The Story of American Furniture
This week's column begins in New England, year 1640, in the Pilgrim Period of American furniture. We are going to follow one piece's evolution up until the 20th century.
"Hey Eliphalet, what are you making with those "rosehead" nails, "snipe" hinges and six wide boards?"
"A blanket chest. My family will be able to use it as a chair or table and store bibles, blankets and garments in it as well. It is a practical piece of furniture."
YEAR 1710 - "Yoo, Eliphalet, I noticed you raised your blanket chest and put two drawers underneath."
"The wife got tired of bending over."
"You put big turnip shaped feet on it."
"It is called William and Mary Period(1690-1725) design. Named after the king and queen of England a few years back. Very baroque. Big on heaver turnip shapes and ball and ring turnings.
YEAR 1740 - "Hey, your William and Mary style blanket chest changed, Eliphalet! It has tall, curvaceous, delicate, legs. You got rid of the till-all drawers up top now. One even has a carved shell."
"I refer to it as a highboy. The legs are called "cabriole" legs. It's the new thing in Queen Anne Period (1725-1750) furniture. Things are natural, less monumental. It's restrained
rococo. Native woods like cherry and maple have replaced walnut and oak in many cabinetmaker's shops."
YEAR 1775 - "Hey ... your highboy? The wood's darker. You replaced the Queen Anne style "slipper feet" with carved ball and claw feet. You carved the knees on the cabriole legs, and put dental molding and all sorts of fancy stuff on it. What happened to RESTRAINED rococo?"
Eliphalet: "Why restrain?" At least that's what this English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale (1750-1780) says in his book. Use mahogany and carve to your heart's content. He's into that Chinese look all the sailor's speak of. Fancy, isn't it."
YEAR 1810 - "What happened to your highboy now? All the heavy carving's gone. You put glass doors, urn finials, and an inlaid eagle on the top. And the legs are thin and straight again. They look like little corinthian columns."
"This is a Federal secretary. Two English fellows, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton studied the artifacts the European's finally finished excavating at Pompeii and incorporated it in design. Columns and eagles are hot. Here, since we have our own country now, we call it American Federal Period(1780-1820). Rococo's out, thin neoclassical design is in."
YEAR 1840 - "Eliphalet, your secretary got fat!"
"It's called Empire Period (1815-1845) design. Everything went Napoleon. These massive curving shapes running down the front sides of the secretary remind me of his hat. At first, right after the French campaigns in Egypt, when "klismos" and "caryatid" shapes were hot, and the classical Greco-Roman look was in, things were fine in this period, but after 1830 furniture lost it's grace."
"What's that buzzing noise"
"It's called a circular saw. I'm just learning how to use it. We're in what's called the industrial era, steam power, the beginning of the machine age."
YEAR 1890 - "Hey Eliphalet, you're over 250 years old now!"
"You're no spring chicken yourself!"
"Where's the empire secretary?"
"I cut it up and made it into side tables and clock parts. This is the Victorian Period (1840-1910) now. We mill everything with machines. Little hand work. Some guys do lots of fancy carved stuff with grapes and leafs(rococo revival), some are into the church look(gothic revival), others do paneled neoclassical walnut(renaissance revival and Eastlake), others just do traditional oak. Don't look for anything new to happen in American furniture design, because it's all been done!"
"Knock, knock, knock."
"Who's that knocking at the door, Eliphalet?"
"Some guy named Stickley."