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Periods Of Decoration - Part 3

[Furniture]  [Home Decorating And Budgeting]  [How To Use Scale, Proportion, Balance, And Rhythm]  [Periods Of Decoration - Part 1]  [Periods Of Decorations - Part 2]  [Periods Of Decoration - Part 3]  [Periods Of Decoration - Part 4]  [More Home Decorating Tips] 

( Originally Published 1955 )

EARLY AMERICAN (1608-1720)

The Early American style can really be broken down into two periods, the Very Early American (early seventeenth century), and the Late Early American (late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.)

Interior Architectural Treatment

The interiors of this period were severely simple and of crude construction. Walls were plastered, often showing exposed wooden beam supports, or were covered with vertical or horizontal wide wooden planks. Fireplaces were huge, with ovens on both sides and iron arms in the fireplace opening which supported iron kettles. Fireplaces served for both cooking and heating at that time.

Ceilings were low, usually showing exposed wooden beams. Floors were of random width oak, from a foot to three feet wide, and windows were of the casement type, lead paned.

Furniture Characteristics

Itinerant craftsmen made crude copies of styles they had known in England (Jacobean Period), using local woods. The lines are straight, the moldings simple, and the designs are often roughly incised. Chair and table legs are of the banister type, disk or club-shaped, twisted, spool design, or square. Table and chair legs are frequently splayed (spread apart). Furniture pieces are chests, court cupboards, settles (highbacked wooden benches), stools, wainscoat chairs (high woodpaneled back), table-chairs, long trestle tables, gateleg tables, spinning wheels, cradles, a Bible box and crude beds, often high enough to roll a child's bed under during the day. Chair and bench seats are wood or rush. For comfort, tied-on, fabriccovered pads were used; there were no upholstered pieces.


Fabrics were of the homespun type, usually wool, cotton, or linen; plain, or embroidered or quilted, in rich, warm tones of the primary colors-red, blue, and yellow.Accessories

Accessories were few and utilitarian-iron and pewter candlesticks, tall wooden candleholders, pierced tin lanterns, handmade maps, pewter and pottery dishes; and almost invariably a gun was hung over the fireplace.

Late Early American

The later Early American period, to which the Cape Cod salt box and Connecticut Yankee type of house belong and which is so suitable today for our own smaller informal homes, developed gradually in New England from the Very Early style, and was due to new immigrations and influences from the Old World and the clipper ship trade with the Orient.

Interior Architectural Treatment

One or more walls were frequently paneled, and wallpaper made its appearance. Floors continued to be made of random-width planks, waxed or painted and splatter-painted with other colors. Windows were of the double-hung type, with small square panes of glass. Ceilings remained low with beams less frequently exposed.

Furniture Characteristics

Furniture pieces are smaller in scale than those of the earlier period; they are mostly of maple, cherry, pine, elm, ash, hickory, birch, and other local woods. Mahogany was introduced at the end of this period and carried over into the so-called "Colonial American" period. Chairs and tables have turned legs (banister and irregular disk forms).

Chairs. Typical are table-chairs, ladderback, Windsor (fanback, comb-back and loop-back as slat-back (shaped slat running up the middle of the back), and Hitchcock chairs, usually painted black with stenciled designs in gold of fruits and flowers. Upholstered wing chairs with upholstered back and seat, and arms often of wood, although sometimes fully upholstered, are also typical, as are banister-back and rocking chairs, settles and stools.

Tables. Trestle, butterfly, gateleg, small splayed-leg, tripod, and dropleaf tables are characteristic of the period.

Chests. The most popular types are Hadley, featuring a carved or painted tulip design and owner's initials; Connecticut, featuring the sunflower; chest-on-chest, highboy, lowboy, and Welsh dresser, a chest of drawers with an upper structure of open shelves.

Beds. Four-poster, tester-top, tent (arched or curved testertop), and spool beds are most suitable.

Corner cupboards and slant-top desks are useful and decorative odd pieces.

Hardware. Back plates are pierced, altogether plain, or spreadeagle shape. Handles are elaborate, of the leafy scroll type, copied from the French and used with case furniture employing carved ribbon and scroll motifs for decoration.


Rich full tones of red, from tomato to mulberry, are used often, with yellow, buff, blue, blue-green, yellow-green, ivory, and cocoa brown.


Polka dots, snowflakes, small medallions, small-scaled allover floral designs of flowers, berries, toile de Jouy, scenic repeat patterns of ships, towns, etc., stenciled effects, plaids, baskets of fruit or flowers, trellis effects, and papers in imitation of knotty pine are all suitable.


Choose homespuns, linen, calico, twill, poplin, chintz, rep (cotton or wool), heavy leathers, and quilted cotton materials. Fabric motifs include small-scaled flowers, scattered or in an allover design; checks, plaids, polka dots, toile de Jouy, medallions, and snowflakes.

Window Treatments

Draperies may hang to windowsill or floor, straight or tied back, or hung in two tiers from top of window to sash. Valances are of drapery fabric or of another fabric used in the room, and ruffled, scalloped, or simply shaped. Valance boards are of plain wood, waxed or painted, or covered with fabric and scalloped, slightly shaped, or perfectly straight.

Glass curtains may be of muslin, dimity, dotted swiss, organdy, book linen, or plain net. Borders are deeply ruffled, pleated, or finished with cotton ball fringe. Roller chintz shades can be used with glass curtains, eliminating need for draperies.

Floor Coverings

Small scatter rugs, either braided or hooked, are typical. Today we also use larger rugs of the hooked type, or even broadloom rugs or carpets with typical floral patterns; large braided rugs or rough-textured rugs; and cotton or rush rugs with a plaid effect are especially good for summer use. The spatter-painted effect may be obtained in linoleum.

Old wood floors in good condition should be waxed; never varnish them if they are to be left unpainted. Floors in bad condition can be painted most effectively in dark green, blue, mulberry, pumpkin yellow, or even ivory or white, then varnished and waxed.


Bowl, vase, and candlestick forms made of glass, pottery, pewter, copper, brass or toleware are appropriate bases. Small glass hurricane lamps are suitable, too. In contemporary treatments,large tin milk cans can be painted and used as bases, and oldfashioned coffee grinders are still a fad.

Lamp shades should be of cotton, plain or patterned chintz, linen, parchment, and pleated or plain paper. Shades may be self-bound, or trimmed with cotton ball or rope fringe, or cotton or linen braid.


Accessories are varied and care must be exercised to avoid clutter and "cuteness." Choose carefully from samplers, handblown glass, pottery, pewter, ship models, shelf clocks, banjo clocks, barometers, iron firedogs with brass tops, painted Hessian soldier firedogs, and spinning wheels. Mirrors in simply shaped waxed wooden frames, or gilded, sometimes with a folk painting in the upper part, are typical.

Pictures may be flower prints, sailing ships, old maps, silhouettes, paintings on the reverse side of glass, simple chalk portraits and drawings, primitive oil paintings (a la Grandma Moses), or portraits.


When we speak of Colonial American decoration, we think primarily in terms of the eighteenth-century English furniture styles set in great southern plantations or town houses of Georgian architecture.


By the end of the seventeenth century, when trade with the Old World and the Orient was expanding, more money was available for purchases. The William and Mary and Queen Anne styles of furniture had come in with the English and Dutch colonists who settled around New York and Pennsylvania. The colonists who followed introduced the Georgian styles of the famous cabinetmakers of England-Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. These style influences crept up to New England, where the William and Mary and Queen Anne styles were copied in native maple, pine, and other woods; while the Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton styles found greater favor in Philadelphia and in the South.

About 1750, William Savery of Philadelphia became known as a master cabinetmaker by imitating the designs of Chippendale, although he was also influenced by French designs. Around him developed a group of artisans known as the Philadelphia School of Furniture Makers. Save-.y characteristics were the elaborately carved pediment tops of his secretaries and highboys, and his use of the ball and claw foot.

John Goddard of Newport, Rhode Island, was another outstanding cabinetmaker who imitated Chippendale, and he is known for his block-front case furniture. The lower parts of his desks, secretaries, chests, etc., were divided into three sections, the two outside being convex, the center one concave. A shell motif is usually found at the top of each of these sections. He used the bracket type of foot on such pieces.


Entire walls were paneled in wood, resembling the English Georgian interiors, and were often painted. When walls were not paneled they were of plaster and painted or papered, either in plain expanses from baseboard to cornice, or so treated above a low dado of wood paneling.

Contemporary Wall Treatments. In place of the fine wood paneling of the old days, decorators on a restricted budget paint plaster walls, or use papers suggestive of the eighteenth century. In place of a wood-paneled dado, we use a chair rail and paint the lower part of the wall, including the rail, a deeper or contrasting color.

Mantels are of wood with marble facing, or Dutch Delft tiles. Or the fireplace can be framed simply with bolection molding, with mantel omitted.

Furniture Characteristics

In the earlier pieces, the expression of William and Mary, and Queen Anne styles is evident. Later pieces show Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton influence. (See earlier sections for examples of these styles.)

Case furniture. Secretaries, slant-top desks with cabinet tops, kneehole desks, highboys, lowboys, chests of drawers, sideboards, breakfronts, and china cabinets are typical.

Tables. Characteristic of the period are piecrust and tilt-top tables, gaming tables, step-tables, dropleaf and Pembroke tables. Dining tables are of Hepplewhite or Sheraton design.

Chairs. The Windsor chair of the comb-back, fan, or loopback type; ladderback chairs; the wing chair; and the Hitchcock chair (lacquered black with stenciled gilt designs-a typically American creation) are all suitable with William and Mary and Queen Anne furniture. Side chairs and upholstered chairs are of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton design.

Sofas and day beds are upholstered or have loose cushions. Beds. Four-poster, tester-top, and tent beds are typical. Hardware is the same as that described earlier under the English William and Mary, Queen Anne, and Georgian periods.


Pearl gray, white, cream, daffodil yellow, green-yellow, soft blues, greens, blue-greens and soft tones of rose or deep reds are all good.


With William and Mary or Queen Anne furniture, use delicate allover repeating floral patterns, flock paper and Chinese scenic papers. With Chippendale furniture, use florals, Chinese motifs, and others listed earlier under Chippendale. Chinese Chippendale calls for stylized designs of Oriental inspiration, such as grass-cloth, Chinese tea-box paper, straw matting, bamboo effects, etc. With Hepplewhite and Sheraton, use slender stripes, swags, ribbon, bowknots, florals, medallions, swags, urns, graceful Oriental motifs, etc. Georgian furniture calls for panoramic views of historical scenes and floral scenics of Chinese influence.


A wide choice of fabrics is possible here: chintz, toile de Jouy, cretonne, hand-blocked linen, wool or silk damask, serge, twill, rep, brocade, silk or cotton taffeta, velvet or velveteen, textured satins, modern textured fabrics of not too deep a pile, percale, and haircloth. Leather is also good.

Fabric motifs are the same as those for wallpapers, given above.

Window Treatments

If William and Mary or Queen Anne influences prevail, keep the window treatments simple. Hang draperies from a wooden pole and rings, and if a valance is used keep this simple, too. In a room with a Georgian feeling, use deep shaped valances or swags. Cornice boards can be painted or covered with some fabric such as leather or straw matting. Sometimes cornice boards are made of bamboo.

The shape, material, finish, and trim depend on several factors. The section on the Georgian period discusses this in detail.

Today it is smart to hang draperies full and to the floor from the ceiling line or cornice, and to treat two closely set windows as a unit. Valances and cornice boards are frequently eliminated.

Glass curtains are of marquisette, net, gauze, plain or embroidered muslin, and organdy. Venetian blinds may also be used. Bamboo is good only with Chinese Chippendale.


Choose from Oriental scatter rugs in soft colors, preferably with a floral rather than a geometric design, soft colored allover floral patterns with light backgrounds, carved (sculptured) rugs, and plain colored broadlooms. In bedrooms one can use finely made rag, braid, or hooked rugs.


Vase and urn shapes, hurricane lamps, columns, and Chinese figures provide appropriate bases. These can be of china, fine pottery, glass, crystal, lusterware, marble, and alabaster or their substitutes, and of bronze or brass.

Lamp shades are of silk or rayon taffeta, shantung, white or colored paper, marbleized papers, gold, silver or other metallic papers, chintz or fine linen. Shapes are slightly concave (shaped in) in the middle, drum, or pagoda shapes. Shades look best when simply tailored without fussy trimming.


Furniture. Mirror frames may be of Chinese design (see Chippendale), or of Hepplewhite and Sheraton design, or of flattershaped designs after William and Mary. Although the convex mirror did not appear until the Federal Period, it is commonly used today in interiors which capture the Colonial feeling. Coramandel (Chinese lacquered) or wallpaper screens, grandfather clocks, shelf clocks. The Coramandel screens are more formal than the wallpaper ones.

China. Fine glass and silver, lusterware, Chinese porcelains, Staffordshire, Chelsea, Worcester, Derby, and Dutch Delft ware are all good choices for this period.

Pictures. Choose from Old World maps, portraits, sport prints, etchings, engravings, aquatints, mezzotints. Chinese paintings on silk and glass are also charming in this setting.


Federal, Eagle, Empire


Although the Chippendale influence had been predominant during the American Colonial period just before the Revolution, some of Hepplewhite's designs had also made their appearance. Sheraton and Adam designs, however, were not seen locally until our independence was attained. Adam's designs were of classic Greek inspiration, particularly his architectural designs, used for exteriors as well as interiors. This influence in the New England states was known as the Greek Revival Period. Wooden columns and pilasters with Doric or Ionic capitals flanked doorways or divided important rooms from hallways. The Adam type of mantel, however, whether in the northern or southern states, became most popular because of its simplicity and delicate proportions. His furniture designs, primarily executed in satinwood inset with Wedgwood or Angelica Kaufmann painted medallions, or inlaid colored or painted woods, were not so suited to this country's way of life. The simpler designs of Sheraton, executed in mahogany, were far more popular.

Owners of fine Chippendale, Queen Anne, and William and Mary furniture naturally held on to it, and a mixture of all of these period pieces was characteristic of our fine homes in those changing days.

Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854)

Early in the nineteenth century, an American cabinetmaker, Duncan Phyfe, rose to fame. At first he imitated Sheraton, but his later pieces, made in the early nineteenth century, showed a definite French Empire (similar to English Regency) influence. This style had begun to be popular, partly because of our exposure to the French during their assistance in our struggle for independence. The inspiration here, however, was Roman rather than Grecian, due to Napoleon's desire to emulate the ancient emperors. This French Empire and English Regency influence (stemming from the same source) on our American designs was known as the American Empire Period.

Duncan Phyfe, the last of the great cabinetmakers, is best known for his graceful chairs with concave curved backs and graceful concave legs, and for his use of the lyre, cornucopia, and other Greek or Roman motifs. On chair backs he used sometimes crossed diagonal slats with a simple center motif in place of the lyre form. The concave, splayed legs on his dining tables resembled those of Sheraton, with one distinguishing difference. Sheraton used a plain collared band of brass on the feet, and the leg supports were usually severely plain, whereas Duncan Phyfe used a shaggy dog's foot and the leg supports were frequently reeded or carved with an acanthus leaf or honeysuckle design. Phyfe worked almost entirely in mahogany.

The American Eagle period, so called because the new, patriotic, independent nation demanded an eagle on anything and everything from table bases, wall sconces, and mirror tops, to fabric, wallpaper, and china designs, slipped in toward the end of the Federal Period and just lasted into the American Empire Period. It was only a passing vogue, but it played an important part for about ten years.

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