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American Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The New World in the making—British colonial influence—Dutch and Flemish furniture—American furniture makers—Some historical relics—Purely American types.

The early furniture used in America before the Declaration of Independence is frequently denoted as "Colonial." After that date it is distinguished as American, although in few instances was any distinct American characteristic developed until, of course, modern times. There were, however, some national characteristics, the result of separation by thousands of miles from the nations of Europe, and the materials which were at the disposal of American furniture makers.

It is a known fact that in many parts of the States, until quite recently, much old furniture was in use, although chiefly in the Northern States and in a lesser degree in the Southern.

There have been many admirers of antique pieces among American citizens, but it is only during recent years that collecting has been taken up in the United States of America. The first impetus to the collection of antiques was given at the Centennial Exposition in 1876, after which American visitors to Europe sought out antiques, and many of Europe's best art treasures, among them some very beautiful pieces of furniture, found their way across the Atlantic. The art museums of the States contain some very interesting specimens, especially historical, and numerous private collections are rich in examples of American furniture. The purely American furniture, that is to say that which has been made in America, although much of it must now be regarded as antique, must in the following pages be distinguished from that made in Europe and imported, although much of it was made under the direct influence of the art of those countries with which the early colonist was familiar.


The American civilisation of early days was under Spanish influence, and whatever was made on American shores was then fashioned either at the direction of Spanish discoverers and colonists or by those who, as the civilisation of Europe took hold upon them, copied the models they had seen, or followed the directions they had received.

The early connection between Spain and the New World is suggestive of the Spanish influence of the days of the Renaissance on the Continent of Europe. Charles I. of Spain claimed to exercise dominion over America by right of discovery, and also in consequence of having received a grant of the " Continent of America " from Pope Alexander VI.

Spain received much treasure from the New World, including jewels and metals, and they were used to enrich the splendid pieces of furniture then being made in Spain. Doubtless some of that early cabinet work crossed the Atlantic, but American home connoisseurs of recent days have drawn their supplies of antiques from European countries.

There is especial interest in the early authentic American antiques, which include those chests and coffers which crossed over in the Mayflower. The still earlier shipments of furniture from European sources were few, for the Spaniards did not take with them furniture in their earlier expeditions ; at any rate, not to any appreciable extent. Neither did Sir Walter Raleigh take furniture with him when he tried to plant settlements in North Carolina and in Pennsylvania in 1584.

Among the curiosities in the Memorial Hall, Philadelphia, there is a chest covered with pierced iron bands which are suggestive of Spanish workmanship, although that ancient relic is reputed to have been brought over by Swedish colonists who settled upon the Hudson River.

Among the earliest objects indicative almost of the birth of a nation is the rocker cradle of wicker at Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth, reputed to have been the veritable cradle in which Peregrine White, the first English child born in the New World, was rocked. The cradle was taken over by the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower, and was thus ready for the first recorded addition to their number. There is another old cradle in the same hall, but it is of oak, and probably of seventeenth-century make.

At one time seventeenth-century furniture was plentiful in New York, New England or Massachusetts, and early collectors had opportunities of securing genuine early American antiques. In the South such furniture had disappeared at an earlier date. The inventories of the contents of old houses, preserved in so many instances in America, tell the tale of the furniture used in them. They give us glimpses of the habits and customs of those early settlers, and they supply well-authenticated records of what a settler's home was like. Moreover, the old inventories or valuations give us the relative values of second-hand furniture at certain periods, mostly before the collector came on the scene—certainly before furniture had acquired those inflated prices it now commands.

From those old inventories, then, the foremost advantage gained is the possibility of compiling a list of what the articles then in use were. Such lists, however, are not always reliable, because the names used in those inventories may not convey the same meaning to us as they did to their owners, or those for whom the inventories were written. The matter of price, although interesting, is still less reliable unless we have actual knowledge of the prime cost of the furniture, as obviously the mere mention of a sideboard or cupboard is no guide, for it is price that governs quality in the making, and quality of workmanship and material governs inventory value.

The probate records of the days when the states and the nationalities of the New World—North and South—were in the making, make mention of many closed receptacles, such as court, livery, standing, and hanging, cup-boards. There were also presses and painted cupboards. But few of these inventories mention ornament or carving, and there is reason to believe that plain and far from decorative furniture was the rule rather than the exception. The prices named range from 5s. to 25s. each cupboard, and in a few instances the seventeenth-century cupboards and similar pieces of furniture, evidently of superior quality, were valued as high as £4 to £5—a long price in those days. One writer mentions a " court cubbert " at Boston, valued in 1681 at £4.

In early inventories there are few references to chairs, which in the seventeenth century were of the simplest forms, inventory references describing them as "joyned stools " or " joyned chairs." Stools were then more frequently used, and handsomely carved chairs were comparatively rare. In reference to " wainscott " chairs, it is said that they were fairly common in the South but scarce in New England. Such chairs were, of course, more expensive to make, and of greater value than the turned wood chairs then mostly in vogue.


It is quite evident that the early furniture of the settlers consisted of replicas of what they had been accustomed to use in their own countries. The English colonist was anxious to reproduce the home he had been familiar with in his earlier days. The same spirit influenced the Dutch settlers, who were desirous of making New Holland a replica of the Holland they had left behind them. If they could not reproduce the Dutch landscape dotted over with windmills, they could at least build their houses and furnish them in a homelike way.

There is every reason to suppose that much of the furniture used by the Colonial settlers in the eighteenth century was taken over from England or was afterwards exported. The Southern or Virginian planters carried on a steady trade with England, and bought chairs, chests, court cupboards, and other articles direct from the Mother Country. Kitchen furniture and the commoner and rougher pieces were made by colonial carpenters, of whom there were many.

At a still earlier date we learn that when the West India Company sent out upwards of thirty families of colonists in 1625 they supplied them with the furniture it was then deemed that they would need in making themselves homes in the New World.

The influence of colonial settlers—that is to say, the influence of their earlier lives and training—is seen in the furniture itself, which resembled the older types of British furniture. Those were the days before so-called foreign and American conditions had caused makers to depart from traditional styles. If we take a few examples of American furniture as then used in the settlers' homes we shall discover this affinity to the English homes like those the settlers had left—perhaps years before, for their recollections of English life remained, and even as time went on the memories of what they had known in the past were unchanged.

Some of the seventeenth-century chests of drawers met with among American antiques are of Jacobean types ; geometrical designs having been faithfully copied, although most of those made by American colonists were cut flatter, and the designs a little more formal, than those made in England. Such chests of drawers were evidently locally made, many of them being of pine wood. Others of English oak appear to have been exported from the Mother Country, and to have been faithfully copied by American wood-workers. Chests of drawers or chests with drawers appear in New England inventories as early as 1645. The old panelled oak chest preserved by the Plymouth Society, of Plymouth, is an interesting example of an English-made chest with drawers under it, the ornament upon it being undoubtedly Cromwellian in style.

Settles seem to have been among the earliest pieces ; one is mentioned in a Boston inventory of 1648, and several others in inventories made a few years later. Chairs of different kinds were often mentioned, especially Windsor chairs, which, so popular in England, found their replicas in American homes, although there does not appear to be any evidence that the so-called Windsor chairs were made in the American colonies until Georgian days had well advanced. The " style " was of course imported, and a copy of what colonists had been accustomed to use, and possibly to make, in their native villages in Buckinghamshire.

The old trestle table used in England from quite early days was very appropriate for colonial purposes, and in many American seventeenth-century inventories mention is made of trestles and " table board and joyned frames." Those tables were not the trestles of early types, but a later development of the same idea and principle. Such tables were often found in the older homes of New England and Pennsylvania.

There is no doubt that many of the old sideboards made in the States in quite early days were made under the superintendence of those who had used, if not actually made, English sideboards and tables. Instead of being made of oak, however, they were of pine and veneered.

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