Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: January 1941 Volume 4 Number 1, Pages 18–24

Early American and colonial furniture

Donald L. Snively

Page 18

The development of American furniture has been classified into three main categories by some authorities. The Colonial Period from 1620-1776; Duncan Phyfe from 1790-1820; Art Modern from 1925 to the present. Duncan Phyfe was the only American furniture maker to create a distinct style and have it named after him. New York City was his work shop. His contemporaries followed the guiding influence of Shearer, Heppelwhite, and Sheraton. The influence of these English cabinetmakers spread to the new nation about 1790. The American cabinetmakers modified their designs, creating a distinctive American furniture. This is sometimes called the Federal Period in American furniture. The years following the Duncan Phyfe and the Federal periods are rather barren in distinctive furniture. The European influence is followed to such an extant that the American flavor is lost.

The purpose of this short paper is to discuss briefly that period from 1620 to about 1790. This Colonial Period can be divided into categories which are in many instances contemporary. The early colonists were influenced largely by the Jacobean style which was then in vogue in Europe. However, when they settled in the New World, they had to forego luxury and develop that which was functional. The necessities of life had to be literally carved out of the wilderness. This furniture, with the exception of the few pieces they could bring over in their crowded ships, reflects the simple and often austere life of these people. Perhaps it is because we associate this type of furniture with the lives of these sturdy and rugged people that we have come to regard it so highly. Along with this early American furniture which might also be called functional furniture, we have another colonial type which was influenced by the English Chippendale style. The Chippendale style was used, but in such a way that it became truly American. With the development of this furniture we lost the distinctly functional value of the earlier American furniture. The colonists had reached the stage in their economic development where they could give more attention to refinements in comfort and beauty.

The English influence in American furniture making was felt most strongly about 1750. The period from 1620 to 1750 was almost entirely New World in thought and execution. The materials of the New World were used and applied. The men who carried on the trade of carpenters and "joyners" had, for the most part, learned their trade in England. From this they applied the English ideas of design to American woods and needs in such a manner that a distinctive type of furniture was produced. They used natural American woods such as pine, maple, oak, ash, birch, hickory, cherry and walnut. Quite often the woods were combined to improve the lasting qualities of the furniture. Pine was frequently used as table tops and chair seats, while the trestles, legs and spindles were made of oak or hickory. By this clever combination of woods, sturdiness was combined with simplicity and the life of the chair or table was greatly extended.

For the making of their furniture, the colonial craftsman had only the crudest of hand tools. Logs were ripped into boards by the pit saw. These rough boards had to be hand-dressed into lumber suitable for the manufacture of furniture. Later, the pit saw was moved to a nearby stream where water power was used in the sawing of the boards.

Page 19

In joining or fastening boards together, in order to obtain the proper width, the colonial craftsman employed several methods. He frequently used the common butt joint. This was a practical joint to use for the trestle table where a narrow board or batten could be used on the underside to hold the boards together and to fasten the top to the trestle. It must be remembered that glue was not used by the early colonial furniture maker, and nails were rarely used, due to their scarcity and expense, since all nails were hand forged. The butt joint could also be held together by a pinned butterfly. On the topside of the boards to be joined, the wings of a butterfly were set in. These wings were held in place by small hardwood pins. A series of mortises and tenons were also employed with each one minutely pinned. The paneled backs of cupboards and dressers were usually made with boards of irregular widths and these were sometimes chamfered and splined together. A groove was cut in the joining edge of each board, and a thin strip of wood was set into this groove, as well as into a groove of the connecting board. This strip of wood, or spline, was often held with small wooden pins inserted through the adjoining boards. The tongue and groove joint and the rabbet joint were also used. Frequently the trestle table tops were prevented from splitting apart and warping by putting a cleat on each end. This end cleat was usually fastened with wooden pins or dowels.

Drawers were frequently fastened together with the dovetail joint. The earliest form was a single dovetail. Later, two or more were used. This was not as strong as our machine-made dovetails which are closer together, but they lack the crafty feeling of the earlier forms. Even here, the joint was reinforced by the insertion of a nail or wooden pin to make it more durable.

When it came to fastening legs in chairs and stools, the colonial craftsman was particularly adept. The leg was usually of well seasoned hard wood. A slot was cut in the end that was to be inserted in the seat. After the leg had been driven in the hole in the seat, a wedge was driven in the slot, expanding the leg for a tight fit. To make doubly sure of this tight fit, the seat was usually made of green wood. As the seat dried out, it grasped more firmly than ever the already tight leg. If the end of the leg was not to extend through the seat, the hole was bored only about three-fourths of the way through. Before the leg was driven into the seat, the wedge was inserted in the prepared slot. In this way, the leg was wedged as it was driven into place. It has been said that the only complaint about this method of fastening was that it was impossible to take it apart.

The hardware used on the colonial furniture was made almost entirely of iron and hammered out by the blacksmith at his forge. What little brass was used was imported from England. Before 1700, many of the chests and boxes used the staple hinge. These staples were interlocked, one being driven into the upper rail and the other into the lower part of the chest, the ends being clinched on the inner side. The butterfly hinge was used for attaching table leaves. The H and HL hinge indicates that the piety of the early settlers was thus made manifest. The implication is that the symbol HL was to denote "Holy Lord" and that the use of these hinges was instrumental in keeping the devil from the door. The rat-tail hinge was frequently used on cupboard doors. This hinge was mounted with a loose pin, thus permitting the door to be removed easily without removing the hinge. Since early hinges were usually mounted with nails which were clinched, the advantage of the loose pin can be seen easily. The common rectangular hinge was popular and soon, in many instances, supplanted the butterfly, H, and HL hinges. This rather commonplace hinge came to be used for cupboard doors and table leaves.

Page 20


Page 21

Sandpaper was unknown to the colonial craftsman with the result that the finish on his furniture was in proportion to his dexterity in handling his tools. Frequently the furniture was left in its natural state. The natural color of the wood was enhanced only by the beautiful darkened tones produced by age. Occasionally, a vivid color was used to stain the wood. This served the double purpose of providing a bright spot in an otherwise drab room and of hiding defects of workmanship in the piece. On some pieces, boiled linseed oil and wax were worked into the wood. After several applications of these, a kind of glaze was produced. As the piece aged, the color turned to a mellow amber, and it is this timber color that we find on many of the well cared for old pieces today.

The pieces of furniture in common use were stools and benches, tables, chairs, chests, and chests of drawers; four-poster bedsteads, cupboards, desks, and secretaries; highboys and lowboys, small looking glasses, and numerous objects of lesser importance.

In the early colonial days, the seats in common use in the home were stools and benches. They were cheaper than chairs; they were sturdy and easily moved about. There were many types and sizes of stools. One type of stool was the "cricket" or low footstool which often had splayed beautifully turned legs, similar to those found on Windsor chairs.

While chairs were rather uncommon in the early colonial home, there were a few notable exceptions. The Wainscot chair was mostly made before 1700. This chair was so called because the back is paneled and sometimes the sides and even below the seat rail to the feet, much like the wainscoting or paneling of a wall. The Brewster and Carver chairs are of the same period. These chairs had rather elaborately turned spindles in the back and below the seat rail. The Carver chair is distinguished from the Brewster chair by the absence of these spindles in front below the seat.

Windsor chairs were introduced from England about 1725. A low back was characteristic of the first Windsors made in America. In Philadelphia, where these were produced, the cabinetmakers soon improved on the original design by adding a high comb back, beautifully turned legs, stretchers, and arm supports and generally glorifying it until Windsors became socially acceptable anywhere except in the formal drawing rooms of the wealthy.

For a while they were called Philadelphia chairs. Thus, we find James C. Tuttle, chairmaker of Salem, Massachusetts, advertising Philadelphia chairs, but gradually this gave way and all along the Atlantic seaboard, men who specialized in their making were known as Windsor chair makers.

One of the first Windsor chair makers of record is Richmonde, first name unknown, of Sassafras Street, Philadelphia, where he was working in 1763. The similarity between his chair and those used by the Continental Congress is so great that some authorities think it highly probable that it was he who made those historic Windsors.

The most common table was the trestle table. This table was usually about thirty-six inches wide and the top not infrequently of one solid piece. On some of these tables, the rail was quite low to the floor, probably serving as a foot rest to keep the feet off the draughty floors. Smaller rectangular and round tables were quite common. These are usually called tavern tables, due to the fact that many of them were found in common usage in the taverns. A table that served a dual

Page 22

purpose was the hutch table. The top of this table was so arranged that it could be tilted, forming the back of a chair. Thus, the thrifty colonists had a combination chair and table. The most graceful table of all was the butterfly table which gets its name from the shape of the piece that supported the drop leaf.

Perhaps the most important piece of colonial furniture was the chest. From its origin as a plain box to a box with a drawer in it, to chest on chest, until it became the highboy and lowboy, and our modern chest of drawers, it has assumed a prominent place among all the other pieces of furniture. From a simple unadorned box, it has run the gamut of modification in design and decoration. The early chests were crude and unadorned. The first chests in America made along distinctly original lines were produced in the Connecticut River Valley. Two types were developed, the Hadley and the Connecticut.

The earliest known American piece of proven origin is a chest. This chest bears the label "Mary Allyns Chistt cutte and Joyned by Nich. Disbrowe". Nicholas Disbrowe lived in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1639. The chests he created were individual in design. The designs were created to fit the individual piece and no two were identical.

The Hadley chests were made by Captain John Allis, of Hadley, Massachusetts. Allis was a grand-nephew of Disbrowe. Since there is a similarity between the Disbrowe and Hadley chests, it seems safe to assume that Allis saw some of the work of his uncle.

The bible box was another form of chest. In this instance, it had a specific use: that as depository for the family bible. With the bible box closed, it could be held on the knees and used as a writing table. What was more natural than that this box should develop legs and gradually evolve into the modern secretary.

Only a few of the colonial pieces have been mentioned. There are many more that are just as interesting, but space and time do not permit. We must move along to a brief glimpse into the workshops of the day. What of the men who created this furniture? One has been mentioned as a maker of Windsor chairs, but there are many others.

In the New England colonies, the first master workman to come over from Europe was John Alden. English law under the Tunnage Acts required that someone be aboard ships that could make casks to be sent home on the return voyage. Governor Bradford, in 1650, in his History of the Plymouth Settlement listed:

"John Alden. Mr. Alden was hired at Southampton as a cooper. Being a likely young man he was desired as a settler; but it was left to his own choice to stay or return to England: he stayed and married Priscilla Mullins."

In 1629, Kenelm Winslow, a brother of Governor Edward Winslow, arrived from the Old Country. An entry in the records of Plymouth Colony dated January 6, 1633, lists him as a "joyner" and makes note of the indenture to him of one Samuel Jenney as an apprentice. Neither of these "joyners" marked their furniture. Thus we can not know for a certainty just what furniture they made.

Just as the Pilgrims brought John Alden with them as their cooper and "joyner", so did the Penn family bring their personal cabinetmaker. In 1763, Governor John

Page 23

Colonial hardware

Page 24

Penn brought the skilled craftsman Thomas Affleck, from London and established him in Philadelphia. Affleck worked extensively for the Penn family until his death and that of John Penn in the same year, 1795.

The Pennsylvania Chronicle of December 12, 1768, had this advertisement:

"Thomas Affleck Cabinetmaker
Takes this method to acquaint the public and particularly those who have been pleased to favor him with their custom, that he has removed from his late shop in Union Street to Second Street, a little below the Bridge, and opposite Henry Little's, where he carries on the cabinet-making business in all its various branches. He takes this opportunity of returning thanks to his customers for their past favors, and assures them that they may depend he will continue to give them intire satisfaction."

A contemporary of Thomas Affleck in Philadelphia was William Savery. He produced some of the best examples of American furniture done in the Chippendale mode. Ornate carvings were not often employed, depending rather upon nicety of proportion and line for his artistic effects. One of his early furniture labels reads as follows:

"All sorts of chairs and joiners work made and sold by William Savery at the sign of the Chair, a little below the Market, in Second Street, Philadelphia."

This address is corroborated by the following which appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal of November 1, 1750:

"About a fortnight since early in the morning was found in Letitia Court, a fowling Piece loaded, the Owner by applying to William Savery, chair-maker in Second Street, describing the Marks, and paying the charges, may have it again."

Another contemporary and competitor of those already mentioned was Jonathan Gostelowe. He was a vestryman of Christ Church, a major during the Revolution, and a leader in the affairs of the Gentlemen Cabinet and Chair Makers, the Philadelphia trade association of the day. He made the baptismal font and a table altar for Christ Church.

Benjamin Randolph seems to be noted principally as a chairmaker in the Chippendale style. The chairs of Randolph are of such quality that it has been said that finer chairs of the Chippendale period were never produced in America. It is suspected, however, that some of the earlier pieces attributed to Savery were the work of Randolph. Thomas Jefferson states that Randolph made the box desk on which the Declaration of Independence was drafted. Later research may discover that Randolph was more than best chairmaker of Philadelphia.

Only a few of the many furniture makers of the Philadelphia area have been mentioned. These were contemporaries in the latter half of the eighteenth century. While Chippendale influenced their work, it was not to the extent that the individuality of the craftsman was lost. These men and their adaptations of the Chippendale style mark the close of the Colonial Period in American furniture.


Page last updated: 2012-03-30 at 14:24 EST
Copyright © 2006-2012 Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society. All rights reserved.
Permission is given to make copies for personal use only.
All other uses require written permission of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society.