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American Furniture Styles: History & Examples

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

When the colonists landed in America they were primarily concerned with survival, meaning it wasn't until a number of years later that people could pursue the art of furniture making for pleasure. This lesson will explore how American furniture has evolved from utilitarian to decorative and stylish.

American Furniture Styles: History and Examples

American furniture making has gone through a number of periods and styles. Each of these styles was heavily influenced by French and British furniture design as well as the materials that were available in each manufacturing region. While there are many other styles that overlap each of these we can identify 13 main periods in American furniture: Early American, Colonial, Pennsylvania Dutch, Federal, Sheraton, American Empire, Shaker, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, and Modern/Contemporary.

Early American

This style was prevalent from around 1640-1700 and is the first time we see American made furniture go beyond the practical. While most furniture still served utilitarian purposes, details such as decorative carvings, raised panels, and finials began to dress up pieces made from local woods such as pine, cherry, birch, maple, and oak. Most joints were mortise and tenon.

Early American Chair
Early American

Colonial

From around 1700-1780 the Colonial style prevailed. Heavily influenced by English pieces, American versions of the William and Mary, Queen Anne, and Chippendale styles tended to be less ornate and more conservative than their English counterparts. Mahogany, elm, and walnut were the predominate woods and were finished with an oil varnish or paint or wax over stain. Dovetail joints join mortise and tenon joints as the norm in this style of furniture construction.

Colonial Chair
colonial chair

Pennsylvania Dutch

From about 1720-1830 German influences appeared in simple utilitarian pieces. This style of furniture was typically made from walnut, oak, and pine and featured straight lines and tapered legs. Hand painted decorative designs are the hallmark of this style.

Pennsylvania Dutch Chest
Dutch Chest

Federal

Heavily influenced by the French and English, American furniture designed from 1780-1820 mimicked the Neoclassic elements of English furniture makers. Straight lines and tapered legs give a lighter, more graceful elegance. Veneers of contrasting woods created inlaid wood designs and decorative borders.

Federal Sideboard
federal sideboard

Sheraton

During the Federal period the most widely reproduced style of furniture was influenced by the English designer Thomas Sheraton. In 1791 Sheraton published his designs in 'The Cabinet Makers and Upholsterer's Drawing Book'. Furniture in the Sheraton style is characterized by straight lines, contrasting veneers, neoclassical ornamentation, and intricate brass hardware. This style was the most reproduced style in the United States during the Federal period.

Sheraton Chairs
sheraton chairs

American Empire

The American Empire style also overlapped the Federal period from 1800-1840. Furniture of this period was influenced more by the French than the English. This style of furniture gave a greater emphasis to curved arms and cabriole, or curved legs ending with paw or claw feet. Dark wood was favored and glass panels often replaced raised wooden panels.

American Empire Dresser
dresser

Shaker

The Shaker style of furniture was produced by the religious group called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming from 1820-1860. This furniture was simple and utilitarian with straight lines, simple turned wooden knobs and woven or cane material for chair seats. Cherry, maple, or pine were used and often painted with colors chosen by the sect, usually red, blue, yellow, or green.

Shaker Chairs
shaker

Victorian

Named for Queen Victoria of England, this style was popular from 1840-1910. The heavy proportions, ornate carvings, needlepoint or tapestry seats, and dark wood of the Victorian style was in stark contrast to the Shaker. Black walnut, maple, oak, and ash were the preferred woods sometimes with inlays of rosewood. Very formal, this was the first furniture style to be mass produced.

Victorian Parlor
parlor

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