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The Long and Ancient History of Bookcases

How Furniture was Produced in Colonial America

The history of Colonial America gets taught in elementary schools, but we're rarely prompted to think about the finer details of what that adjustment must have looked like in the homes of those European immigrants. After all, with so many passengers on board a ship crossing the Atlantic, there wasn't a lot of room to carry furniture pieces over to the New World. So, how did those early Americans make their furniture? What did the production and trade of that furniture look like?

There are two main style categories of Colonial American furniture: the first is made up of pieces from 1620-1690, referred to as the 17th Century Style. The second is called the Early Baroque (or William and Mary) style, and its pieces were made between the years 1690 and 1730.

17th Century Style

The 17th Century Style reflected the cultural transition of immigrants from the Renaissance period, made with a sturdy build that featured a lot of right angles but also covered in gorgeous, detailed, intricate ornamentation. Two of the most recognized Colonial American furniture makers were William Searle and Thomas Dennis, who had been trained to be furniture makers in England before making the pilgrimage to Massachusetts in the 1660s. The intricate ornamentation that they crafted into their pieces directly reflected the English Renaissance from which they came; after all, the types of pieces they designed and produced were the same that they had crafted in England.

The most common woods used to craft 17th Century Style furniture were pine and oak. They were usually shaped in one of two ways: they were either made by "joiners," who shaped their pieces of wood with axes and saws before joining two pieces of wood together, or they were made by "turners," who shaped wood as it spun on a lathe using tools like chisels. To paint an image in your mind of what a lathe is, think of the wheel that potters use to shape clay. Joined furniture, especially in terms of chairs, tended to be more expensive than turned furniture because turned furniture took less time to make.

Many pieces of joined furniture used mortise and tenon joints to connect individual pieces of wood, especially when pieces needed to be joined at a right angle. Crafting pieces using axes and saws that would fit together just right AND hold someone's body weight took a lot of time, skill, and experience, which is where the higher price for joined furniture comes into play. Colonial furniture wasn't the only place these mortise and tenon joints were found, though. Much of Colonial American architecture, including posts and beams inside the Samuel Hart Room (from the year 1680) featured in New York City's Metropolitan Museum, used mortise and tenon joints. Many of the architects in Colonial America also crafted furniture for the very homes they constructed.

Early Baroque/William and Mary Style

The introduction of the Early Baroque style came in the year 1660 after King Charles II returned to England from his exile in France. Charles was inspired by the furniture in the court of Louis XIV. Though the style started appearing in English courts in the 1660s, it wouldn't gain popularity in the English colonies in America until William and Mary's (Charles' sister and brother-in-law's) reign between the years 1689 and 1702, hence the "William and Mary" nickname for the style.

Some of the major differences between the 17th Century Style and Early Baroque style included taller pieces of furniture made with dovetailing joints, so named because the joints are in the shape of a dovetail. Furniture featuring more curves instead of horizontal, right angles, and furniture made exclusively for people concerned with comfort and luxury also became more prevalent. 17th Century Style furniture was designed to sit low-to-the-ground and perform a specific function; Early Baroque Style furniture in the French style broke away from that. Early Baroque furniture craftsmen also made a point to use contrasting colors, styles, and shapes in their pieces to add a sense of energy and wonder to the home.

Despite the style's popularity in England and Europe, only the colonies located near seaports seemed to care for Early Baroque furniture. Additionally, it was more commonly found in the homes of the wealthy, like famous colonial lumber merchant John Wentworth. The style fell out of popularity relatively quickly by the 1720s, and remnants of the style wouldn't appear in American furniture again until the rise of Neoclassicism in the late 18th century.

Common Traits in Colonial American Furniture

Many of the styles seen in Colonial American furniture are reminiscent of English styles from the same period. Furniture made during this period tended to be large, and there was a special emphasis on having portable furniture like chests and easily dismantled trestle tables. The focus on convenience and portability makes sense when you consider the fact that these European immigrants were unfamiliar with the land and never knew when they were going to need to pack up and move to a better location. They also wanted to be able to quickly rearrange furniture and make more room whenever they had visitors, which was common during that time. Even though much of the furniture within the colonial home was functional and portable, among the homes of the wealthier colonists, you could also find court cupboards, large rectangular tables, and chairs with leather seats.

Some of the first upholstery fabrics used in Colonial American furniture included chintz and damask. Chintz was a fabric with pink, floral designs while damask seemed inspired by florals, but in a more abstract, geometrical way. Generally, only wealthy people had furniture with fabric. This was especially true of pieces like couches and sofas; furniture needed to be functional before it needed to be anything else, and furniture that was specifically designed for sitting wasn't considered a necessity. People who had sofas or a great deal of chairs were considered luxurious, and if there were a lot of people in a room that only had one chair, the person who was considered to be the most important would take the seat.

We hope this walkthrough of American furniture history has been informative and enlightening.

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