Early American Furniture Styles & Makers

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of furniture could you find in early America? Who made furniture in the young American colonies? In this lesson, explore early American furniture styles and makers.

Furniture in Early America

What kind of furniture do you have?

Our furniture reflects a mix of styles and materials. It's true today, and it's true of people who lived in the American colonies. The American colonies were early settlements in North America, dating from the 1600s through the 1700s, that later became the United States, including places like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Many early colonists were men and women of European descent who arrived in the 1600s. They settled communities and built new lives, bringing a few family objects and goods with them. In these settlements, furniture was probably sparse and basic, perhaps a storage chest, rough table, and a few objects that served multiple purposes.

Throughout the colonies, people grew prosperous. As they built more permanent structures and homes, they wanted to equip them with furniture to make living spaces comfortable. Most of that furniture was made in the colonies and reflected European style elements. Early America was full of forests, so wood was in plentiful supply. As a result, furniture tended to be made of hardwoods like maple, cherry, oak and walnut.

Now, let's learn about who made Early American furniture and some styles. And to be clear, for the purposes of this lesson, Early America is defined as the time period from around 1620 through about 1730.

Early American Furniture Makers

Many furniture makers worked in early America, but few names are known to us today. They were often immigrants from places like England or Germany who arrived in the colonies with carpentry skills and were able to put them to use. Another route for furniture makers was to apprentice or work and study with a more experienced craftsman for a period of time before setting up a shop for themselves.

Early furniture makers were certainly active by the mid-1660s, and could especially be found in cities like Boston and Philadelphia where increasing numbers of people lived and worked. In these places, some furniture makers specialized in one type of piece, perhaps concentrating on making cabinets or chairs. They were informed of trends in Europe and made furniture that echoed popular styles.

Beginning around 1660 and continuing until around 1730, two furniture styles were most prominent. Let's learn more about them, as well as makers of each style.

Early American Furniture Styles

Seventeenth Century Style

One of the earliest styles to become popular in Early America was called the Seventeenth Century Style, found between 1620 - 1690.

The Seventeenth Century Style adapted elements of earlier European medieval and Renaissance styles, resulting in massive wood furniture that was horizontal in emphasis. It tended to be constructed by a process called joining. Joining meant the furniture was built of straight, smooth pieces joined or attached at right angles. It created angular furniture full of straight lines. Furniture makers decorated surfaces with relief carvings, moldings and painting. In relief carving, figures stood out from a background while still being attached to it.

Seventeenth Century Style cabinet. Notice the square, blocky proportions
Seventeenth Century Style Cabinet

A good example of Seventeenth Century Style furniture is a wooden chest made circa 1663 - 1680. Squat and rectangular, it has a surface covered with relief carvings of stylized foliage and floral patterns. It was possibly made by English immigrants who settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts in the 1660s. William Searle (died 1667) and Thomas Dennis (1638 - 1706) trained as furniture makers in England, in a region known for decorative carving. They came to Ipswich, bringing that carving style with them, and entered into a partnership to make furniture. Their works today are some of the best examples of the Seventeenth Century style.

Carved chest attributed to William Searle or Thomas Dennis. They brought this carving style with them from England
Searle or Dennis Chest

William and Mary Style

The next style to become popular in America was the William and Mary Style, also sometimes called Early Baroque. It was made mostly between 1690 and 1730, and gained its name from an English king and queen. This style developed from a mix of European influences, including English, Dutch and French.

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