Identifying Antique American Furniture

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.

Chippendale (1755-1790)

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.

Federal/Hepplewhite (1790-1815)

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.

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