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Arts & Crafts:
From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright

by Arnold Schwartzman

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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Pennsylvania Furniture
A Unique Style All Its Own
by Bob Brooke


The Pennsylvania style of furniture, also referred to as “stone farmhouse” furniture, began in Chester County, Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia. Here Quaker farmers, who had emigrated from England as part of William Penn’s great plan, settled amid the rolling hills.

During the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, Chester County, Pennsylvania, became one of the prime manufacturing centers of this type of furniture. Originally, Chester County and present-day Delaware County were then known as Olde Chester County. But the true Golden Age of the Pennsylvania style flourished around the time of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Since the area around the delta of the Delaware River is also known locally as the Delaware Valley, many of these pieces are also called Delaware Valley furniture.

The Origins of Pennsylvania Furniture
The conservative nature of Pennsylvania Quaker life tended to preserve Old-World taste and traditions, especially in rural areas, long after the popularity of a form had died out abroad or in more fashion-conscious Philadelphia. Unlike those pieces made in urban areas, Pennsylvania rural furniture displayed sturdy skills of the joiner and turner, especially those of the Welsh, who immigrated to southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1680s. But they also featured classical pediments and curving bracket feet more associated with Philadelphia cabinetmakers.

Non-Germanic settlers in the Delaware Valley maintained woodworking traditions of framing and turning similar to those of the English Quakers. The Welsh, for instance, brought designs using inlay with them. They often inlaid initials and dates on the front of a piece of a cabinet or chest. Back then, It was the custom to have a handsome piece of furniture made for a special occasion such as a wedding or anniversary. Prosperous husbands often gave a special piece to their wives.

Pennsylvania Germans living in central Pennsylvania were partial to graining. They referred to pieces made between 1825 and 1850 and painted to look like wood, as common furniture. They employed this same decorative technique to the surfaces of doors and woodwork in their homes.

The Chippendale style of Philadelphia formed a basis for fine pieces, and the William and Mary style of England remained popular due to the traditions of the Quakers. There was an overlapping of styles including imported pieces and those made locally by skilled craftsmen from native woods, especially black walnut. Southeastern Pennsylvania cabinetmakers also adapted the newer English furniture designs, though they tempered them with their conservative Quaker taste for simplicity. Such a melding of city and rural-made furniture came as a result of William Penn’s plan of religious tolerance and co-existence for his colony.

The result was a healthy interaction in the decorative arts. Added to the Welsh-Irish influences was distinctly German-Swiss stylistic element emanating from Germantown, as well as the towns of Lancaster and Reading.

But the tradition-bound rural folk kept to old forms and weren’t quick to adopt the furnishing changes coming out of Philadelphia. Urban cabinetmakers quickly adopted the flowing Queen Anne style in the 1730s, then the height of fashion in England. Chairs specifically took on rounded crest rails, urn-shaped splats and out-swept arms. The yoked crest rail joines the stiles, which continue down to form the square back legs on chairs. Vase and block turned front legs were connected by a double baluster-ring-and -reel turned front stretcher ending in elongated ball feet. Eventually, the Queen Anne form evolved into the highly ornate Chippendale style of the 1750s.

The Spice Cabinet
The 18th-century spice cabinet is the ultimate form of Pennsylvania furniture. The concept, originally from Holland, came to America from England. The spice cabinet flourished in Chester Chester County. Only the most prosperous families could afford these miniature case pieces which housed expensive spices for medicine and cooking, as well as small valuables. Many had a series of small drawers hidden behind a door and a secret drawer behind them or a drawer hidden beneath the molding. People didn’t place their spice cabinets in their kitchens, as they do today, but rather, in their parlors where they would harmonize with other furnishings.

Chairs were an important feature of any room. The Delaware Valley slat-back chair, made from 1720 to 1830, had three to six graduated slats that might be arched only on top, arched on the top and bottom, or more rarely, scrolled. Back posts were plain and tapered from the seat to the finials. Back feet tapered sharply to the floor. Front feet were almost always ball shaped and wider than the front posts. Finials were acorn-shaped.

The Chester County joined chair, also known as a wainscot chair, was popular from 1710 to 1740. Joiners constructed many in the 200-year-old William and Mary style with back slats and a solid seat, made for use with a soft cushion. These chairs had turned front legs and stretchers while back ones were plain.

Joiners made these chairs without carving, reflecting the Quaker philosophy of simplicity. While English chairs were made of oak, their Pennsylvania counterparts were made of walnut. These chairs featured a pierced and scrolled crest rail, a motif found in England along the Welsh border. The negative spaces in the Chester County chair crest rail formed a pair of sixes.

Armchairs, also known as great chairs, had baluster turnings below the arms, and, on the better ones, ball-and-reel turnings just below the front seat. The arms almost always had a cut out on their undersides, a feature found on many Chester County rush-and-splint-seat armchairs. Also typical was a single, and rarely a double, baluster-ring-and-reel turned front stretcher. Posts became thinner, finials more vertical, slats fewer in number and front stretchers less boldly turned.

Benches were popular in rural households. Generally, joiners made them with legs formed from single boards with cutouts for feet. They connected the legs connected to each other with a stretcher or skirt and braced them into a plank seat. Often, Pennsylvania benches had scrolled legs, and sometimes makers left the rear legs flat so that the bench could be used against a wall.

In addition to chairs and benches, many colonial homes had settles which evolved from built-in furniture of the late Middle Ages. A tall back protected the sitter from cold and drafts, especially when placed near a fireplace to retain the heat. Homeowners also used settles to subdivide a room or, placed at a right angle to the front door, to create an entry way.

Another popular piece was the settee. Those made in rural Pennsylvania had what’s called a half-spindle back, a Windsor-derived style. Large scrolled arms swooped up to meet the crest rail, a typical Pennsylvania feature.

Next to chairs, tables were the most numerous of household furniture made in the 18th century. Some people called three-legged tables of this type tavern tables, although they could be found as much in homes as in taverns.

Three splayed legs and simple column-top turnings support the top of this round table, consisting of two planks pinned to a center board and triangular skirt boards. The base stretchers formed a triangle which repeated the shape of the skirt. This type of table would have been extremely functional in the home because it was strongly constructed, easily portable, and its three legs would keep it steady on an uneven floor.

Another variation on this type of table was the rectangular style with a large overhang and two drawers. The detachable top allowed the table to be placed out of the way against a wall. The significant overhang permitted working, writing, or eating.

Although tavern tables could be found throughout the Colonies, those in Pennsylvania had removable tops and drawers of different widths. Typically these were relatively small tables, often with walnut, maple or cherry bases, with up to two drawers, a rectangular pine top and turned legs connected by turned medial stretchers. One of the most common turnings used for legs was what was known as a cup and vase—what looks like a cup with a vase on top of it. Another variation was the vase and cylinder.

A library table was essentially a larger version of a tavern table. In Pennsylvania style, the drawers were of unequal widths and a flat stretcher connected the legs. Trifid feet were also added, as well as removable tops.

Sawbuck tables had a rectangular top that rested on, or was attached to, X-shaped legs connected by a long stretcher. Where the legs crossed there was a lap joint plus an open mortise through which the stretcher fitted and was wedged with a key. Early versions were made to be dismantled for storage. Those made in the Delaware Valley during the 18th century had tops attached to the base with cleats. The legs were often scrolled as well, mimicking European designs. Early tables had hardwood bases and pine tops. Later ones all pine.

The hutch table, essentially the same as a chair table, had a seat, hinged to open for storage, that was wide enough for two or more people. People often referred to it as a bench or settle table. In Pennsylvania during the early 19th century, the underside ends of the hutch top were paneled.

The primary function of the dough box table was to serve as a trough to store rising bread dough. Made primarily in Pennsylvania from 1700 to 1840, it had a single or multiple-board top with cleats at each end that often slid into dovetail slots. The top, used as a work surface to knead the dough, rested on a trough that ordinarily had splayed, dovetailed sides. This, in turn, rested on or was attached to a tablelike frame that usually had splayed legs. Many were paint decorated.

The chest of drawers, an innovation from the Continent, developed from the one-drawer chest with a lid. It replaced the blanket chests and press cupboards and served as a storage area for clothes, blankets and linens.

Vine-and-berry inlay, brought to Chester County by Welsh settlers, decorated drawer fronts. Frequently, cabinetmakers used an elongated, symmetrical diamond-tulip pattern. They created the diamond in the center by the intersection of four arcs, from which grew vines, with a cluster of three small berries and lively stylized tulips. To emphasize the border of each drawer, they employed a straight-line inlay which enclosed the decorative motif and defined the rectangular space. Chests had raised panels which went to the floor on the ends. Cabinetmakers added the curved part of the leg later.

Another feature of the Pennsylvania style were arched chest drawer fronts. Besides the vine-and-berry inlay designs, herringbone patterns were also popular.

Pennsylvania cabinetmakers like Thomas Gilpin and Abraham Darlington, both Quaker craftsmen, were fond of adding lots of panels to their chests, reminiscent of the William and Mary style. Simple four-drawer painted pine and poplar chests appeared later in the 19th century and often featured dentil molding around the top. Exposed dovetails were common. All in all, Pennsylvania chests were plain in form, but festive in decoration.

Storage Pieces
While cabinetmakers made open cupboards in all parts of the Colonies, those made in Pennsylvania were often of Welsh design with knoblike scrolled continuation of the sides and spoon slots in one or more of the shelves.

The same was true of corner cupboards. They constructed the top and bottom sections in two parts to make them easy to move—the bottom a closed cupboard and the top an open one. Those from Pennsylvania had unequal width drawers in the bottom section and large knobs, as well as ball feet.

Another necessary storage unit was the kas—from the German casten, meaning cupboard, or schrank, as it was known in German. These large wardrobes, made from 1700 to 1840, had a large upper section with or without shelves over one to three drawers. Although some kases were smaller, many of them were elephantine. It wasn’t unusual for a Pennsylvania kas to be 7 to 8 feet tall, 7 ½ wide, and 25 to 30 inches deep. Cabinetmakers outfitted these larger kases with removable pins and wedges so that they could be completely taken apart for transportation or to fit through doorways. Popular wood for construction included walnut, red gum, popular, or pine.

An unique piece of furniture, popular from 1800 to 1840, was the bucket, or water bench, often referred to as the dry sink. This featured a closed cupboard below a single raised shelf with a gallery around it. But simple pieces with an open lower cupboard and no backboards were also made. Pennsylvania bucket benches were often 5 feet tall and fairly elaborate, with scrolled sides and feet and a tier of small drawers below the top shelf. The top shelf held kitchen utensils, buckets of water on the shelf above the cupboard and empty buckets in the cupboard. While some joiners made these, farmers made most of them from soft woods like pine.

An unusual and interesting variation on the traditional colonial candlestand was the rachet candlestand made in southeastern Pennsylvania from 1710-1740. This candlestand, with trestle base and ratchet mechanism, superbly performed its intended function of raising and lowering a support for a candle. All parts were interestingly divided and balanced, making it an abstract work of art as well. A heavy base assured stability. Though often made of pine, people in both town and country homes used them.

While Pennsylvania furniture is unique in some of its style attributes, it’s similar to other furniture of the colonial period when it comes to buying and selling it. Supplies tend to be low and prices high.

Desks began as writing boxes with sloping lids which people placed on a stool or table. Eventually, cabinetmakers hinged the lid on the bottom so that when opened, it acted as a writing surface.

While the center of style during the late 18th century was Philadelphia, cabinetmakers all over the region added their own ideas to traditional bookcases and desks. Many worked in walnut, a plentiful hard wood and a reasonable substitute for mahogany. They picked their woods in such a way as to show maximum effect of the grain on the bookcase doors and drawer fronts. Unlike those made in sophisticated Philadelphia, the regional ones had plainer features. Rural cabinetmakers commonly used shell and pillar motifs on the interiors of the desk portions.

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