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Furniture And Its Background - Part 4

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( Originally Published 1963 )



Hepplewhite and Sheraton continued to make all the kinds of tables that had been introduced earlier in the century, but with their own particular style marks. Card tables were made in greater number than ever before, and the array of other small tables was increased by their introduction of what became known as a work table and in particular a sewing table. Several quite distinct types of sewing tables appeared in this country starting about 1800. These small tables were oval, rectangular, or octagonal, with two or more drawers, often a top that lifted, and sometimes with a tambour front. After 1800, a few sewing tables had a silk bag fastened to the underside. Bedside tables were much simpler but ever so convenient.

Sheraton also was responsible for the drum table, a style still popular. This was a pedestal table with a round deep top in which there were drawers.

The tambour, which appeared on some sewing tables after 1800, was first introduced by Hepplewhite on a desk. A tambour is a flexible sliding shutter made of slender strips of wood, rounded on the face, which have been glued to a coarse fabric or canvas backing. (A wood strip may occasionally fall off an old tambour, but it can be glued firmly in place with a modern adhesive.) Hepplewhite's desk had a tambour that concealed the cabinet above the writing surface. Instead of a slant top that could be lowered, the tambour desk had a flat leaf that folded over, and could be supported on slides when opened to provide an adequate writing surface. Secretaries also were made with tambours. Much larger were the bookcases with drawers or drawers and cupboards beneath, and three or four glass doors above to protect the shelves of books.

A graceful tambour roll-top desk also appeared, but few examples remain, chiefly those made in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The cylinder-top desk or secretary, which had been introduced in England early in the century, was made to some extent in America at this time but never became really popular here until Victorian days.

Still another new and different type of desk was the fall-front bureau desk. When closed, this looked as though it were a chest of drawers. What appeared to be the top and deepest drawer was a hinged front that could be let down for a writing surface. Pigeonholes and small drawers were arranged behind the fall front. The drawers below the writing leaf might be graduated in size.

Sheraton also made use of tambours, but a credit that is wholly his own is the chest of drawers with an attached mirror. This, of course, is still being made although not always in as graceful a manner as Sheraton's. It has been said that Sheraton was responsible for twin beds. Be that as it may, both Hepplewhite and Sheraton continued to make canopy beds.

In France, furniture had been changing almost as much as in England and often along the same lines. French periods are differentiated according to monarchs. Thus, Louis XIV (16431715) was grand and massive, as was Jacobean furniture in England. It was carved, gilded, and displayed marquetry. Louis XV (1715-74) was a rococo period with its curves, scrolls, and bold decoration. Chippendale borrowed some of his rococo effects from this furniture. Louis XVI (1774-93) made use of straighter lines and classic motifs, as did Adam and Hepplewhite in England, but the French versions were much more elaborate.

French Provincial furniture incorporated characteristics and offered pieces of the Louis XV period. It was in a way a simple adaptation of elaborate court furniture. Instead of the exotic woods such as mahogany used to make furniture for palaces, Provincial pieces were made of native woods, including fruitwoods such as cherry or pear. The Louis XV cabriole leg became a simpler one on Provincial furniture, usually lacking the carving. Elaborate brass or bronze decoration was reduced to simple grilles on Provincial pieces, marquetry and inlay were not seen, and hand decoration in gilt or pastel colors gave way to white, gray, or pastel paint.

Upholstery, soft and luxurious, was as typical of Provincial as of other French furniture. The upholstered chair with arms and back in one piece, called a bergere, and the chair with open arms and upholstered back and seat, known as a fauteuil, were found in both Louis XV and Provincial. So were the chaise longue, the closed secretary and flat writing table, and the commode that also could serve as a table.

During the 1700's, some cabinetmakers in America made such unusually fine pieces of furniture that their names still live. They did not originate a style in the sense that Chippendale, Hepplewhite, or Sheraton did, but they did adapt the current English designs, as these were imported here, to their clients' way of living and the available materials. If one word can distinguish American period furniture from the English, it is simplicity. These American cabinetmakers, who had learned their trade in their native countries, could-and did-carve perfect shells, graceful, ribbon-back chairs, and bonnet-top pediments. However, the decoration as well as the lines of the pieces made here inclined toward simplification.

Mahogany, which was made popular by Chippendale, was used in this country too after about 1750. Walnut continued to be used, and toward the end of the century cherry became a favorite. Curly maple made handsome veneer.

Beds perhaps illustrate better than any other piece of furniture the simplicity that became characteristic of even the highest style here. However much carving was done on chair backs and chests, beds were relatively simple. In the small, new houses that settlers built there was no room for towering beds with heavy hangings. A bed was likely to have fairly plain posts and even a headboard. As cities and even settlemerits became prosperous and some citizens quite wealthy, larger and more handsomely equipped houses were built. By 1750, more of the tall four post beds were being made. Posts were more slender even though they were modestly carved in the Queen Anne or Chippendale manner. The pencilpost bed was a New England contribution which had quite plain and very slender, tapering posts.

Between 1740 and 1780, Philadelphia was the wealthiest city in the Colonies. It is not surprising that it was here the field or tent bed with its arching canopy was made first. Later this style also was made in New England. Excellent furniture was made in Philadelphia again during the Federal period. At this time Henry Connolly and Ephraim Haines produced pieces distinctly influenced by Sheraton, notably with reeded legs. Their furniture was as fine, although less has been heard about it, as Duncan Phyfe's furniture made in New York. Yet the style points on furniture made in the two cities were quite different.

Philadelphia first became famous for its furniture because such skilled cabinetmakers as Benjamin Randolph and William Savery maintained business there between 1750 and 1780. The highboys from their shops incorporated Chippendale characteristics and were as handsome as anything that was made by Chippendale himself. In fact, Philadelphia highboys set a new standard for this piece of furniture.

Highboys continued to be made in America throughout the eighteenth century, although they had fallen out of favor in England during the days of Chippendale. Chest-on-chests also were popular in this country and cabinetmakers in every locality made them. No one could ever count the number of corner cupboards made in America, and many of them, in their excellence of proportion and detail, rank with the Philadelphia highboys.

Case pieces with block fronts were never made in England. They originated in New England. Many of these are credited to John Goddard, a cabinetmaker in Newport, Rhode Island, between 1748 and 1783, and the Townsend family who worked in Newport from 1700 until 1765. After the Revolution, Newport's prosperity declined while that of Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, increased. So in the last years of the eighteenth century, it was in these places that outstanding furniture was produced. Samuel McIntire, who worked in Salem, was both an architect and a carver; Benjamin Frothingham was a cabinetmaker worth remembering in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Distinguished furniture was made in New England throughout the 1700's, starting with restrained pieces in the Queen Anne style. And furniture production was not confined to the seacoast cities. In the previous century Nicholas Disbrowe had made a name for himself in Hartford, Connecticut, and not far away in East Windsor, after the Revolution, the Chapins were at work. Middletown was another well-known Connecticut furniture center. In western Massachusetts, William Lloyd produced inlaid sideboards that were as fine as those made in Baltimore. Cherry was a favorite wood of Connecticut cabinetmakers throughout the eighteenth century, and when inlay became fashionable toward its close, boxwood and satinwood were combined with the cherry.

Albany, New York, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were other notable inland centers. After 1790, the Hepplewhite and Sheraton influences on furniture-making appeared in Ohio and west to the Mississippi River.

Wealthy planters in Virginia and other southern states probably imported more furniture then did those who lived farther north. Some amount also was made on their own plantations.

However, Thomas Elfe, another follower of Chippendale, worked in Charleston, South Carolina, between 1755 and 1775.



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