Finding Comparisons Between English Period Furniture and Early American Colonial FurnitureHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

Lidded chest with two drawers (Sunflower type)

Lidded chest with two drawers (Sunflower type). Found near Hartford, Connecticut, these chests constitute one of several types that can be said to be distinctly 'American'. Oak, pine, cherry. 1680- 1710. The Henry Francidu Pont Winterthur Museum, Delaware

If it could be known, the notion held by most Americans about the England of the colonial period would probably be found to consist of a hodgepodge of courtiers, younger sons, and comely maids, all variously at the mercy of a rich nobleman living amid gilded furniture and leather bindings in an ancestral mansion set in a picturesque landscape. What is the Englishman's mental image of the American colonies and early American colonial furniture ? Possibly the following: flinty Puritan patriarchs, tradesmen who mingle piety and profit, and hardy frontiersmen - all so busy wrestling with their souls, business affairs, the Indians or the howling wilderness that they have little energy left over for making a civilisation. Both conceptions contain an element of truth and both reflect the stress that historians have placed upon the differences rather than the similarities between the Old World and the New World.

Conceptions affect our perceptions, which is why the reader is gently cautioned, as he views the illustrations, to avoid com­mitting what an historian of American painting has called the 'frontier fallacy'. early American colonial furniture of the period with which we are here concerned, which opens with the Restoration of Charles II and closes shortly before the founding, in 1732, of the colony of Georgia, does not derive its appearance from the deprivations of life on an American frontier. To be sure, there are lapses in the quality of execution, but similar expressions of provinciality can be found in the furniture of the same period throughout Great Britain.

Our view of early American colonial furniture - indeed, of colonial society itself-depends to a large extent upon what we see in English furniture and society of the same period. Our knowledge of English homes of the period is largely based on the work of such outstanding artist-designers as William Kent, whose wealthy patrons, Lord Burlington among them, moved in a cultured and sophisticated world where they were able to commission extravagant buildings incorporating furniture and decoration in the latest fashion. The modest home of a Virginia planter is clearly not comparable with the splendors of Burlington House, but, nevertheless, early American colonial furniture and furnishings have undoubtedly suffered by such comparisons being made. Recently published studies of English architecture in which both great and small houses are discussed should help to place American architecture of the colonial period in sharper perspective. Similar studies on furniture are needed before a fair comparison can be made and the American contribution properly assessed.

This writer is inclined to view colonial furniture within a broad Euro-American context that includes some of the following propositions:

  1. America was an underdeveloped country during the colonial period, but so was much of Europe, which provided the colonials with centuries of experience in coping with climatic extremes, primitive living conditions, and large tracts of unimproved land.
  2. By about 1690, colonial society was beginning to show signs of developing the complex inter-relationships that characterized the mature urbanized societies of Europe. Evidence for this may be seen principally in the seaport cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and several other regional centers of trade.
  3. Generally, the larger colonial cities and towns had more direct access to London, by virtue of their location near the ocean, than did many comparable settlements in Europe. The absence of long-lived craft traditions in the colonies might be explained, in part, by a steady exposure of influences omicron London and other centers of taste in Europe.
  4. A high percentage of colonial furniture cannot be identified a American solely on the basis of its overall appearance. In other words, much early American colonial furniture closely resembles furniture produced at about the same time in England and the continent.
    These and other assumptions which see a close relationship between the cultural materials of the New and the Old Worlds will be touched upon but not examined in any detail in the brief discussion that follows.



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