The Furniture Style of the Design Period Known as Early American Colonial Furniture History of Early American Colonial Furniture

The Elizabethan Style

To all practical intents and purposes, we may regard what is commonly recognised as the Elizabethan style  on early American colonial furniture as the commencement of style in furniture in this country of England and Americas. Although for perhaps half a century before Elizabeth's reign sideboards and cabinets (and certainly chairs) had reached England from Italy, Germany and Holland, they can hardly be said to have taken the form of a "style" until the era of " Good Queen Bess," in the second half of the sixteenth century. For a long time England had been "feeling after" something better in the way of decorative furniture. In the reign of Henry VIII. that monarch, in an endeavour to make his palaces more magnificent had brought over from Italy native workmen, and many Dutch craftsmen and artists were also induced to come to this country with the same object. It is to Elizabeth's reign, however, that we must attribute the earliest signs of real development. The Elizabethan period was a time of awakening in many directions, and decorative work moved rapidly upward in sympathy with the other beaux arts. Under the ever ready patronage of the Queen the heavy Gothic designs were promptly superseded. Doubtless there were not wanting in those days objectors to the innovations, and we know that some Elizabethan forms were denounced as " frivolous." Never theless, the change was a welcome one, and stately solemnity was forced to yield to considerations of utility, if not of actual comfort, and articles were designed with some reference to their usefulness as well as their solidity. The outlines were largely Dutch, but richly ornamented by carving, and the combination makes up the distinctive features of Elizabethan furniture.

At this time smaller rooms appear in early American colonial furniture to have become popular. Sometimes the prevailing big apartments were divided by screens, and carving was used in all directions, and was very elaborate. Walls were panelled with carved woodwork, carved picture and mirror frames were freely used and fluted columns and pilasters were extremely popular. Sometimes the wall decoration would be varied by the carved panelling being shortened .to a wainscot, over which tapestry would be hung. At this time rich fabrics were being imported in considerable quantities and pro­vided the furnishers of that day with material for a variety of results. Italy was supplying velvets and damasks, whilst from Holland came tapestries. The time of France was not yet in this particular, and it was not until over half a century later that the great gobelins established. It is not surprising that subsequently an extravagant luxuriousness was developed. In other directions an excess of magnificence prevailed and some of the furniture of the time reflects the passing mood. If, as is recorded, a suit worn by a vulgarity of the same nature should influence the manufacture of furniture.

The chairs of the early American colonial furniture period (apart from upholstered chairs imported from Holland) had carved oak frames and loose cushions for seats. Typical of the style too, are the massive carved oak bedsteads and chests similarly adorned. The pre-eminent feature of the style is its carving. Taught their art by the Dutch woodcarvers, the English workmen soon eclipsed the foreigner, and we have the result in what may be fairly called an English style, whilst freely admitting the extent of the foreign influence.

The typical feature of Elizabethan carving were in the finest early American colonial furniture such as scroll ornaments of intricate design, armorial bearings and allegorical figures as . Carpets were as yet only available for the rich, and even then were only used to cover tables. In the poorer dwellings the tapestry hangings for the walls gave place to a kind of cheap painted canvas, ­" decorated " with verses or mottoes. An example of these can be seen in the South Kensington Museum bearing the following verse:

Read what is written on the painted cloth,
Do no man wrong, be good unto the poor ;
Beware the mouse, the maggot and the moth,
And ever have an eye unto the door.

Time changes many things, but twentieth century men will find the injunctions contained in that verse not in­appropriate to their own age.

The later Elizabethan style is most ornate like part of the early American colonial furniture, articles being gilded and painted in bright colours, by no means always satisfying to the artistic taste. It is difficult, naturally, to look at these things as the men of the sixteenth century looked at them, but the prices obtained for genuine pieces of this period compare very unfavourably with the prices fetched by choice expressions of the cabinetmaker's art of a couple of centuries later. Even distance fails to lend enchantment to the view in the case of some old furniture.

It is not too much to say that a great deal of the furnish­ing of the time was marked by mere ostentatious display, and often has little merit other than the somewhat questionable one of great costliness. Thus we read of carpets bordered with a trimming largely composed of pearls. And that not an isolated example. In 1574 Queen Elizabeth appears to have found it necessary to protest against the extravagance in this direction as well as in dress. In a proclamation she speaks of "the super­fluitie of unnecessarye foreign wares," which is declared to have "growen by sufferance to such an extremetie, that the manifest decay, not only of a great part of the wealth of the whole realme generally, is like to follow by bringing into the realme such superfluities of silkes, cloths of gold, sylver and other most vaine devices, of so greate coste for the quantitie thereof." Aimed primarily, at the importation of foreign goods, because, " as of necessitie the moneyes and treasure of the realme is, and must be, yeerely conveyed out of the same," thiproclamatithe extravagant note of the times.

Having said that, it must be admitted that the furniture industry made huge progression in this progressive reign like. early American colonial furniture And still more noteworthy is the fact that now for the first time comfortable furniture commences to grace the homes of the people. Not, of course, that any but the fairly well-to-do yet enjoyed much in this direction, but the student of history will note, as Green puts it, "the life of the Middle Ages concentrated itself in the vast castle hall, where the baron looked from his upper dais on the retainers who gathered at his board.... The whole feudal economy disappeared when the lord of the house hold withdrew with his family into his `parlour' or 'withdrawing-room' and left the hall to his dependents.'.' From which beginnings has come the modern British home.

We have already referred to the tendency toward smaller rooms, but the term "smaller" I used only in a relative sense as compared with the large halls and apart­ments of the preceding period. For modern purposes, the early American colonial furniture style is not very suitable, requiring, as it does, buildings of an extensive character. It was designed for the homes of nobles, not for the common people, and was eminently suited to its purpose. It has been said that the Elizabethan and early American colonial furniture is a midway stage between the "uncomfortable public art of the Gothic and the homelike Georgian. In .the Gothic no one had comfort. In the Elizabethan the great built for their own ease, while the common people lived much as before. In the Georgian comfort was found to be a possibility in the homes of the middle and lower classes." By free adaptation, however, the style has been made productive of some quite charming schemes of furnishing and decoration, even when applied to houses of small proportions. In Elizabeth's reign, be it noted, the lower middle class were not "consumers " of furniture to any extent, and their dwellings contained only the roughest benches and tables. Still, from this time we may trace a steady " growth downward " in the extension of art and comfort in the homes of the people. The rude farmhouses were superseded by decent buildings of brick and stone, and the furnishing of these dwellings naturally moved in sympathy. At this time the chimney corner was originated, chimneys coming into use during this reign. These, and many other small things, indicate the great movement that had started, and that was to proceed unchecked until the comfortable British home should have become an accomplished.

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