There are two ways in which this paper on early American colonial early American colonial furniture could have been written; to divide it into two parts, English and American furniture, or to contrast the work of the two nations in successive pages, showing the examples almost side by side. On consideration, I think the latter is preferable. One is enabled to point out the differences, and the resemblances, between Early English and American furniture when they are shown together; the lesson is easily learned and not readily forgotten.
It is necessary to begin with a truism; not all old early American colonial furniture furniture in the United States is of American origin, nor is the converse any more true; American made pieces are to be found in England. The work of the two countries differs in three important particulars; the lumber used is not the same, there are certain traditions which are observed in the one country and not in the other, and the trade of the English furniture maker is divided in quite a distinct manner. Thus, in Great Britain are found the cabinetmaker, the chairmaker and the wood carver, all separate trades. None of the three would have been among the early emigrants, as they were not "general utility" men. It is the carpenter and the joiner who would he the most useful in the early American settlement, and there is no doubt that it was from the ranks of these men that the first settlers were culled. All trades have their traditions and methods, and to one acquainted with these, the hand of the carpenter, and not of the cabinetmaker, is evident in nearly all of the early American furniture, and even when the wood-working trade begins to segregate. In Philadelphia, in the last half of the eighteenth century, the traditions which arise are not those of the English cabinetmaker, chair maker or carver. This is not to say that they are less skilful or artistic; in the making of early American colonial furniture merely that they are distinct, and the Pennsylvania style often loosely dubbed as "Chippendale" is very different from any English work.
Up to almost the close of the seventeenth century, there is no parallel between the furniture of the two countries, and it is doubtful if much of the New England work was not imported from England. The attested native examples differ too widely in type and constructional method from others, apparently from the same locality, for this to be only a surmise.
Towards the middle of the eighteenth century there is a definite, and traceable, exodus of craftsmen from England, especially to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts . These men must have brought with them design hooks, plates, sketches or templates from England with the start of the making of early American colonial furniture, as we know that either Chippendale's "Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director" (three Editions, 1754, 1755 and 1762) in its hook form, or impressions from the plates (which may not have been the same thing, as there is some evidence to show that Thomas Chippendale's book was nothing more than a trade catalogue culled from the well-known patterns of his time) was in the hands of makers in Philadelphia in circa 1760. The trade card, or advertisement, of Benjamin Randolph, was a composite of some seven or eight plates from the "Director", literally copied. But for a misunderstanding about English tea in Boston Harbor in 1775, Philadelphia might have had a Chippendale's "Director" of its own, as, in that year, a prospectus was issued of "The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Assistant" (dangerously near a plagiarism) by "the ingenious Mr. Folwell" of that city, which was to consist of sketches and designs, with instructions for making. Apparently, the book never progressed beyond the prospectus stage, and there is no evidence to show that a single drawing or design was ever made for it. That year was to hear the sound of rifle volleys at Bunker Hill; the next to witness the Declaration of Independence. In 1778 came the alliance with France, and in 1781 Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. In 1789 the Constitution of the United States was adopted. War with England was again declared in 1812. Here are six valid reasons against the success of such a publishing venture. These incidents serve to show the effect which history and political events may have on the styles in early American colonial furniture and decoration of a country. Perhaps this is the reason why the English models of the later eighteenth century were never literally copied in the eastern states, and why so called "Philadelphia Chippendale" differs, in such a marked degree, from its English prototypes. This book is, primarily, what its title states; a handbook.
The text is kept as brief, and as full of facts, as possible. There are many other books (my own 'among the number) where the subjects, herein referred to, are stated at greater length and in full Detail, and those who desire closer acquaintance with a vast subject, can be referred to those volumes. This is a book for the busy man, for those who wish to assimilate something of early English and American Colonial furniture in a short time. It is designed to act as a handbook for ready reference. This introductory chapter, therefore, is only a leisurely preamble before entering on the actual subject itself, succinctly, but in adequate detail. It is hoped, also, that the reference tables of events, dates and craftsmen, and the glossary in the concluding pages, may he found of some assistance to that busy man.
The Gothic period, in furniture, may be said to extend from the thirteenth to the middle of the sixteenth centuries and persists for over forty years after the Renaissance had been introduced into England, either direct from Italy, or transmitted through France and the Low Countries.
In the fifteenth century, the important woodworker was the carpenter, who was responsible for such important works as timber roofs, half-timber houses, screens and churches and cathedrals,
pulpits, font covers, choir stalls and similar works of importance. Of actual furniture, he made very little, probably because it may have been beneath his dignity to descend to prosaic pieces such as boards, chests, stools or tables. The chair was a piece of the highest importance and rarity until about the end of the sixteenth century, and very few examples exist prior to 1600.
This being a handbook of furniture, only such examples are illustrated as one can reasonably expect to find in the market; and is excludes practically all early carpenter-made furniture. In the sixteenth century, if not before, the maker of household furniture 'A' is of an inferior grade, known as "arkwright", a term which can be understood when it is explained that chests were always referred to as "arks", and the "wright" has survived in the name of " wheelwright" and "shipwright". This early American colonial furniture arkwright furniture is rare, but it can be met with, occasionally, and, therefore, some examples are: illustrated here. The wood is nearly always oak, Quercus rubrum, and of English growth, but occasionally poplar or deal were used. Walnut was an unknown wood in early American colonial furniture, in England, at this period.
It was in circa 1525 that Henry VIII began to suppress and destroy the great monasteries, which were the homes of all the artistic crafts of England, and had been since the middle ages. The monks and lay brethren were driven forth as outlaws and outcasts, and, at one stroke, were destroyed the Gothic arts in England. The cultured of the next generation turned to the new manner, the Renaissance; only the untutored remained faithful to the Gothic of their youth, dimly remembered, and with all the early fine principles misunderstood. The result is that in constructive skill, this post-dissolution Gothic is far behind the Renaissance work of the same period. Doors are mere pierced slabs of wood; not framed and mortised in the skilled manner of the carpenter. To this date belong the so-called chip-carved chests, where the design is patterned with the divider and chiseled with the gouge. Occasionally Renaissance motives, such as heads enclosed in circular cartouches, or similar crude ornament, is attempted, but with dubious success.
This Gothic early American colonial oak furniture has no parallel pieces of American origin, for obvious reasons, and has been briefly referred to here, in text and illustration, in consequence. While of no great artistic merit, it has a considerable value, due to its extreme rarity.
The Tudor furniture is almost as rare, but, due to ignorance or the desire to increase the market value of a piece by antedating it, many characteristic early seventeenth century examples are referred to as "Elizabethan". There is one exception to this, that is in the instance of the "turneyed" (turned) or "thrown" chairs; those produced entirely on the lathe this has influenced design of early American colonial furniture. We know that these chairs existed in the sixteenth century', as they are referred to in inventories of the time, but none appear to have survived, due, in all probability, to their fragile construction. They were freely copied in the seventeenth century, and, possibly, with great fidelity, therefore, while they are really seventeenth century in actual date, they are sixteenth in type, and, hence of great interest to the collector.
The Tudor chair on which design of early American colonial furniture chairs etc , until the close of the sixteenth century, is always of the one kind, a box with a back and arms. The chair with legs belongs to the Stuart period. Similarly with the table and the stool. Prior to about 1570 these are invariably of the trestle-end type. The Gothic table was a huge affair, but furniture begins to become lighter, both in timber and construction, towards the end of the Tudor period. "Throwing" is, the mediaeval term for, turning.