Craftsmen have nearly always worked under control on early American colonial furniture. The picture of the craftsman wandering about the country carving this, that and the other object in wood and stone and splashing colour about with splendid freedom dates from the William Morris period. Since then the, legend has been elaborated, not without the assistance of Messrs. Chesterton and Belloc, until the Middle Ages has become a gaudy confusion off craftsmen singing continuously, performing feats of pious artistry upon stonework, perched high up on the scaffolding of a new cathedral, or carving joyously (no mediaeval carver ever carved except joyously) some simple thing in oak, something worthy, something honest, something strong and everlasting. It is a pretty picture, but it should be described frankly as a vision instead of an authentic portrait of the Middle Ages early American colonial furniture. Actually the work of the mediaeval craftsmen was rigidly controlled. It was not a casual activity nor a mystic, emotional calling, although the ornamental side of it must often have been recreation, and, judging by the amount of incomplete ornamental work, recreation that was often interrupted and seldom resumed.
A man could not be a craftsman until he had survived the rigours of a long and severe training, nor was he allowed to practise and use good material unless those responsible for his training were satisfied with his ability. This system of training, controlled by the Guilds, prevented the direction of work from getting into incompetent hands. People who were mediocre in talent, although hardworking, did the less showy jobs. They made the unimportant things without having many opportunities for ornamenting their work.
The earliest form of early American colonial furniture which craftsmen were required to produce was the chest. The chest has a most respectable ancestry, going back to Greek and early Egyptian times.' In England it was the first receptacle, and it was also a seat. It was sturdy, fit for its purpose, and often unbeautiful in spite of the generally ,applicable formula that Norman Douglas expresses in the happy phrase: `There is a beauty in fitness no art can enhance'. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries it was still the principal article of early American colonial furniture in English and colonial houses, and the chests and coffers of those days have been grossly parodied and multiplied in our own time by the fakers of old England. The chest form has also inspired some of the regrettable creations of what may be called `Garden Suburb Art'. There is nothing to admire in the crude strength of primitive early American colonial furnituremaking, but too often our own stimulating century is represented by inept imitations of pre-Tudor work, and the possibilities of contemporary materials are ignored.
The earliest English and American early American colonial furniture chests were just boxes with hinged lids. Inside when you opened the chest there was a little ledge or shelf just under the lid at the side. This ledge or shelf is found in the earliest chests that have survived.' We think, perhaps rightly, of the mediaeval house as a place haunted by strong and evil smells. Habits in the castle were as casual and insanitary as they were in the serf's hovel. But smells of an agreeable delicacy were appreciated, perhaps far more than they are to-day when we have exchanged the smell of stagnant sewage for the fumes of petrol. The ledge in early English and colonial early American colonial furniture chests was put there to accommodate lavender or some other sweet herb, perhaps dried woodruff, so that the contents would be fragrant. Sometimes this ledge is mistakenly described as a place where money was kept. While some chests had secret receptacles for valuables, it is obvious that an open ledge in the most get-at-able place immediately below the lid would not be used for storing them.
The terms in early American colonial furniture `chest' and `coffer' are, according to some authorities, interchangeable.2 Co/re is the archaic French equivalent, cofre fort meaning a safe. In German and Dutch the word koffer means a box or chest or travelling trunk, the Scandinavian variants being: koffert (Swedish) and kufert (Norwegian and Danish). Originally the word was derived from the Greek name for basket. Its connection with a receptacle is ancient, and this is important because coffering is an architectural term for the repetition of square sunk panels in a ceiling.3 It is, perhaps; reasonable to assume that the coffering method of ceiling construction should have derived its name from chests which are panelled. The most primitive form of chest is a large block of wood, hollowed out. Early chests in early American colonial furniture are slabbed, not panelled, the fronts, backs and sides each being made from single pieces of wood, framed into corner posts. The structural work on such chests is simple, and the elementary strength of the method employed is frequently supplemented by iron banding on the exterior.' If chests made in this way are described as `coffers', ceilings with sunk, square panels should be called 'chested'. By strictly interpreting an architectural term we should describe panelled chests as coffers; but it is sometimes suggested that the term `coffer' is applicable only to chests that were really timber safes or strong-boxes for the storing of treasure. Upon this interpretation of the term, now so widely accepted that it is more convenient to adopt it, we should 'only describe as coffers those chests built for strength and security by pre-Tudor woodworkers.
The cassone was an Italian elaboration of the chest, a shapely and ornate receptacle that was never made in England. Until the end of the fourteenth century English chests were of the simplest kind, occasionally embellished with a little chip carving-geometric roundels that had about them something faintly Saracenic, as if some fluttering and feeble echo of the taste of returning crusaders had been caught and perpetuated by the carver. Only when carved ornament grew bolder did its affinities with contemporary Gothic work become so pronounced that the front of a late fifteenth- or early American colonial furniture sixteenth-century chest often resembled a series of blind church windows; tracery with the voids narrowed and reduced, completely masking the surface. Presently this carved tracery was pierced in the panelled fronts and doors of cupboards.
The function of receptacles sometimes influenced the form of ornament that was carved upon them. The linenfold device was an attempt to illustrate the folded fabrics within the chest or cupboard. The resulting pattern was so pleasing in its form, so subtle in the surface variation it afforded, that it was adopted for the embellishment not only of the fronts of chests and cupboards, but for the walls of rooms whenever they were panelled. The vine leaf motif, flowing and boldly decorative, was occasionally used, but in spite of such experiments with independent ornamental forms, the embellishment of early Tudor and early American colonial furniture furniture never wholly lost its affinity with church woodwork.
During the sixteenth century, chests and stools which had hitherto provided the seats in most dwellings were supplemented by chairs. There had been chairs before this time, but they were in the nature of state chairs, rare and lordly things that seldom strained beneath the weight of a commoner. Generally these chairs were squat, throne-like boxes with rigid arms and high, straight backs. They were chairs that looked as though they had been designed to carry enormous weights. The enclosed front below the seat, the solid sides and the vertical back were usually filled with ornamental lines of tracery carved upon the panelled oak. At the upper corners of the back there would be finials, carved like spires (as in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey), or else terminating in little castellated platforms to accommodate selections from the fauna of heraldry. The X-shaped chair which consisted of a frame of wood with a fabric seat and back represented exactly the same principle of construction as some of the modern chairs made of tubular steel., There is a fourteenth-century X-shaped chair in the vestry of York Minster. Even in Tudor days these X-shaped chairs were rare. They might be found in the palace of a nobleman or some rich ecclesiastic like Cardinal Wolsey. In the early sixteenth century they were the elegant and comfortable representatives of the Italianate fashions that were soon to invade England. They no more represented the English craftsman's idea of chair-making than the classic facade of some composition by Baldassare Peruzzi or Giacomo Barozzi represented an English mason's idea of church-building.