Early American Colonial Furniture New England, 1650-1720 Early American Colonial Furniture History


It should come as no surprise to the reader that a sufficient wealth of seventeenth century of early Colonial American furniture and documentation remains for the year 1700 the American Colonies already had along line of British interest and involvement. The land Virginia was so named in honour of Elizabeth 1 as early as1584 and three years later, the first English child to be born in America was likewise christened Virginia. Soon after, the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company were founded in London with the intention of earning a good percentage for the shareholders, and to create new markets for English goods in exchange for the raw materials of the New World. Potential Colonists were invited to join them in a land reported to be flowing with milk and honey. The early wild expectations were soon dimmed by tragic failures to maintain even a foothold in North America: but after the planting of Jamestown (Virginia) in 1607 and the success against tremendous odds of the early Massachusetts Bay colonies (including the Pilgrim Fathers who founded the Plymouth Colony in 1620), English settlers began to flock to Virginia and New England. Between 1630 and 1640, the period sometimes known as the Great Migration, about 20,000 English souls settled in New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island). By 1643, the Massachusetts Bay Company had invested £200,000 in settling New England.

The colonists themselves, most of whom consisted of underprivileged or ambitious members of the yeomanry and peasantry, were motivated by a variety of purposes. Some were seeking better prospects for themselves and their children, though the only real prospect faced by the first farmers and craftsmen were one of seasonal hunger and unremitting toil. Others were trying to escape from disadvantage or persecution they had faced at home. It is no coincidence that the Great Migration visibly diminished in the same year (1640) as the impeachment of Archbishop Laud.

Voluntary emigration declined somewhat at the outbreak of the British Civil War of the Roses, during which time some convicts and rebels were transported and sold into slavery in Virginia, until it was decided that only African American Negroes should be held in perpetual bondage. As the tobacco trade became established in Virginia, the plantation-owning classes turned to England for supplies of furnishings and luxuries. Early letters for Virginia are full of request for furnishings and furniture to be sent from England such as that of Lt. Col. Fitzhugh, who wrote to the London agent in 1681 requesting “…feather bed & other items of early American colonial furniture curtains & vallens…” for his personal use.

Many of the puritan refugees settles in Massachusetts, which later became little short of a theocratic republic, in which the spiritual leaders often denied to others the religious freedoms for which they themselves had fought. But most came for reasons of economic betterment, and their greatest prize lay in the freedom they gained from the iron grip with which the English landowner and the legislature held them.   

The New Englanders had come to build a new life and a civilization in the wilderness, and early American colonial furniture making appears to have become an established activity in the early days of settlement. Despite the extravagant claims about the mayflower and the other ships, there seems little reason to suppose that pieces of furniture were exported to New England in any numbers, other than chests and boxes, which might be used for packing. Space was very valuable on these tiny ships, and it would be economic to transport a craftsman and his tools. This may explain the popularity of turned chairs in the early colonies, since a turner could set to work immediately, without the need for a large store of seasoned timber which a joiner or carpenter would require.

In 1642 a trained joiner, Edward Johnson, was able to note of Massachusetts that “…the lord hath been pleased to turn all the wigwams, huts and hovels the English dwelt in their first coming, into orderly, fair and well built houses, well furnished many of them …” These houses were constructed in the same way as the small timber-framed farmhouses of England, with clapboard panelling within and a sheath of weatherboarding to keep out the harsh New England winter. They might have a single stone chimney, or a timber chimney-canopy. The family lived chiefly in the small hall or keeping room and the scarcity of space meant that rooms often had to be used for several purposes. Large houses were not unknown in some of the richer towns, but in 1688, Samuel seawall of Boston noted that he had permitted a young couple acquaintance to be married in his bedroom, and a few years later he entertained eleven guests to dinner in my own wives chamber as the great oval table presumably for lack of space.

As the population started to grow in the New colony, so new communities were founded in isolated pockets across the land. Overland travel was difficult and dangerous, and so the coastal and inland waterways became the important links. The good harbours of Massachusetts Bay (Boston and Salem), Cape Cod Bay (Plymouth), Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island) and long Island sound (New Haven) all supported thriving ports: the broad Connecticut River Valley encouraged settlement in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and the rich farmlands around Boston (Eastern Massachusetts) soon made it the greatest city in the New World. Just as in England, the urban centres quickly established and supported early American colonial furniture making conventions of their own, serving a wide rural market. The joiners and turners quickly adapted to a new range of timbers (red oak, hickory, maple, tulip, cedar and the wide planks of pine): though they took little advantage of their new characteristics, other than to use the unaccustomed broad widths of pine for single piece tops for chests and tables. The tuners found maple and hickory. Ideal for their purposes, they continued to use a large portion of the Native American ash, in extension of practice they had learned at home in Britain.

Most of the First Generation of Anglo American craftsmen had served their apprenticeships with the Guilds at home in England and they brought with them all the skills and traditions of provincial England Guild worker. The earliest surviving examples of their products reflect closely the styles and construction of contemporary English furniture: though succeeding generations managed to develop a distinct character of their own within the general framework of Anglo European trends. The earliest group (1650-80) rest entirely within the prevailing conventions of joined Guild craftsmen carved furniture decorated by carving and turning. Most of this furniture was originally painted or stained, a practice, which seems to have been highly popular in New England, though increasingly rare in England. The mixture of timbers found in American provincial furniture is a good indication that they were originally intended to be finished with a unifying coat of paint, and many examples retained this finish until stripped by the first generation of over zealous collectors in the present century.

The progression of taste in the last quarter of the seventeenth century tended to move  from the provincial English preference for carved decoration, and towards the Anglo Dutch style, with an emphasis on the use of applied geometric mouldings and split turnings. This follows closely on trends in England of course and there is surprisingly little evidence of any direct Dutch influence in New England from New York, Where Dutch styles were still to be seen long after the English took over in1664.

The regional styles of New England have been well chronicled in recent years, and it is now clear that the two most important sources of early carved furniture are Essex County (Massachusetts) and the New Haven Colony, which was absorbed by Connecticut in 1665. Essex County occupies the part of the Massachusetts coastal lowland immediately north of Boston lying next to the colony of New Hampshire. A number of items of the early American colonial furniture period (1650-80) have been collected in this area, varying widely in quality of conception and execution. Most of this work is anonymous, but a small group of work has been attributed to two Guild carver joiners, William Searle and Thomas Dennis, both of Ipswich. Searle was born in 1634 at Ottery St Mary Devonshire, here he trained as a joiner and in 1659, and he married a local girl, Grace Cole. William and Grace Searle are next recorded in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1663 having left England as hopeful emigrants or Puritan refugees.

The English origins of Thomas Dennis are uncertain, but it is believed he came to Portsmouth, New Hampshire shortly before 1663 he was working there as a Guild carver joiner, but in 1663 he moved to Ipswich and married Grace, who was now William Searle’s widow. No doubt, he took over Searle’s workshop, business tools and stock of furniture and materials. A large group of similar pieces had been attributed to one or both of these makers but there is little evidence whether the style is specifically that of the Searle-Dennis workshop, or an expression of wider references in the Ipswich area. Was actually discovered in Portsmouth, which must prompt speculation that the style is wholly that of Thomas Dennis, who was working in this way before his move to Ipswich in 1668. The early American colonial furniture armchair is arguably the first American armchair in existence from the seventeenth century, and is one of several items with similar carving which have descended in the Dennis family. These have been attributed to the hand of Thomas Dennis, or to his predecessor William Searle. It is a great pity that no significant examples of the style are securely dated before or after Searle’s death. Such evidence might have helped decide the balance or responsibility for this work between the two men. Thomas Dennis is the stronger candidate, in view of Searle’s death in 1667, but he was only one of many Guild trained carver joiners working in Ipswich. The styles made in the area changed radically before his death in 1706 aged about 68 years and it must seem likely that he changed his style of work at least a little in order to accommodate the shifting demands of his customers. The richness and competence of the Searle-Dennis carving are only fractionally repeated in the New Haven furniture. The Ipswich pieces are carved with a rich and consistent series of leafy panels, which display a masterly control of space filling pattern: but contemporary items from New Haven are scientifically less ambitious. This is explained by the economic decline experienced by the Colony after 1650. The earliest years, following the founding of the New Haven Colony in 1638, were very successful, but the failure of a communal trading venture in 1646 reversed the colonists’ good fortunes. In 1658 there was evidence presented that some wood-workers did not have sufficient employment to keep their apprentices busy, and it was suggested that they might be more gainfully employed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Much of the furniture of this period from the coastal towns of Guilford and New Haven are characterised by a thin and repetitious use of a leafy S curve, which is repeated and conjoined in several different ways. Local turners would seem to have contributed to a vigorous group of turned chairs from Connecticut and to have supplied early American colonial furniture components to the Guild woodcarvers joiners with turned accessories.

The earliest expressions of distinct and original Native American styles in joined oak early American colonial furniture, for which there is no close parallel in English work, may be seen in two very large groups of chests known as the Hadley type and the sunflower type. These are still generically of English form, and their prototypes may be found in England, yet they appear here as mature and novel designs. Both these group derive from the Connecticut River Valley, and are concentrated in the last quarter of the seventeenth century or a little later. Stylistically, they represent an intermediate phase, making free use of both surface carving and applied split turnings, though the latter are noticeably absent from the earlier Hadley chests. 

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