Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Furniture, 1620–1730: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles

The earliest European settlers in America arrived with only the most basic provisions to re-create their material existence. Most brought little in the way of furniture beyond a chest, small boxes, and other simple storage containers. Plentiful American timber made it unnecessary to ship bulky furniture across the Atlantic at a great expense: thus, from the beginning, furniture making was an essential trade in the colonies.

American furniture of the early colonial period generally falls into two stylistic categories: the Seventeenth-Century style (1620–90) and the Early Baroque, or William and Mary, style (1690–1730). The Seventeenth-Century style reflects the transmission into the New World of late medieval and Renaissance traditions by immigrant craftsmen. Furniture in this style is frequently made of straight oak members joined at right angles. It is sturdy and massive, with low, horizontal proportions. Since the outlines tend to be rigidly rectilinear, craftsmen imparted visual interest through abundant surface ornamentation in the form of low-relief carving, applied moldings and turnings, and paint (66.190.1; 10.125.168; 10.125.680; 50.20.3).

There were two branches of the furniture-making trade during the seventeenth century: joiners, who “joined” together straight wood that had been shaped with axes and saws and smoothed with planes; and turners, who shaped wood with chisels and gouges while it spun, or turned, on a lathe. The Museum owns impressive examples of both joined and turned Seventeenth-Century style seating furniture. Turned chairs were cheaper than joined ones because of the speed with which their component parts could be turned on a lathe and the simple round mortise-and-tenon joints that held them together (51.12.2). By contrast, joined chairs relied on more complicated rectangular mortise-and-tenon joints, which required more time to lay out, saw, and fit (1995.98).

Although hundreds of furniture makers worked in the English- and Dutch-speaking colonies of America in the seventeenth century, only a handful can be identified today. In New England, two of the best-documented are William Searle and Thomas Dennis, who trained in Devonshire, England, and settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, during the 1660s. Once in America, Searle and Dennis continued to produce objects in the same manner they had in England. Their distinctive florid carving was indebted to Renaissance designs, which became a popular source of surface ornament for medieval forms such as the joined lift-top chest (10.125.685).

The right-angled, mortise-and-tenon construction of Seventeenth-Century style furniture is also evident in the architecture of the period. For instance, the Museum’s 1680 Samuel Hart Room (36.127) consists of massive posts and beams connected by mortise-and-tenon joints secured with wood pins. Similar construction techniques were used in joined furniture: indeed, most seventeenth-century joiners were multiskilled craftsmen capable not only of constructing a house frame but also of furnishing it.

The 1660 restoration of Charles II, who had been in exile in France, brought to England a new design sensibility based on the court fashions of Louis XIV. Known as the early Baroque, this style combined Continental and Asian influences in furniture forms that were at once richer and more curvilinear, with more vertical proportions. Although elements of this new style first appeared in English court circles during the 1660s, it was not until the reign of William and Mary (1689–1702) that the style spread throughout England and its colonies.

Furniture in the Early Baroque, or William and Mary, style broke away from the solid, horizontal massing and rectilinear outlines of the preceding era. Chairs became more slender and vertically oriented, with tall backs and gracefully turned posts and legs (52.195.8), while case pieces were lifted off the floor and precariously supported on delicately turned legs (52.195.2a,b). The new height was made possible by a joinery technique known as dovetailing, in which the case sides and fronts are fastened with interlocking joints that resemble in shape the tail of a dove. Dovetailing allowed for the use of thinner boards, and lent itself to lighter, more vertically oriented construction.

New specialized furniture forms, such as dining tables, high chests, desks, and easy chairs, reflected a growing concern for comfort and luxury in the early eighteenth century (10.125.75; 10.125.133; 50.228.1). Thin sheets, or veneers, of highly figured wood were glued to case fronts and table tops to create vibrant patterns and contrasting colors, while boldly turned legs and back posts of chairs created dramatic interplays between thick and thin, straight and curved. Craftsmen trained in the techniques of dovetailing and veneering came to be known as cabinetmakers; the William and Mary–style forms they produced are often characterized by a sense of energy and movement brought about by their contrasting colors and textures, and the vigorous Baroque outlines of their turned parts.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the lumber merchant John Wentworth filled his capacious home with a combination of English and locally made furniture in the fashionable William and Mary style (26.290). Wealthy colonials such as Wentworth were instrumental in bringing the new style to America; however, it never achieved widespread popularity in the colonies. Indeed, outside the major port cities, the influence of the William and Mary style was minimal.

The William and Mary style fell out of fashion in the 1720s. Its emphasis on opulent veneered surfaces and attenuated and precarious furniture forms did not reappear in America until the rise of Neoclassicism in the late eighteenth century. In the intervening years—that is, roughly 1730 to 1790—the solid massing, serpentine outlines, and naturalistic carving of the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles prevailed.