Colonial Homes in Design of Early American Colonial FurnitureHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

The Parson Capen House, built in 1683 for a minister of Topsfield, Massachusetts

The Parson Capen House, built in 1683 for a minister of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Framed and clapboarded houses of the colonial period survive in goodly numbers in New England. Property of the Topsfield Historical Society.

Several examples of colonial dwellings and furnished interiors are illustrated to give the reader an idea of the appearance and the direction of development in the colonial arts of the period.
The earliest of these is the Parson Capen House, built in 1683 at Topsfield, Massachusetts, representing a type that, except for changes in details, appeared throughout New England during the entire colonial period and later. Wood is used unsparingly for almost everything except the brick chimney that forms the core of the house. Furnished interiors of early American colonial furniture rooms from two other 17th century houses in Massachusetts are also shown. Period rooms like these are conjectural, based largely upon the accidents of survival, written documents such as household inventories, and curatorial intuition.

Compare these rooms with the description of a Salem interior that remained untouched by fashions in its early American colonial furniture after the late 1600s. Writing in 1796, the antiquarian, William Bentley, observed that 'The windows of this house are of the small glass with lead in diamonds & open upon hinges.' Bentley then jotted these fragments in his diary: 'The Doors open with wooded latches. The Chairs are the upright high arm chairs, & the common chairs are the short backed. The tables small & oval, the chest of drawers with knobs, & short swelled legs. The large fire places & the iron for the lamp. The blocks of wood in the corner [Bentley may be referring here to the corner posts which were left exposed in the interiors most frame houses built before 1725]. The press for pewterbefore the door for steps. Old Dutch maps & map mondes high colored above a century old. The early American colonial furniture Beds very low, & the curtains hung upon the walls.'

William Brinton, a farmer and English Quaker, occupied a stone house, Brinton House, that was built for him in 1704 in the fertile country about twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia. A mixture of influences may be found in the buildings and furniture of the so-called Middle Colonies-New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware - as might be expected in a region which attracted settlers from every corner of Europe. The Dutch colonial interior in early American colonial furniture at the Brooklyn Museum derives its woodwork from a house built for the miller, Jan Martense Schenck, about 1675 in Brooklyn, New York. Sash windows like the one in the photograph were introduced to the colonies in the last decade of the century.

The colonial forerunners of the Georgian houses of the 1720s and later did not appear in America until late in the 17th century, or about forty or so years after their prototypes first began ii appearing in England. Brafferton Hall, at Williamsburg, Virginia, followed English  and possibly Dutch models for domestic architecture: a symmetrical facade, hipped roof , enriched cornices and doorways, and early American colonial furniture plus other details, some of which were borrowed from the vocabulary of the Renaissance.

That the years shortly before and after 1700 mark something of a period of transition between the unsophisticated mode of building in the Parson Capen House and the formal style of
Brafferton Hall, is suggested in a comment published in 1705 by Governor Robert Beverley about the plantation houses of Virginia: 'Of late they have made their Stories much higher than
formerly, and their Windows large, and sasht with Cristal Glass.' Beverley, a stern critic of the undue reliance of Virginia's planters upon English manufactures, mentioned that 'they adorn their Apartments with rich early American colonial furniture,' and, elsewhere, that Virginians
'always contrive to have large Rooms, that they may be cool in Brafferon Hall,built in 1723 in William burg, Virginia, as a  school for Indian children with funds from the estate of Robert Boyle, the English physician.

Reconstruction of an all-purpose New England 'hall' of about 1710

Reconstruction of an all-purpose New England 'hall' of about 1710. The house and furniture, as shown here, were made by carpenters, joiners, and turners who often combined several woodworking activities. Slat back armchairs left and right, wainscot chair beyond the fireplace; candle stand far left, lidded chest centre background. The American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor, Bath, Somerset.

The Brinton House, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

The Brinton House, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Built in 1704, this stone house combines traditional and fashionable elements. Similar influences may be seen in the furniture of the period. Property of the Chester County Historical Society.

The 'Flock Room' at the Winterthur Museum

The 'Flock Room' at the Winterthur Museum, deriving its name from the English wall covering. The panelling, painted grey-blue with marbleised details, comes from a house built about 1715 in Morattico, Virginia. The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

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