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American Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

What we mean by American furniture makers is that there were men who broke the traditional influence and settled down to produce furniture suitable to American surroundings and conditions, giving those who had abandoned the idea of returning to their own countries, and had become Americans to all intents and purposes, furniture in accord with their new environment. These makers were no longer slavish copyers of styles which were more suited to the Old World than the New. At this point then we are brought into the consideration of furniture which, while following older forms, became distinct in style. English chests imported into America were mostly of oak. The American, however, were then made chiefly of pine. Those prevailing in houses furnished when the settlers and colonists had become Americans, were of several kinds. There were chests covered over with carvings, but their forms differed in that it was found more convenient to make the carving shallow. More care, too, was shown in this low relief ornament than the rougher and deeper carving which had formerly prevailed, and which the artists had been accustomed to use on the other side of the Atlantic. American chests are seldom more than 18 in. in height when without drawers, but when they became chests of drawers, or had drawers in the chest, 4 ft. was a common height, the length being sometimes as much as 5 ft. The values placed upon such chests in the middle of the seventeenth century, according to old inventories, varied from £1 to £2, 10s. Some of the best chests were made of oak ornamented with panels and turned pieces of other woods. About 1690 we read of a chest of drawers on a frame, and towards the close of the first quarter of the eighteenth century high chests of drawers became a regular feature. It should be clearly understood, however, that painted imitations of the inlaid ornament used at a previous date became common.

As it has been pointed out, Windsor chairs were taken over to America, but they are seldom met with in inventories before the middle of the eighteenth century. There is abundant evidence that American furniture makers were producing Windsor chairs, and that their suitability to the American market was greater than imported chairs is indicated by an advertisement published in New York in 1763, in which the trader offered " Philadelphia-made Windsor chairs." There is a difference between the English Windsor chairs and those which became an American adaptation of the style. English Windsor chairs usually had a solid or pierced splat in the centre, with the usual accompaniment of spindles or plain rods as the case might be. Some American chairs were made with straight spindles across the back, a somewhat curious projection acting as a headrest. The head-rest became known as a comb-back. An expert describes another form as a chair in which the curve of the back is bent into the arms with the backs supported by two spindle braces fastened into an extension of the seat. Another American chair of Windsor type is known as the fan back. American chair-makers used hickory or maple for the turned colonial chairs which were so much in vogue in the early days. Wainscot chairs have already been referred to. They were similar to the Cromwellian leather-seated chairs of English make.

As time went on new styles were introduced, and there were many minor developments in design and decoration. The eighteenth century gave rise to much originality in construction, but there were, of course, indications of an earlier influence.

There are some interesting pieces of old American bedroom furniture in existence. Many specimens show traces of having been painted, and some japanned after the English style. By way of indicating what American furniture makers were doing at the commencement of the eighteenth century, the following extract from the Boston News Letter, of 1715, is interesting. It reads : " Looking glasses, cabinetts, escrutoires, chests of drawers, tables, beaufetts, bookcases, with desks . . . and all sorts of Japan work, done and sold by William Randle at the sign of the cabinett and looking-glass shop near the Town House, Boston."


The historical relics of the great men who have founded and made America what it is are especially interesting to American collectors. It is rare indeed when such pieces come into the market, and authentic examples are being rapidly incorporated in national collections and museums. The very early examples of seventeenth-century furniture brought over by the early settlers or made in America for their use, are exceptionally scarce, and, needless to say, much valued. The Connecticut Historical Society are the fortunate owners of what is probably one of the earliest turned chairs in America. There are also two others in Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth, known as Elder Brewster's and Governor Carver's chairs, said to have been brought over in the Mayflower. In the same collection there is an oak cradle of contemporary design.

Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, owns a richly-carved chair of Italian style, approximately of the style in vogue about 1640.

The Memorial Hall, Philadelphia, contains a Spanish seventeenth-century chair with a high back covered with scrolls, birds, and figure work. It is of chestnut, and the carving shows Saracenic influence in its design.

In the Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth, there is a walnut table used in the Council chamber by Governor Winslow in 1633. There is also a Bible box belonging to the Connecticut Historical Society, which is inscribed " M S 1649." Apparently it is in the style in vogue in England at that date.

To Americans, remembering one of the great founders of the United States, the relics of George Washington are of exceptional interest. Some of these are in the City Hall, New York ; others in the Washington Museum. In the latter collection there are two chairs—one a fine armchair with characteristic shield back, the other a plain Sheraton design. Along with these chairs there is an entrance hall lantern from Mount Vernon, the home of the Washingtons. A desk used by George Washington in 1789 may be seen and admired in the Governor's room in the City Hall, New York. It is a good example of Sheraton furniture, with small drawers and typical brass handles. It is indeed an historic relic. The Independence Hall, Philadelphia, has a couch at one time the property of George Washington.

When Chippendale furniture was being made in England similar designs were being worked out in America, but the claw-and-ball foot, a feature of the early days of Chippendale, is seldom seen in American-made furniture.

A peep into the inventories, wills, and probates of old American ' families is exceedingly interesting, in that it reveals much that has been forgotten. The mother of George Washington, under will dated 1788, left various articles of furniture and personal possessions to her relatives, and her lands to her son General George Washington, to whom she also bequeathed her best bed, bedstead, and Virginia cloth curtains, and her negro boy George (a forcible reminder of slavery) ; to her grandson, Corbin Washington, she gave her " riding chair " and two black horses ; and to her grandson, Fielding Lewis, her bookcase, oval table, one bedstead, six red leather chairs, and half her kitchen furniture. Bettie Curtis, a grand - daughter, came in for " my largest looking glass, my walnut writing desk and drawers, a square dining table, one bed, bedstead, bolster, and pillow." Thus was broken up and dispersed the old home where George Washington, the founder of the great American nation, was reared.

America has many remembrances of the furniture trade of the eighteenth century. It is noted that one Joseph Cox was well known as an upholsterer in New York, being established at Dock Street, and afterwards in Wall Street, where in 1773 he is said to have had, along with furniture, fire screens and " voiders " (crumb trays), and " a few very handsome tassels for hall lanthorns " to sell.

The will of the owner of the " Black Horse Tavern," of Salem, Massachusetts, records the furniture he left behind him. He mentions " 1 standing bedsted and fether bed and beding," which was valued for probate at £6 (this bed is said to have stood " in the parlour ") ; " 1 trundle bedsted, fether bed and beding ; 1 long table and forme, 1 cupboard (also in the parlour) ; 8 chairs, 1 wainscot chist and box and one warming pan." All these —the cupboard, 8 chairs, chest, box, and warming pan—are put down as being worth £1, 10s. only !

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