19th Century American Furniture: History, Designers & Styles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

America changed a lot in the 19th century, and its furniture reflected that. In this lesson, we'll cover some of the important styles and see how they mirrored cultural attitudes in the United States.

American Furniture Identity

When the United States achieved its independence from Britain, the American people were pretty excited. However, independence brought with it a whole range of questions, most notably: who are we?

This was a question the United States would spend the entire 19th century trying to answer. The nation focused on what made it unique, what its literary and intellectual cultures would look like, and what its place was in the world. But just as importantly, they talked about chairs. And sofas. And desks, tables, and cabinets. Furniture was important in the 19th century as Americans strove to define a national aesthetic that fit into every aspect of their lives. The quest was no longer simply find great furniture: it was to find great American furniture.

Neoclassical Furniture

The 19th century was a period of artistic growth and experimentation for the United States, so a number of different styles were introduced. However, we can categorize them into two basic artistic movements. The first is neoclassicism, which was the revival of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics.

This Federal style chair is symmetrical and rational
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When the United States founded its republic, it saw itself as the ideological offspring of the Roman Republic, kicking off a fascination with all things Roman. Ever wonder why American government buildings look like Roman temples? That's why! This was the aesthetic when the United States began the 19th century with its first neoclassical furniture, known as the Federal style. Federal style furniture was symmetrical, logical, and visually calm, reflecting the ideals of Classical philosophy and the republic. It emphasized sleek, straight lines, rational geometry, and decorative motifs that helped build aesthetic parallels between the United States and Rome. Chief among these motifs? The eagle.

Empire style couch by Duncan Phyfe
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The Federal style was in vogue until about 1820, when the United States really started expanding West, entered its industrial revolution, and started asserting its place in global politics. The nation was growing, and the furniture did too. We call this the Empire style, influenced heavily by Napoleon's emulation of Roman imperial aesthetics. Empire style furniture was still neoclassical, but had larger and exaggerated motifs like scrolls and columns. It was visually bulkier and sturdier, reflecting strength, prosperity, and power. In the United States, both the late Federal and Empires were championed by the highly influential furniture maker Duncan Phyfe.

Empire style furniture was popular from 1820-1840, overlapping near the end with a third neoclassical iteration: the Late Classical style (ca. 1835-1850). Championed by the furniture company of Joseph Meeks & Sons, this style was built on prominent and exaggerated S-scroll and C-scroll motifs. In fact, it's often simply called the Pillar and Scroll style.

Revival Styles

Neoclassicism set the tone for an American aesthetic, but it wouldn't last forever. After roughly 1850, American furniture was swept up in an international obsession with revivalism. Technically, this had already been occurring. Neoclassical styles revived Greek and Roman ideals, and the Empire style incorporated some Egyptian revivalism as well (thanks to Napoleon's Egyptian Empire).

Revivalism of the later 19th century, however, was a bit different. It was inventive, eclectic, and focused strongly on style over substance--adding decorative motifs without changing the underlying form or structure. It was also the first time that furniture became mass-produced on industrial machines, which was celebrated at the time as a symbol of the modern age. This was particularly true after the Civil War, when progress and industry, not nationalism, were seen as the routes to a better future.

Stylistically, this American neo-Gothic chair contains Gothic motifs, but has all the comforts and structural support of 19th-century furniture
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In the second half of the 19th century, American furniture makers experimented with medieval-inspired neo-Gothic styles, lighthearted French Rococo revival, exotic Egyptian revivalism, and a neo-neoclassical Renaissance revival. These styles were built around stylistic details and motifs. They were highly decorative, and integral parts of flourishing revival-based architecture and interior design. Influential American horticulturalist and designer Andrew Jackson Downing heavily encouraged a unified aesthetic within the home as a projection of oneself. He personally favored the neo-Gothic style.

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