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Furniture And Its Background - Part 1

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( Originally Published 1963 )

Antique furniture all too often is held in considerable awe. A card table or a sideboard that has been handed down through four or five generations of the same family deserves respect. In all likelihood, such a piece is still in excellent condition and can be used almost as confidently now as it was 150 years ago. Until about 100 years ago, furniture was made by hand in cabinetmakers' shops or by carpenters in new settlements hacked out of the wilderness. These craftsmen worked with durable hardwoods, joined them carefully, and when a more sophisticated society demanded furniture with decoration, made veneer many times thicker and stronger than the acceptably good veneer of the present time.

Some antique furniture is worth no more than the wood out of which it was made. Age is not necessarily synonymous with quality. There are excellent pieces of 200-year-old furniture in museums, restorations, and private collections as well as some almost as old that belong to descendants of the families for whom they were made. Then again, Great-great-Aunt Abigail's needlepoint footstool or Great-Uncle Henry's office chair is likely to have much more sentimental than financial or museum value.

In one way, it seems as if there should be a great deal more antique furniture. Tables, chairs and benches, beds, and chests and cupboards are the oldest pieces in general use, and had been made in one form or another for centuries before Columbus discovered America. However, the Mayflower and all the ships that brought settlers to North America during the seventeenth century had little room for furniture. Personal necessities were much more important. As a result, furniture had to be made in this country from the earliest days of the Virginia and Massachusetts settlements. This furniture naturally copied the styles with which the settlers had been familiar in the land of their origin.

As the Colonies grew and flourished, furniture was imported from England and, in lesser amounts, from France. English furniture styles always have been most influential in this country. Yet, although the skilled cabinetmakers who emigrated to the Colonies followed current styles in England and Europe, they did not copy them exactly. America has its own heritage of furniture of which it can be proud.

It is improbable that anyone now will chance upon furniture made in the seventeenth century, and almost as improbable that any eighteenth-century pieces are still to be found and identified. A good many pieces made in the late eighteenth century and in the first half of the nineteenth century are still being used in private homes. By far the greatest amount of eighteenth-cen-tury furniture is in museums, restorations, and private collections. Although you are not likely to make such a valuable find, it is desirable to understand the various styles of furniture that predominated after 1650.

Comfortable and graceful Queen Anne furniture was made in England chiefly from 1702 to 1720 and in this country from about 1725 to 1750. However, it is possible to find a tea table or other occasional piece in the style of Queen Anne that was made in this country as late as the 1850's and 1860's. And, of course, the famous eighteenth-century styles are still being reproduced or adapted by today's furniture manufacturers. A very late Queen Anne piece undoubtedly is the product of a cabinetmaker who produced individual pieces to order in his shop. There are still a few cabinetmakers scattered around the country who make excellent reproductions and do reliable restoring of genuinely old pieces, but by about 1850 furniture began to be mass-produced in factories.

Political events, economics (including prosperity at home and trade with other countries), and the freedom to travel from one country to another influenced the styles of furniture as well as the amount considered essential in a home. Every so often, also, a great furniture designer who introduced new and different-looking pieces established a style and set a period. Between 1700 and 1800, five distinctly different furniture styles prevailed in England and America. The names attached to these styles or periods were sometimes those of the reigning monarchs, sometimes of a furniture designer.

Furniture made in the American Colonies prior to 1700 was influenced by the Jacobean (1603-88) and the William and Mary (1688-170Z) periods in England. In this country the William and Mary influence extended to about 1725. Then the Queen Anne style took over until about 1750. By that time Thomas Chippendale's new and different-looking chairs and tables were the vogue in England, but it was at least 1755 before any of Chippendale's designs were copied here, just as it had been about 1725 before the Queen Anne style, popular in England by 1705, was introduced in this country.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean and William and Mary furniture tended to be heavy, almost ponderous. It was made in both England and this country of solid wood, especially oak, although walnut became quite fashionable for William and Mary pieces. Simplicity of structure, straight lines, and squat proportions were typical. Legs were firmly braced with stretchers.

Carving was preferred to inlay and veneer for decoration. Many a Jacobean piece appeared weighted down by its carving. Typical were panels, as on the doors of chests, carved in geometric designs. A variation was strapwork consisting of thin, flat pieces of wood. The backs of chairs also often were solid wood, carved. However, seats might be upholstered with leather or woven pads in England. In this country rush seats were more common.

Beds were monstrous, although how much of this effect was due to the bedstead and how much to the hangings is a question. Never before or since were beds so high as between 1600 and 1660. Hangings were important, and could be drawn to cover the four sides of a bed. Their purpose was to shut out the cold. Truckle or trundle beds, which were low and on wheels so they could be pushed under a bedstead, were made for children and servants. Daybeds were quite another thing and were the forerunners of reclining couches.

Tables were long. The trestle, which is the oldest style of table and goes back to Medieval times, began to have some competition. The gateleg table, a style still popular, was made first during the Jacobean period. Cricket tables with three legs were also new.

Stools perhaps were even more common than chairs. They were made in great numbers and doubled as seats and tables. They were about the height of a chair seat.

Side chairs and armchairs, which were really side chairs with wood arms attached, offered little choice when it came to comfort. In addition to solidbacks, there were slat-back chairs, which had three or more wide and usually shaped wooden pieces horizontally across the back. The banister-back chair had fairly wide vertical slats surmounted by a crest or top rail. Some of these top rails, as well as the banisters, were more richly carved than others.

The latter part of the seventeenth century, technically known as the Restoration period in England, followed by William and Mary, brought lighter and more adaptable furniture. Special turnings, scrolled and more elaborate stretchers, became fashionable. Decorations expanded to include lacquer, marquetry, and some inlay.

The wing chair appeared before 1700; it was probably the first comfortable one and certainly the first upholstered one. The wings attached to the frame of the back served the same purpose as hangings on a bed-that is, they cut off drafts. Earlier, settees had been no more than wood benches with arms and backs. Between 1660 and 1690, sofas began to have covered arms and backs.

Chairs of all kinds became more important than stools because the new styles transformed them into movable, decorative furniture instead of simple seats. From this time forward, to identify the period to which side chairs or armchairs belong, the characteristics of certain parts must be noted. The shape of the front legs, also the back legs, and the kind of feet were usually typical. Stretchers and their placement are almost as important. Stretchers disappeared during some periods-Chippendale, for instance. The back of a chair and particularly the vertical or horizontal pieces (splats) and the crest rail were subject to many changes, and are perhaps easiest to keep in mind.

The first desks made during the 1600's were not the furniture that we recognize by that name. Instead, they were large, heavy, slant-top boxes in which writing materials were stored and which provided a writing surface. Desk boxes had a revival in the nineteenth century, when smaller ones were much used by Victorian ladies. The writing or desk box was placed on a stool or small table.

It was 1700 before desks were made to any extent as separate pieces of furniture. First to appear, between 1688 and 1700, was the familiar slanttop desk with a chest of drawers under the hinged top that could be lowered for a writing surface. Then in quick succession came the secretary, which consisted of a slant-top desk topped with a bookcase or cupboard having wood or glass doors, and the kneehole desk with a recess in the center and tiers of drawers on either side.

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