Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Cottage And Farmhouse Furniture - Seventeenth Century Styles

( Originally Published 1912 )

BEFORE we consider the furniture of the seventeenth century we may perhaps recall that it was a period of many changes. Extending from the time of James I (1603-25), it includes the reigns of Charles I, the Common-wealth, Charles II, James II, and William and Mary (1689–94)

It was ushered in by thirty years of colonizing enter-prise. Raleigh's first colony in Virginia was founded in 1585, but the second colonization began in 16o6, and the period ended, we may say, with the battle of La Hogue, in 1692, when the French fleet was destroyed.

From the days of James I to those of James II, from the first Stuart sovereign to the last of that ill-starred House, the country passed through many vicissitudes. The opening years of the century saw the colonization of Ulster by the Scots and English (1611), the sailing of the Mayflower and the foundation of New England by the Puritans (1620), nine years after the first publication of the Authorized Version of the Bible.

From the time of Charles I to the Restoration in 166o the country was torn by civil strife. It was a bad time for all the arts, and one may imagine that the cottage and farmhouse folk found little inducement to collect around them new furniture. It was essentially a period of "make do and mend".

Under Charles I came the struggle between the despotic power of the Crown and the newly awakened will of the people. Parliamentary right came into bitter conflict with royal prerogative and the belief in the Divine Right of Kings. The smouldering fire first burst into flame when John Hampden, a country gentleman refused to pay Ship Money, which, in 1637, was levied upon the inland counties. The arrest of Hampden, Pym, and others, precipitated the country into civil war.

For several years a continual series of battles were waged by the contending forces. The Eastern Counties formed themselves into a martial association and the King set up his standard at Nottingham. From Bristol to Hull, from Nantwich to Newbury, fierce engagements tore the country asunder. An Irish army was raised for the King's cause, and the Scots under Leslie crossed the border in support of the Parliamentary party. With the execution of Charles I came other dangers; the sword was not sheathed, nor had the revolution brought content to the countryside. Cromwell divided the kingdom into military districts. Such martial incidents as the battle of Rathmines and the storming of Drogheda and Wexford in 1649, the defeat of Montrose and battle of Dunbar in 165o, the battle of Worcester in 1651 and the foreign wars with Holland and Spain fill up the years to 1658.

But with the death of the Protector and the Restoration came an influx of foreign customs and arts learned by exiled royalists in their enforced sojourn abroad. Things began to brighten up and, except for the distress caused by the Stop of the Exchequer, when Charles refused to repay the sums he had borrowed and reduced the interest from twelve to six per cent, it was a time of recovery. The country folk were not much better off, perhaps, but at least there was a modicum of peace and comparative security which allowed the arts and handicrafts to flourish again.

After Charles came his brother James and more civil strife. The insurrection of Monmouth in the West of England was followed by the Bloody Assize of Judge Jeffreys. The air was filled with trouble and blundering state-craft brought fresh disaster, culminating in the ignominious flight of the King.

During the remaining years of the century, however, with William and Mary on the throne, we find ourselves at a period where the art of the cabinet-maker begins to display a reawakened sense of pride in craftsmanship, which eventually led, in the era of Queen Anne, to a rare excellence which (after the inevitable time-lag) found a reflection in the furniture of the farmhouse and cottage.

To the lover of old oak, varied in character and essentially English in its practical realization of the exact needs of its users, the seventeenth century provides an exceptionally fine field, The chairs, the tables, the dower-chests and the four-post bedsteads of the farmhouse were sturdy reflections of sumptuous furniture made for the nobility and gentry in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. The designs may have been suggested by finer and earlier models, but the balance, the sense of proportion, and the carving, were the result of the village carpenter's own individual ideas as to the requirements of the furniture for use in the farmhouse. Obviously strength and stability were important factors, and ornament, as such, took a subsidiary place in his scheme. But, although coarse with a tendency towards the unwieldy, and often massive with-out the accompanying grandeur of the highly-trained craftsman's work, there is a breadth of treatment in such pieces which is at once recognizable. They were made for use and no little thought was bestowed on their lines. Rightly appreciated, they possess a considerable beauty. There is nothing finicky about this seventeenth-century farmhouse furniture. There is no meaningless ornament. Produced in conditions suitable for quiet and restrained craftsmanship, contemplative cabinet-makers began to evolve styles that are far removed from the average design of furniture made today under more pretentious conditions.

The gate table, with its long history and its amplification of structure and ornament, to which a separate chapter is devoted (Chapter Three), is a case in point. It was extensively used in inns and farmhouses and, in definite types, is found spread over a wide area from one end of the country to the other. Its practicability caught the taste of lovers of utility. Its added gracefulness of form, in combination with its adaptability to modern needs, has recaptured the fancy of housewives to-day. It is the happy survival of a beautiful and useful piece of ingenious cabinet-work.

Even today one may find unexpectedly a London fashion lingering in the provinces years after its period. A stray air from a light opera or some catch-phrase of town slang is gaily bandied about as current coin in bucolic jest long after its circulation in the metropolis has ceased. The fashions in provincial furniture moved even more slowly. Half a century after certain styles had been the vogue they crept imperceptibly into country use. In speech and song the transplantation is comparatively rapid, but in craftsmanship, the studied work of men's hands, the use of novelty was against the grain of the conservative mind of the country cabinet-maker. Therefore, throughout the entire field of this minor furniture, it must be borne in mind that it is quite usual to find examples of one century reflecting the glories of a period considerably earlier.

The love of old country furniture of the seventeenth century is hardly an acquired taste. It is a native instinct.

Old oak may strike a jarring note in a Sheraton drawing-room with delicate colour scheme of dainty wall-paper and satin coverings. But as a general rule, when it is seen in its proper environment, in an old-world farmhouse with panelled walls and mullioned windows, set squarely on an oak floor beneath blackened oak beams ripe with age, it wins immediate recognition as representative of a fine period of furniture. It is admitted by experts, and it is the proud boast of possessors of old oak, that the joiner's work of this style—the seventeenth century at its best—is unequalled for its solidity and sound practical adherence to fixed principles governing sturdy furniture fashioned for hard and continued use. Of course, there were no screws used in those days, and little glue. The joints were dovetailed into each other with great exactness and were fastened by the wooden pins so often visible in old examples. The modern copyist has a fine regard for these wooden pegs. He knows that his clients set store by them, and he accordingly sees to it that they are well in evidence in his replicas. But there is yet a distinction which may be noticed between his pegs and the originals. His are often accurately round, turned by machinery to fit an equally circular machine-drilled hole. They instantly tell their own story to a trained eye, to say nothing of the aspect of the piece of furniture as a whole, which always has little conflicting touches to denote its modernity.

As an instance of the form of the sixteenth century continuing in use until mid-seventeenth-century days the illustration of an oak table (p. 41) may be cited. The heavy baluster-like legs, only just removed from the earlier bulbous types, and the massive treatment, survive from the days of James I, and yet such pieces really were made in Cromwellian days.

The rude simplicity of much of the farmhouse furniture is indicated by the Table Settle illustrated (p. 33). The back is convertible into a table top. The early plainness of style for a piece so late as 165o is particularly note-worthy. This specimen is interesting, too, by reason of its exceptionally large back.

On the same page is illustrated a chest with two drawers underneath. This form is termed a "Mule Chest," and is an early form of the chest of drawers. These " Cromwellian" chests with drawers continued to be made in the country for a hundred years, but in more fashionable circles they soon developed into the well-known Jacobean chest of drawers, the prototype of the form in use to-day. As an instance of this lingering on of fashion the chest illustrated is dated 1701, quite fifty years after its first appearance as a new style.

Oak was in general use both in the furniture of the richer classes and in the farmhouse furniture of seventeenth-century days and earlier.

The great oak forests, such as Sherwood, furnished an abundance of timber for all domestic purposes, and up to the seventeenth century little other wood was used for any structural or artistic purpose. Practically oak may be considered as the national wood. From the Harry Grace a Dieu of Henry VIII and the Golden Hind of Drake to the Victory of Nelson, the great ships were of English oak. The magnificent hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall was of the same wonderful wood. All over the country are scattered buildings timbered with oak beams, from cathedrals and ancient churches to farmhouses and mills. The oak piles of old London Bridge were taken up after six and a half centuries and found to be still sound at the heart, The mass of furniture of nearly three centuries ago has survived owing to the durability of its wood. To this day English oak commands great esteem. Although foreign oak has taken its place in the general timber trade, yet there is none which possesses such strong and lasting qualities. It will stand a strain of 1,900 lbs. per square inch transversely to its fibres.

Inlaid work is unknown in furniture of this type. It was sparingly used even in pieces of more important origin. The room shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum from Sizergh Castle has inlays of holly and bog oak. And the suite of furniture at Hardwicke Hall made for Bess of Hardwicke was fashioned by English workmen who had been in Italy, the same persons who produced similar work at Longleat; but these are quite exceptional. Small panels with rough inlaid work were not uncommon in the seventeenth century in chests, bedsteads, and drawers, but the prevailing types of oak without the added inlays of other woods were rigidly adhered to in cabinetmakers' work for the farmhouse.

The hardness of oak as a wood is one of the factors which determined the styles of decoration of the furniture into which it was fashioned. It was not easily endowed with intricate carved work, even at the hands of accomplished craftsmen. The fantastic flower and fruit pieces of Grinling Gibbons and other carvers were in lime or chest-nut, and the age of walnut, a more pliant and softer wood to work in than oak, was yet to come. The country maker, little versed in the subtleties of cabinet-work, contented himself with a narrow range of types, which lasted over a considerable period. This is especially noticeable in his chairs, and specimens are found of the same form as that of the middle seventeenth century yet belonging to the last decade of the eighteenth century.

The typical sideboard of the seventeenth century only varies slightly in form according to the part of the country from which it comes. The general design is always consistent. A large cupboard below, two smaller ones above, set somewhat back from the front of the lower one, their sides sometimes canted off, leaving two triangular pieces of flat top. The whole is surmounted by a top shelf, supported by the upper cupboards and two boldly turned pillars. This is the usual design. The decoration is of the simplest, and presents nothing beyond the powers of the village carpenter. The mouldings are simple; there is slight conventional carving, frequently consisting of hollow flutings, and the pillars, boldly turned, are very rarely enriched by any ornament. A careful examination of such pieces is always interesting from a technical point of view. The framing of the panels is seen to be worked out by the plane, but the panels themselves more often than not have been reduced to approximate flatness with an adze. If viewed in a side light the surface is thus slightly varied, showing the differences in the planes of the various facets produced by the adze and giving an effect entirely different from the mechanical smoothing of surface produced by the use of a plane.

The framing of the front and ends of these sideboards is in detail exactly like the ordinary Jacobean wall panel-ling or wainscot. The mouldings are all worked on the rails or styles, not mitred and glued on, no mitred mouldings being used except occasionally in the centre panel between the doors. The framing is mortised together and pinned with oak pins. The doors are usually hung on iron strap hinges, and the handles of the doors are of wrought iron. Frequently the doors of the upper cupboards are hung on pivots, not hinges. Such a sideboard belongs to the middle period of the seventeenth century, and is representative of a wide class used in farmhouses. The Frontispiece shows an example rather more elaborate than usual.

It is easier to follow the various movements in the design of the seventeenth-century table than a century later, when more complex circumstances governed its make.

The Joint Stools (sometimes grimly called " Coffin Stools"), such as those shown on page 37, afford a comparison with the tables of the seventeenth century in their sturdy construction. The example on the left, the earlier of the two, is of turned and carved oak, with fluted baluster legs and band of arcaded carving round the plain seat. It dates from late in Elizabeth's reign, circa 1600. The example on the right, likewise of oak, is of mid-seventeenth century, the simple baluster legs well and strongly made. Stools of this nature, whether Elizabethan, Jacobean or Carolean, invariably retain the plain stout stretchers, their chief variation being seen in the varied turning of the legs.

The conservative spirit of the minor craftsmen is especially noticeable in the articles of everyday use. The merchant's account ledger with its green back and cross-stitched pattern in vellum strips, still in use, is to be found in the same style in Holbein pictures of the days of the Hanseatic League. Brass and copper candlesticks have a long lineage, and their form is only a slight variant from very early examples. The evolution of ornament is especially interesting; the characteristic of the old stone-ware Bellarmine jug still remains in the bearded mask at the lip of china jugs at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The two buttons at the back of men's coat tails continued long after their primary use, to loop up the tails of their frock coats when riding, had disappeared.

In America the early carved chests of the Puritan colonists were followed by similar designs contemporary with our own Jacobean style for a period well towards the end of the seventeenth century. The panels on chairs and chests have the same arcaded designs as found in Elizabethan bedsteads and fireplaces. These became gradually crystallized in conventional form, and Lock-wood, the American writer on old colonial furniture, has reduced the types coincident with our own Jacobean styles into ten distinct patterns, finishing with the advent of the well-known chest of drawers with geometric raised ornament laid on—pieces of furniture which in Restoration days were set upon a stand.

We illustrate a number of pieces to cover the usual styles and to assist the beginner to identify examples coming under his observation. It should be noted however that as these chests of drawers are so much sought after they are manufactured nowadays by the hundred out of old wood, so that great care should be exercised in purchasing them unless under expert guidance.

The specimen appearing on page 41 is a fine example, in date 1660, and when the ball feet are original, as in this example, the genuineness of the chest of drawers may be assumed. Too often stands or feet are added, and it is exceedingly rare to find that the brass handles are original. Quite an industry is carried on in reproducing old brass escutcheons and handles from rare designs and carefully imparting to them signs of age, so that they may be used on made-up chests of drawers and tables.

Speaking of types of stands, the chest of drawers illustrated on page 45 (on the right) is a curious Jacobean type with sunk panels with an unusually high stand. There is a suggestion that this has been added later, as the foot is eighteenth-century in character.

The other chest is of the Charles II type with sunk panels. In this the original tall, arcaded stand has been cut down so as to form little feet. It will be observed that in addition to the four drawers it has a drawer at the bottom.

Farmhouse furniture almost eschewed fashion. In seventeenth-century days it pursued the even tenor of its way untrammelled by town influences. England in those days was not traversed by roads that lent themselves to neighbourly communication. A hundred years later Wedgwood found the wretched roads in Staffordshire, where wagons sank axle-deep in ruts and pits, a hindrance to his business, and William Cobbett in his Rural Rides leaves a record of Surrey woefully primitive at Hindhead, with dangerous hills and bogs, where the "horses took the lead and crept down, partly upon their feet and partly upon their hocks."

It was essential that a rough idea of the period be gained in order to appreciate the kaleidoscopic character of the events that rapidly succeeded each other. Hence the historical paragraphs at the beginning of this chapter. The paralysis of the arts during the civil war had not a little influence on the furniture of the period belonging to the class of which we treat in this volume. The wealth of noble and patrician families had been scattered, estates had been confiscated, and sumptuous furniture and appointments pillaged and destroyed, especially when it offended the narrow tastes of the Puritan soldiery. Some of the minor pieces no doubt found their way into humbler homes and served as models for simpler folk. With a dearth of aristocratic patrons there were no new art impulses to stir craftsmen to their highest moods, but in spite of war and disturbances affecting all classes, furniture for common use had to be made, and the ready-found types exercised a continued influence on all the early work.

In regard to farmhouse furniture the following types represent the main seventeenth-century essentials: the bedstead, the sideboard or dresser, the table and the chair in its various forms, the Bible-box and the cradle. The Jacobean chest of drawers, a development of the dower-chest, came in mid-seventeenth-century days, and prior to the William and Mary styles. The sideboard, a development of the bacon-cupboard, came into fashion in the middle of the century.

The shifting phases of the restless seventeenth century make it exceedingly difficult, in spite of experts, to decide definitely as to the exact date of furniture. The country being in such an unsettled state obviously influenced the manufacture of domestic furniture. Its natural evolution was interrupted and the restraint of the Jacobean forms was in the main due to the conditions prevailing in regard to their manufacture. The long list of battles inferred in the chronological note at the commencement of this chapter shows the intense upheaval which was caused by the civil wars which raged from north to south, from east to west, and stultified any artistic impulses which may have been in process of materialisation.

By the end of the century the growth of sea power and the astonishing development of trade brought corresponding domestic luxuries. The two children's stools illustrated (p. 49) must have come from a country squire's or wealthy provincial merchant's house. Their upholstered seats emulate the grandeur of finer types. The rare form of oak bedstead illustrated on page 53 is a survival of the early type. In date this is about 1700; not too often are such examples found, for enterprising restorers and makers have seized upon these old Jacobean bedsteads and converted them into so-called Jacobean "sideboards." wherein nothing is old except the wood.

It requires some little imagination to picture the daily meals in the period of the early Stuarts. There was the leather jack, the horn mug, and the long table in the hall where the farmer and his servants ate together. An old black-letter song, entitled " When this old cap was new," in date 1666, in the Roxburgh "Songs and Ballads," has two verses which paint a lively picture:

"Black jacks to every man Were fill'd with wine and beer; No pewter pot nor can In those days did appear; Good cheer in a nobleman's house Was counted a seemly show; We wanted not brawn nor souse When this old cap was new.

We took not such delight In cups of silver fine; None under the degree of knight In plate drank beer or wine; Now each mechanical man Hath a cupboard of plate for show, Which was a rare thing then When this old cap was new."

The "mechanical man" is a delightful touch of the old song-writer. We fear he would have been shocked at the degeneracy of a later day, when in place of the mug that was handed round came the effeminate teacups. The change from ale, at breakfast, dinner and supper, to tea, the beverage of the poor, would be a sad awakening from the ideals set up by the rollicking song-writer of Restoration days. But such innovations must needs be closely regarded by the student of furniture.

We wish sometimes that historians had spared a few pages from military evolutions and Court intrigues to let us know what the parlours and bedrooms of our ancestors looked like. A rough resume from Macaulay's "State of England in 1685," wherein he quotes authority after authority, holds up a mirror to seventeenth-century life.

At Enfield, hardly out of sight of the smoke of the capital, was a region five-and-twenty miles in circumference, which contained only three houses and scarcely any enclosed fields, where deer wandered free in thousands. Red deer were as common in Gloucestershire and Hampshire as they are now in the Grampians. Queen Anne, travelling to Portsmouth, on one occasion, saw a herd of no less than five hundred.

Agriculture was not a greatly known science. The rotation of crops was imperfectly understood. The turnip had just been introduced to this country, but it was not the practice to feed sheep and oxen with this in the winter. They were killed and salted at the beginning of the cold weather, and during several months even the gentry tasted little fresh animal food except game and river fish. In the days of Charles II it was at the beginning of November that families laid in their stock of salt provisions, then called Martinmas beef.

The state of the roads in those days was somewhat barbarous. Ruts were deep, descents precipitous, and the way often difficult to distinguish in the dusk from the unenclosed fen and heath on each side. Pepys and his wife, travelling in their own coach, lost their way between Newbury and Reading.' In some parts of Kent and Sussex none but the strongest horse could, in winter, get through the bog in which they sank deep at every step. The coaches were often pulled by oxen. When Prince George of Denmark visited the mansion of Petworth he was six hours travelling nine miles. Throughout the country north of York and west of Exeter goods were carried by long trains of packhorses.

The capital was a place far removed from the country. It was seldom that the country squire paid a visit thither.

"Towards London and Londoners he felt an aversion that more than once produced important political effects" (Macaulay). Apart from the country gentlemen were the petty proprietors who cultivated their own fields with their own hands and enjoyed a modest competence without affecting to have escutcheons and crests. This great class of yeomen formed a much more important part of the nation than now. According to the most reliable statistics of the seventeenth century, there were no less than a hundred and sixty thousand proprietors, who with their families made a seventh of the population of those days, and these derived their livelihood from small freehold estates.

Such, then, were the chief differences dividing the life of the country from the life of the town. The London merchants had town mansions hardly less inferior to the nobility. Chelsea was a quiet village with a thousand inhabitants, and sportsmen with dog and gun wandered over Marylebone. General Oglethorpe, who died in 1785, used to boast that he had shot a woodcock in what is now Regent Street, in Queen Anne's reign.

The days of the Stuarts were not so rosy as writers of romance have chosen to have us believe. At Norwich, the centre of the cloth industry, children of the tender age of six were engaged in labour. At Bristol a labyrinth of narrow lanes, too narrow for cart traffic, was built over vaults. Goods were conveyed across the city in trucks drawn by dogs. Meat was so dear that King, in his "Natural and Political Conclusions," estimates that half the population of the country only ate animal food twice a week, and the other half only once a week or not at all. " The majority of the nation lived almost entirely on rye, barley, and oats."

The change from these conditions to those we associate with the eighteenth century was not a sudden but a slow one. With the increase of average prosperity came additional requirements in household furniture. It is impossible now to state accurately what the furniture was of the various classes of the community. Many of the seventeenth-century pieces now remaining have been treasured in great houses and belong to a variety which in those days would have been regarded as sumptuous. Now and again we catch glimpses of the former life of the men and women of those days. Little pieces of conclusive evidence are brought to light which enable safe conclusions to be drawn. But the everyday normal character has too often gone unrecorded. We are left with Court memoirs, diaries of the great, literary proofs of the more scholarly, but the simple annals of the poor are, in the main, unrecorded.

In view of this series of queer and remarkable facts strung together to afford the reader a rough and ready picture of those dim days, one comes to believe that much of the ordinary seventeenth-century furniture must be regarded as having belonged to the great yeoman class of the community. With this belief the collector very rightly regards it of sterling worth, as reminiscent of the men from whose sturdy stock has sprung a great race.

Home | More Articles | Email: