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The Beginnings of American Furniture
by Bob Brooke

A William and Mary gateleg table.American furniture, just like Americans, is a mix of different styles resulting from the blending of styles of furniture brought to America by its immigrants. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they brought with them a few meager possessions– an armchair, a small table, a desk. All of these pieces were made in what is known as the Jacobean style.

Jacobean and William and Mary furniture tended to be heavy, almost ponderous. It was made in both England and this country of solid wood, especially oak, although walnut became quite fashionable for William and Mary pieces. Simplicity of structure, straight lines, and squat proportions were typical. Legs were firmly braced with stretchers.

Carving was preferred to inlay and veneer for decoration. Many a Jacobean piece appeared weighted down by its carving. Typical were panels, as on the doors of chests, carved in geometric designs. A variation was strapwork consisting of thin, flat pieces of wood. The backs of chairs also often were solid wood, carved. However, seats might be upholstered with leather or woven pads in England. In this country rush seats were more common.

Beds were monstrous, although how much of this effect was due to the bedstead and how much to the hangings is a question. Never before or since were beds so high as between 1600 and 1660. Hangings were important, and could be drawn to cover the four sides of a bed. Their purpose was to shut out the cold. Truckle or trundle beds, which were low and on wheels so they could be pushed under a bedstead, were made for children and servants. Daybeds were quite another thing and were the forerunners of reclining couches. 

Tables were long. The trestle, which is the oldest style of table and goes back to Medieval times, began to have some competition. The gateleg table, a style still popular, was made first during the Jacobean period. Cricket tables with three legs were also new.

Stools perhaps were even more common than chairs. They were made in great numbers and doubled as seats and tables. They were about the height of a chair seat.

William and Mary armchair.Side chairs and armchairs, which were really side chairs with wood arms attached, offered little choice when it came to comfort. In addition to solidbacks, there were slat-back chairs, which had three or more wide and usually shaped wooden pieces horizontally across the back. The banister-back chair had fairly wide vertical slats surmounted by a crest or top rail. Some of these top rails, as well as the banisters, were more richly carved than others.

The latter part of the seventeenth century, technically known as the Restoration period in England, followed by William and Mary, brought lighter and more adaptable furniture. Special turnings, scrolled and more elaborate stretchers, became fashionable. Decorations expanded to include lacquer, marquetry, and some inlay.

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

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Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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