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American Country Furniture: History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Even wealthy Americans like to fill their homes with furniture that looks weathered and worn, but why? In this lesson, we'll look at the history and characteristics of American country furniture and see why it's so popular.

American Country Furniture

America has a soft spot for things that look a bit weathered, worn, and rustic. Have you ever noticed that? Why is it? There's actually a long history of Americans taking pride in relatively simplistic arts as symbol of democracy and opportunity for all, particularly in contrast to the exclusive aristocratic fashions of Europe. Benjamin Franklin, for example, used to visit Paris wearing a pioneer's fur hat and coat with the intention of standing out from the French elites.

This attitude extended to furniture as well. Particularly into the 19th century, Americans celebrated rustic-looking furniture made by non-professional or local craftspeople. The general term for this, and the later styles designed to emulate pioneer-style furnishings, is American country furniture. Rather than the refined furniture inspired by aristocratic Europe, the American country style was the utilitarian furniture of the people. It was a table of the republic, a bed of liberty, or a chair of democracy. It let Americans celebrate their pride and identity. Plus, it was cheap.

Design and Characteristics

So, how can we identify American country furniture? The emphasis of country furniture is always function over fashion, so look for designs that are useful, direct, and sturdy. American country furniture rejects the finery and elegance of delicate designs. Instead, it is practical and resilient.

This means that American country furniture is often decorated in relatively simple ways, those which would have been available to local craftspeople or amateur furniture makers. A lot of the ornamentation is found in legs and other parts that can be shaped by turning, or rotating, along a lathe to create geometric shapes. Beyond that, American country furniture is painted, stained, or varnished rather than gilded or set with inlays. Traditional rural paints of the 18th and 19th centuries were generally milk based, using milk, lime, and oil to bind pigments. Later country revival styles may use more modern paints, but often strive for a weathered or unfinished appearance, similar to how milk paints would wear over time. That weathered look also suggests sturdiness and longevity, implying that the furniture item has been in use for a long time.

American country style desk, once owned by Henry David Thoreau
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Other common traits of American country furniture include a preference for oak or pine, as well as aesthetic features defined by local folk arts. This is one of the important characteristics of American country furniture; it must be local. That means it is handmade by a local craftsperson, it utilizes local woods and materials, and adheres to local aesthetics.

American country style is a broad term that covers a variety of local aesthetics which fit these basic characteristics. In the United States, there are two of dominant styles within American country furniture. Farmhouse furniture is identifiable by its clean lines and simple forms, while Americana furniture is defined by patriotic designs like eagles or the liberal use of red, white, and blue paint.

History of American Country Furniture

So, how did this become an actual style of furniture? The simple answer is that as refined European styles entered the colonies, colonists emulated them using the local materials, resources, and skills available to them. While there were large cities like Boston or Philadelphia, most American towns were pretty rural. They used local wood because that's what they had access to. They made furniture that fit into their lives, and since they didn't have money to buy or build new furniture very often, it had to be functional, practical, and sturdy.

American Windsor chair from the late 18th century
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Perhaps one of the first major forms to define the American country style was the Windsor chair. The Windsor chair was a rural version of an English desk chair, which became popular in both England and the American colonies, crossing the Atlantic in the 1720s. The definitive features of the Windsor chair are the turned spindles, which come up from the seat to form a backrest and down (at and outward angle) to form legs. American Windsor chairs were originally painted green, but were later varnished or stained as well, reflecting the English taste for appreciating the visual qualities of fine wood.

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