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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. Cabinetmakers of the time constructed these pieces in what’s known as the Jacobean style.

Jacobean and William and Mary furniture tended to be heavy, almost ponderous. Craftsmen made in both England and America 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

Cabinetmakers preferred carving to inlay and veneer for decoration. Many a Jacobean piece appeared weighted down by its carving. Wood panels were common on the doors of chests, carved in geometric designs. A variation was strapwork consisting of thin, flat pieces of wood. They also constructed the backs of chairs of solid wood, often carved. Although they upholstered seats with leather or woven pads in England, those in America mostly used rush.

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 have beds been so high as between 1600 and 1660. Hangings, used to keep out the cold night air, could be drawn to cover the four sides of a bed. Children and servants slept in trundle beds, which were low and on wheels so they could be pushed under a bedstead. Daybeds, the forerunners of reclining couches, were quite common.

 

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

Stools, about the height of a chair seat and made in large numbers, were even more common than chairs. They often doubled as tables.

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. Cabinetmakers carved some of these top rails, as well as the banisters, more richly carved than others.

The latter part of the 17th century, technically known as the Restoration Period in England, followed by William and Mary, brought with it 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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