American Furniture Styles and Tips on Collecting
One of the most intriguing aspects of collecting American furniture and antique furniture, in general, is that it often isn’t considered “collecting” at all. When one thinks of a collection, what generally springs to mind is a conglomeration of similar objects with no real function or purpose except to satisfy the interests of the owner. In this regard, antique furniture is unique from most other collectibles because it still serves the same function with as much practicality as it did when it was made.
One can put together a small collection without ever being labeled a “collector”! Though the best pieces of antique furniture can realize prohibitive (sometimes extraordinary) prices, the average buyer can still find articles representing some of the most important 19th and 20th century style movements at almost any mid-size auction house.
Though purpose-built furniture has been around in some form or another for thousands of years, we will focus on American furniture from the Colonial period until today. American woodworking styles have seen a significant number of style periods since the early Colonial era, with each period being to some degree influenced by the pieces being built in Europe (generally England and France).
At the same time, American craftsmen often had to rely on the raw materials readily available in North America. The resulting furniture exhibited and mimicked styles popular in Europe, yet with distinctive American features and materials.
Note to the Reader: This is by no means a comprehensive report, although it should loosely outline the history of American furniture from around 1640 until the mid-20th century. The reader should bear in mind that some of these periods overlap, hold particular regional significance and that sub-genres do exist.
Early Colonial (1640-1730)
Shortly after the first European colonists arrived in North America and established a foothold on the continent, craftsmen began producing furniture which was more than purely utilitarian. As a result, the early Colonial period is where a distinct style began to appear within furniture pieces in the colonies.
The most commonly used woods at this time were those readily available to the colonists, such as pine, walnut, maple, oak, birch, and fruit woods (such as apple and cherry); joinery of the period was primarily mortise and tenon. Though often basic compared to later periods, early Colonial furniture exhibits its fair share of finials, ornamental carvings, raised panels, and wood turnings.
Queen Anne (1720-1760)
Much more delicate than early Colonial furniture, this period originated from the court of the English Queen Anne (1702-1714). Though similar in style to contemporary European counterparts, American Queen Anne furniture is generally considered less ornamental and more conservative. Along with mortise and tenon, the dovetail joint began to make its debut in North America during this period, while popular woods include walnut, poplar, cherry, and maple.
Furniture pieces were often stained and finished with oil varnish, paint, or wax. Regional craftsmen began to develop their own unique styles through this period, an example being the different types of feet; which varied from Philadelphia to New England to New York.
Named for the famous English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, this period was influenced by Roman and Gothic ornamentation. Mahogany became favored by cabinetmakers in both Europe and North America during the Chippendale period, and it would dominate the industry for much of the next century. However, walnut, maple and cherry were also used during this time.
The trend in finishes continued from the Queen Anne period, while decorative features include “C” and “S” scrolls, arches, columns, and carved leaf and shell figures. As a continuation from the previous period, regional craftsmen produced a variety of design elements catering to the local preference and style.
Appearing shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Federal (or Hepplewhite) period reflected growing patriotism in the young American states. Eager to develop distinctive furniture, American craftsmen developed a style based on Federal architecture, where balance and symmetry were particularly important. Mahogany continued its dominance, but cabinetmakers also used native woods such as maple, birch, and satinwood.
The practice of inlaying contrasting woods to create shapes and designs was introduced, with hardware typically being brass and mimicking natural shapes. Considered a sub-genre by some, the Sheraton style closely resembles Federal with somewhat straighter and plainer designs.
Neo-Classical/American Empire (1805-1830)
The Neo-Classical movement began in Europe in the latter part of the 18th century and was prevalent in American cabinetmaking by the Napoleonic war. Taking more influence from French than English craftsmen, the basic wood used in the Empire period was mahogany. Dark woods were so favored that often mahogany was painted black, and ebony or maple veneer inlays were popular.
Curved arms, cabriole legs, and decorative claw feet are hallmarks of the American Empire style, along with patriotic motifs such as eagles with spread wings. Being the American center of fashion and culture at the time, New York City was well placed to be the center of the Empire movement although regional styles are apparent.
Named after Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901), the Victorian period encompasses a variety of distinct sub-genres within furniture making. For purposes of brevity, furniture of this period will be described within the context of the Victorian era, when heavy and deeply upholstered furniture would generally have been surrounded by plants, china, and glassware.
Within the period, there are four distinct styles: French Restoration (1830-1850) furniture is usually considered the “plainest” of the period. With Gothic Revival (1840-1860) reflecting the turrets, quatrefoils, and arches of medieval Gothic architecture. Rococo Revival (1845-1870) featuring the use of scrolls, and Elizabethan (1850-1915) making use of machine-turned spools and spiral profiles.
Arts & Crafts (1895-1915)
Also known as Mission, the Arts & Crafts period was characterized by minimalist, practical designs; we see a direct correlation between style and function. Although the movement had its roots in England, American craftsmen such as the Stickley brothers are held in high regard as experts of the style. Arts & Crafts furniture was primarily built from oak, although a variety of other woods were used as well.
Embellishments and hardware mainly consisted of simple, hand-beaten copper, while finishes were often natural and waxed or lacquered. Arts & Crafts furniture is currently one of the strongest trends in the collector marketplace, with good quality pieces often available through most of the major auction houses.
Art Nouveau (1896-1914)
While the Arts & Crafts movement gained immense popularity throughout North America, the Art Nouveau style was not nearly so well embraced as in France. The sweeping lines of Art Nouveau style were not very conducive to mass production, and as a result, the few manufacturers that did interpret it for their factories found interest to be slight.
Fruitwood and mahogany were most often used, accompanied by elaborate ornamental carvings and veneer inlays and offset by brass and chrome hardware. Upholstery in the Art Nouveau period was from a variety of opulent fabrics, including velvet, tapestries, leather, and linen; a far cry from the basic leather favored by Arts & Crafts.
Art Deco (1920-1945)
Like Art Nouveau, the Art Deco movement had its roots in France at L’Exposition International des Arts Décorative et Industriels Modernes. Unlike its predecessor, however, the Art Deco movement gained immense popularity in America, where the style was mastered in both furniture and architecture (the Chrysler Building is a notable example).
Art Deco craftsmen used expensive materials such as veneers, lacquered woods, glass, and steel to produce furniture sporting clean, sweeping lines; upholstery of the period tended to be smooth fabrics such as vinyl or velour. The cocktail table made its debut during the Art Deco period, an entirely new piece of furniture.
A stark departure from the English and French influences of past centuries, the Modern and Post-Modern periods in America took inspiration from Africa and Asia. Continuing the trend from Art Deco in using new materials, furniture through the Modern furniture was made in a variety of plastics, metals, and molded laminates (plywood). American designer Charles Eames became internationally renowned for his futuristic designs, and a Truly-American style movement was born.
A Tip for American Furniture Collectors
The most important thing for the budding furniture collector to remember is that the original surface, no matter how grungy, adds value to a piece. Though it may be tempting to strip off that splotchy old varnish and tackle those water rings, the value will almost certainly be affected. With this in mind, collectors should refrain from refinishing pieces of particular historical significance- once the old finish is gone, it can never be replaced!
That being said, the most affordable pieces of antique furniture are relatively commonplace. A collector shouldn’t be too worried about refinishing a standard article of furniture as long as they are doing it for a personal aesthetic, and are not concerned about the investment value of the piece.
Armed with this knowledge, you are now ready to start finding historic pieces of American furniture-making history. Good luck, and happy collecting!