Discerning American Origin in Antique Furniture

When it comes to pre-Industrial Era (1840 or earlier) antique furniture, a made-in-American pedigree is amongst the most coveted and highly valued provenance in the world:  An appreciation not prevalent less than half a century ago.  This fact is easy to ascertain for yourself.  Just visit a few old mansions built by families like the Carnegies, Mellons, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.  Were these elitists ashamed of their own country's past?  Perhaps. Amongst that immense collective assemblage of original house furnishings you'd be hard pressed to find one 18th century Newport block front secretary, Philadelphia highboy, Baltimore Federal pembroke table or even a single dining chair made by Duncan Phyfe.  Concerning early period furnishings, tycoons outfitted their American palaces with the finest seating, tables and case-pieces made in Italy, Austria, France, England, and Russia-anywhere but in the USA.  Even historically important Colonial and Federal furnishings descending in the White House were mostly housed in the basement until Jacqueline Kennedy, a First Lady with great taste, had these treasures resurrected to the upper levels where they belong.

The fact is, until about the mid 20th century, the influential upper class crowd looked down American heirlooms as inferior. Why has this viewpoint changed?   What caused Americans to take pride in their own ancestral works?  It has much to do with the fact that American design truly was amongst the best ever made and this actuality had to come to light eventually.  Another influence was the rise of the common man.  America's ascension in wealth and population naturally led to a rise in her historic artifacts.  This luminosity was accelerated when the U.S. working class began to accumulate wealth and leisure time.  With free time Americans discovered flowers always present in their very own soil.  Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, common men and women looked back into their own rugged past and discovered what many of their aristocratic employers were so slow to learn: "There's no place like home." Here are a few reasons why a "Made in the USA" label is a red, white & blue ribbon when it comes to old furniture.

  • Superior Wood:  Something rarely encountered in Europe are 18th and early 19th century andirons used to stabilize logs in a fireplace.  That's because France, England and Italy had basically deforested themselves by the middle ages.  Rare narrow planks that were milled were used for more important uses than cooking and warmth. Imagine the elation experienced by immigrant cabinetmakers landing on the shores of Virginia, New Amsterdam and New England.  To look upon two and three hundred year old virgin forests filled with cherry, oak, maple, ash, walnut and white pine trees with trunks as wide as an ox cart.  Many tree species cut to extinction in their own homelands. Even treasured mahogany, native to neither Europe nor continental America, was discovered in close by in islands like Cuba and San Domingo.  Sadly, this finest grade of mahogany (and lumber period) ever discovered was virtually wiped out in these island paradises by 1830 and is now virtually extinct from the world.  When it comes to ecology, man has always been slow to learn from his mistakes.
  • Great Cabinetmakers:  Some of history's foremost wood artisans immigrated or were born in America:  Affleck, Belter, Chapin, Dunlap, Goddard & Townsend, Frothingham, Phyfe, Seymour and over a dozen others-all were Monet-like in their contribution to the artisanship and vision of interior accoutrement design.
  • A "New World" Environment to work in:  The United States of America is more than just a beautiful land.  It is one of mankind's preeminent innovations.  Can you recall a single government that, up until America's late 18th century, allowed free enterprise to find its natural course among workingmen and too infrequently, women.  Colonial cabinetmakers were free to explore new product designs and proudly hang their own name from their awnings.  Liberated from cabinetmaking guilds and class decree that forced opulent design upon them, craftsmen found new ways to make new wares. 
  • Distance:  In 1962, a new kind American music dominated the Western world:  Elvis, Paul Anka, the Ink Spots, Bobby Darin, Frankie Vallie.  The popularity of Rock and Roll inspired every new artist following this wave to introduce music of great similarity.  Until 1963.  That's when the Beatles knocked almost all those American Rock and Rollers off the charts.  Had John Lennon and Paul McCartney been born and raised here in the USA there's a strong chance they would not have found that distinctive new sound that reshaped music's course and launched the British Invasion.  That same Atlantic Ocean that helped the Beatles become the Beatles also helped to launch American cabinetry on a course influenced by, but not controlled by, European design.
  • Imagination:  Freed somewhat from French and English convention, American craftsmen asked two novel questions.  The answer to these questions seeded new design elements that flowered into one of history's preeminent lines of craftsmanship.
  • Why must magnificent design be excessive in ornament?  It need not be, American cabinetmakers envisioned.    Next time you pass by an exemplary early American wood frame church you will quite likely see this principle carried out in large detail.  Proper proportioning, imaginative design and letting the wood do the work is a handsome approach to cabinetry.
  • Why can't design reach up, instead of out?  Generally, "verticality" is one of the design elements that tends to make American furniture more pleasing to the eye than the European models from which it was modeled.  Think of an egg lying on its side (European design), compared to an egg standing tall and upright (American design).  American furniture has a way of standing up on its toes without making lots of excessive noise.  Think of a quiet, graceful ballet dancer. Simplicity can be beautiful.