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Colonial Furniture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Shenley Schenk

Shenley holds a Master's of Science in Interior Architecture as well as a LEED Green Associate Certification.

Colonial furniture shares a unique history and style influence. Explore the characteristics and history behind the unique design of Colonial furniture.

Colonial Furniture History

With simplicity, flexibility and movement, Colonial furniture gained recognition within American colonies. Colonial furniture was the sought-after design style built by American colonists from the mid-1600's to the mid-1700's. The design was influenced by styles used in England. Different from English design, Colonial design fulfilled a need for basic, light and multifunctional furniture. Colonial furniture design coexisted with William and Mary and Queen Anne styles. Explore the history and styles of Colonial furniture.

Colonial Furniture Characteristics

With the idea for simple, moveable and functional design, Colonial furniture developed specific identifying characteristics. Numerous woods were used, however, oak and pine were most common. Makers kept the wood in its natural finish or applied clear finishes such as varnish or wax. With time and exposure, the wood would change color to give it a unique patina.

Straight lines and occasionally s-curves were used to add interest to the design. Arms were designed with a slight outward curve. Legs displayed more detail with turned, round or cabriole designs.

Dressing table with cabriole legs ending in pad feet from Boston in the mid 1700s
dressing table

As the need for comfort grew, fabric, chintz, crewel, damask, and tapestry was used to pad the seat and provide an aesthetic design. Chair seats were also formed in a horseshoe or square shape to add comfort. Chair backs were made of formed cane material, upholstery or wood. Fiddle back, ladder back, slat back, solid and spindle chair backs were all used in Colonial design.

Construction

Colonial furniture construction was basic yet long-lasting. Joints were made by creating simple dovetail or mortise and tenon joints. Nails and screws were not readily available so makers used a combination of wet and dry wood to cause the wood to expand and contrast with each other. Hardware was made of brass, iron, leather or wood. All furniture was smoothed by hand, using tools, since sandpaper was not available.

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