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While we hear a great deal about cabinet work of the Revolutionary period, the furniture of an earlier time (from about 1620 to 1720, which Wallace Nutting has called the "Pilgrim century") was equally interesting and just as important. Maple furniture carries us back beyond the age of mahogany, of Phyfe, of Chippendale or of Sheraton and past the time of walnut to the earliest days of the settlement of this country.
Early Colonists, following the traditions of the home country, persisted in the exclusive use of oak. But soon maple, because of several obvious advantages, began to be used. It had a closer grain than oak, thus allowing a smoother finish to be given to the pieces, and it was really tougher than oak less liable to split on sharp edges of turnings of legs and spindles. Its lighter weight also doubtless appealed to the early American, for a chair or table of maple was less cumbersome to move than one of oak.
Up to the time of the introduction of mahogany into general use in the second quarter of the eighteenth century the use of maple furniture might well be considered characteristically American. Even with the advent of walnut and later of mahogany the making of maple furniture persisted parallel with the use of these and other woods through even the early part of the nineteenth century. Toward the end of this period maple furniture was doubtless more popular in the country districts.
Like Greek sculpture, once painted but now admired in its pure whiteness, maple furniture was not always left in its beauty of natural wood as we see it today. Much of it was stained or painted, and the elaborate pieces, such as the Jacobean chairs with carved backs and stretchers, which one sees today in maple, were originally "ebonized" by black paint or stain, as was the custom.The design of this early maple furniture followed the prevailing English and Dutch styles, but one may see in comparing pieces made in this country with furniture pro duced at the same time in England how the Colonial chairs and tables were simpler in design, and the chairs often more comfortable, than their English cousins.
The earliest pieces of maple had the charm of the stanch and straightforward design of the Jacobean period. In later examples one finds the grace of the less sophisti cated types of the Queen Anne style. In general, maple furniture followed the simpler lines of country made cabinetry. It is this simplicity that makes originals and their reproductions so charming today in our informal living rooms or in rooms suggesting more or less completely the decoration of former days.
Examples of almost every kind of furniture made in maple have come down to us. The butterfly table was popular in those times and was generally made in maple. This was a small table with stretchers connecting its legs, which were always splayed or inclined outward. Leaves on either side were supported by triangular swinging braces. This quality of being compressed into a small space when not in use makes this table a convenient one for the circumscribed city apartments of today. The gateleg table, another folding variety, was also often made in maple. Many lowboys and daybeds and most of the chairs of the seventeenth century were of this wood, although ash was used for the earliest chairs and is often found in the rungs and spindles of maple chairs.
Maple furniture of the Colonial period, either in original pieces or in careful reproductions, can be fitted only into rooms that have a similar air of simplicity of the statelier era of Queen Anne walnut and Georgian mahagony tend to look down upon these humbler pieces, although once in a while a really superb piece in maple is discovered that would carry itself with dignity in any company of furniture.