from New Jersey to Nebraska and Oregon, all country furniture is functional. This necessity brought about innovations that are still usable and copied. Lazy Susans to be placed in the center of the table were common in the South and Midwest. Milk and pie safes with pierced tin doors, spice boxes to place on shelves, and hanging wall cupboards and boxes were other practical ideas. The dough tray or kneading table with a flat removable top, now sometimes used as a small table, was patterned by the Pennsylvania Dutch after similar ones in their homeland. Dry sinks and benches, which were made to stand in a kitchen and hold a washbowl and pitcher, are not always as appropriately used today.

Nothing could be more functional and practical than the settle chair, made entirely of wood without upholstery and padding, to stand at right angles to the fireplace. The high, solid back and the wings flanking it were protection against drafts. The seat often was the lid of a chest, although some settles had small drawers underneath the seat instead. An equally practical space-saver was the chair or hutch table, which belonged in the kitchen or main room of a house. When the hinged top of a chair table was raised, it became the broad and protective back of a roomy seat. The arms of the seat supported the back when it was lowered for a tabletop, and also permitted the seat to be pulled up to the fire. The top might be either circular or rectangular.

Whereas the settle and probably the hutch table were chiefly Colonial pieces, little made after 1800, trestle and tavern tables were long a staple of country furniture. A well-made one -and these country ones were sturdy -is as good today after refinishing as when it was first made. Various styles of trestle and tavern tables used during the 1800's are fairly plentiful now. The trestle table is easily recognized. It is a plain rectangular table with two to four braced legs, the number depending on its length. The legs, an inverted T shape, are correctly known as trestles. This table goes back to Medieval days in Europe and England, and was made until at least 1850 in rural parts of the United States. The finest examples had the top cut from one board, although two or three boards were frequently employed. Two or more kinds of wood, such as an oak frame and a maple top, were common. A variation was the sawbuck table, so called because its trestles formed an X like the rack known as a sawhorse or sawbuck, on which wood is laid to be cut.

A long narrow type called a harvest table is featured among current reproductions. Its shape and size are typical of the trestle table, but it usually has conventional legs and narrow dropleaves.

By the early 1800's, good-sized dropleaf tables were becoming more common than trestle tables in kitchens. The drop leaves could be raised and leaves also could be inserted in the center of the table to accommodate however many persons were to sit down to a meal. Afterward, the table could be closed to save space. If you find such a drop-leaf table, search until you find the leaves to extend it. Oval and rectangular drop-leaf tables seem to have been preferred to the round, but none of these commodious tables was made with any frills. Their sturdy legs might be round, square, or six-sided, with little or no turning and certainly no skillful turning.

Because of the day-in, day-out use of these drop-leaf tables, the finish now is often marred, scarred, and unattractive. A careful cleaning frequently reveals that the top and leaves are one wood, such as hard ash, the legs and base another, such as maple or pine.

Gateleg tables were made in New England during the late 1600's. These, however, are not as commonly found among country furniture as the dropleaf, probably because the gateleg was more difficult to make.

The small tavern and butterfly tables never lack for buyers. A great many of these were made during the nineteenth century, although the style goes back to the late 1600's, and many are still waiting to be recognized. Less commonly found now are little half-round tables of pine.

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