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Furniture Makers In Early America

( Originally Published 1940 )

When the Colonial settlers of America had built their first rude houses they had to furnish them. Little or no furniture, mainly chests, had been brought from the home country. Importation was not immediately practical and would have been highly inappropriate in any case. The people who had built their houses of logs, crude planks, or wattles were not inclined to deck them out with the best style of English furnishings.

It fell to those most skilled in general handicraft, to knock together makeshift furniture. So far as possible this was made in imitation of the remembered furniture left behind them. Ac cordingly the first pieces made and used by the English colonists were strongly reminiscent of English cottage furniture. In general style it was mediaeval, Gothic. Only slowly did it begin to manifest the influence of the prevailing modes of Court, or upper class furniture, from England. Even the Gothic, or Tudor, forms were subject to certain modifications arising from functional requirements, the necessary simplicity, and the use of the types of wood immediately available. It is easily understood that the rigors and feverish activities of the task of colonization left little time for the embellishment of house furnishings.

The men who were our first professional makers of furniture were usually carpenters, or general workers in wood, who called themselves "joyners." Their craft, in this stage, was relatively simple.

The first trained woodworker in America was that same John Alden, traditionally supposed to have triumphed in love over the rivalry of his friend, Miles Standish. In any event, it was certainly his trade which procured Priscilla's lover his passage to America. The English law required that no ship should set sail on a long voyage without a cooper to take care of the barrels in which provisions and water were stored. John Alden was that cooper, on the Mayflower, and sailed with the option that he might return with the ship or not, as he chose. Whether Priscilla influenced his decision or not, he elected to remain, and to practice his craft of coopering, and later of "joyning." In other words, he turned to furniture making and probably could be credited with some of the early New England pieces now in museums or private collections, all of which, of course, are unidentified by markings.

Another of New England's early joiners was Governor Winslow's brother, Kenelm. Kenelm Winslow arrived in 1629, and apparently found plenty of work to do. In 1640 he was ap pointed Town Surveyor and in 1641 was fined ten shillings for neglecting the highways, an offense which sounds a little strange, considering the period. He finally abandoned the joiner's trade and spent his later years as a farmer and shipper.

The wave of migration which swept into Massachusetts Bay after the third decade of the 17th century brought with it a great many joiners. Nearly all of them are listed in local records for it was customary to refer to a man's trade, along with his name, as a means of additional identification in all legal procedures. There are no names for special discussion, for the work of individuals, however meritorious, cannot be identified. A rare exception to this prevailing situation is a chest made by Nicholas Disbrowe, who came from England and was living in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1639. The chest, which was discovered by Mr. L. V. Lockwood, has written inside of it: "Mary Allyns Chistt Cutte and Joyned by Nich. Disbrowe."

Nicholas Disbrowe was later charged with witchcraft by a customer who did not like the bill rendered and purported to find something occult in the matter. After some trouble the joiner was acquitted.

The most characteristic feature of the joiner's furniture of our early period is its construction. It is composed of straight members, joined at right angles. The curve is entirely absent in the structural sense and barely begins to assert itself in the decorative aspects.

The most basic item of furniture in the early American home was the chest. It was simple to build, could be used as a storage place in the home, as a trunk in travel. It served as a seat and, if necessary, as a low table. Its usual decorative features were plain panels and simple moldings. Applique ornamentation appeared later. Molding and applique were usually painted black to resemble ebony. Carving was also practiced, usually of the simplest, flat kind, with only two parallel surfaces. Such carving was often accented by painting the two surfaces in different colors, generally red or black.

An evolution began, in the chest, with the addition of drawers to its lower section. As it was found convenient to add more drawers the chest naturally became higher. This drawer-adding was more rapidly adopted in America than in England, for natural reasons of usefulness. The top continued to be hinged. As the chest took on height and could no longer be used as a seat with any degree of dignity, it was natural that its top should be used as a repository for objects of pewter, silver, pottery, or glass. This development made the hinged top impractical. Accordingly the drawers were continued all the way to the top. Thus the well known chest-of-drawers evolved.

At the end of the 17th century, for greater convenience in using the bottom drawer, the chest was raised on short legs, producing the highboy, an object especially suited to American tastes by its immense practicality.

In sheer terms of furniture height, the 17th century American home was dominated by the cupboard. There were two primary types. The "Court Cupboard" had doors above and below. The "Press Cupboard" had doors above and shelves below. These followed the rectangular joining and simple ornamentation of the chest and were used for the storage of things that had to be readily accessible, such as food and tableware. The cupboard failed to evolve beyond the 17th century, though it is probably the grandfather of the built-in cupboard and the "sideboard."

The early desk-box was a small chest intended for writing implements and other odds-and-ends. Its sides and front were often of oak; top and bottom, of pine, securely dove-tailed and often ornamented with much greater lavishness than any of the larger pieces. Sometimes the lid was slanted forward, the better to display its decoration. From this it was but a step to the deskbox on legs, connected by stretchers. This produced the slant-top desk of the 18th century, which is still made much in the same manner.

Commonly in use for sitting were stools and forms. The stools were rectangular and added much to the effect of a room, for they were often topped with pads of brightly colored upholstery.

Three types of chair were in use and a certain amount of ceremony was associated with them. This was especially true of the "wainscot chair." The back of this chair was a solid panel. It had turned arm-posts and followed the usual rectangular joining. It was thought of as the "Master's chair," an aura which may have prevented it from becoming more common in use, for it was easy to build.

A more popular type of chair was the "slat-back." This had turned back-posts, connected by three or four horizontal slats. Its primary decorative feature was the high finial of the back post.

Most common were the chairs made with turned posts connected by turned spindles. Although they did not originate here, two variants of this chair are known in America by the names of Colonial Governors Carver and Brewster. The Carver chair is mainly distinguished by a back composed of three horizontal spindles, set between the back-posts, and three vertical spindles set between the lower two horizontal spindles. The Brewster chair is more elaborate, having two sets of vertical spindles, one rank above the other, in the back; and a greater number of other spindles between the arm-rail and the seat-rail. The addition of all these simply turned spindles did not add greatly to the strength of the chair but merely presaged the general yearning for greater elaboration of design.

The earliest American tables were of the trestle type. These could be taken to pieces easily when occasion required. As the term implies they were merely long boards set atop H-shaped trestles, the trestles themselves being joined by a stretcher. At first the top was not fastened, but later was fixed to the trestles by wooden pegs (dowels).

In the 17th century the rectangular table became more popular. This was a simple, four-legged table with a rectangular top. If the legs were turned they were left square at the top and bot tom so that the narrow skirting of the top and the stretchers at the bottom could be mortised into it in customary right-angle form.

The "gate-leg" is a rectangular table with drop-leaves and hinged gates which swing out to support them. Sometimes generously shaped flaps replaced the gates, and these are called "butterfly" tables. Another common table of the earlier period was called the "tavern table." It was rectangular, with an unusually wide skirt in which, sometimes, a drawer was placed.

Beds were extremely simple, being merely rectangular frames strung with leather thongs to support the mattress.

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