I’ll admit it: One of the best things about being a River Oaks real estate agent is the chance to see some spectacular architecture, landscape design and, indoors, furniture and decorative arts. Fine antiques in an elegant setting are a balm to the soul as well as to the eyes. I’m an eager student of American antiques, always happy to learn something new.
If you don’t know a ball and claw from a ball and chain, don’t worry. In this month’s RO Letter installment, we discuss some of the classic American furniture styles, specifically from 1620 to 1876. You would be correct if it occurs to you that this is the same time frame that is on view at the Bayou Bend Collection, one of two house museums in River Oaks that belong to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. As a Bayou Bend docent, I spend nearly every Friday morning explaining these American styles and showing guests how to identify them in furniture, silver, ceramics and even paintings.
Ima Hogg, Houston’s famous grande dame and philanthropist, built Bayou Bend in 1928 and later gave it and its furnishings to the MFAH. Much more has been acquired since. Drawing on Bayou Bend’s collection for the visuals, let’s take a look at seven periods of classic American furniture.
1620 to 1690 17th-Century (sometimes called Early American)
Early settlers have tiny houses and a scarcity of furniture. The earliest furniture, usually made upon arrival in the colonies, were heavy chests and cupboards. These are made quickly and often roughly. They are typically horizontal, squat and low. Indigenous American woods, such as oak, are widely used, as is maple, pine, poplar, walnut and cherry. Often these early pieces are vividly painted in yellow, red, blue and green, though that paint rarely endures to the 21st Century. A great chair (for dad or an honored guest) and stools (for everyone else) are typical for seating, and carved ornamentation is often set within geometric forms, such as squares. Heavy mortise and tenon construction is typical, with the result that drawers are heavy and balanced on rails. Trunks and chests are often roughly finished on the inside. Knobs and pulls are made of wood. There is some lathe turning on chair and table legs. Printed cotton, produced in India, is imported via English merchant ships, but still relatively uncommon.
- Armchair (c. 1640-1690, made in Virginia of black cherry and hickory)
- Chest with drawers (c. 1670-1710, made in the Connecticut River Valley of oak and pine)
- Cupboard (c. 1670-1700, made in the Boston area of oak, maple and secondary woods)
1690 to 1730 William and Mary (also known as Early Baroque)
Taking a cue from the French, Americans begin to embrace comfort in their homes. Instead of loose cushions placed on hard wood chair seats, the new style calls for chairs in which the sitter rests on a web of interwoven supports and relaxes against textiles and ample padding secured to the frame: Upholstered furniture makes its appearance. The backs of chairs are often curved or tilted to be more comfortable. Case furniture becomes more vertical. Dovetailing is introduced, so drawers are lighter and more of them can be included in a chest or dresser. This lighter and slimmer furniture style features delicate legs, applied veneer, brass pulls (rather than wood) and C curves. It is dramatically taller and more vertical than earlier styles. The wood is highly polished, and when paint is used, it’s often inlaid. Carpenters use marvelous burl wood veneer. The style is busy, more intricate, and curves appear on feet. About this time, caned chairs, made from Asian rattan, become very popular. There are advances in glass and mirror production; symmetry becomes important in room and art arrangement. Kitchen and dining area begin to be separated in wealthier homes.
- High chest (c. 1700-1725, made in Boston of black walnut, burled walnut veneer, maple, aspen and other secondary woods)
- Easy chair (c. 1730-1745, made in Boston of maple, birch and cane)
- Dressing table (c.1700-1725, made in Boston of black walnut, walnut veneer and secondary woods)
1730 to 1755 Queen Anne (also known as Late Baroque)
Case furniture is more solid again, with curved legs, broken pediments, oxbow fronts and serpentine fronts. Straight lines balance the curves. Surfaces are unpainted, and there is more brass. Queen Anne style has a sense of openness and might be described as a feminine style. (Queen Anne was Ima Hogg’s favorite furniture style, and she used it in her bedroom and sitting room.) Chairs and tables sometimes have trifed feet, and the style is known for having an S curve in chair legs, slat backs and arms. There is some restraint to the design, which is simpler overall, except for legs and chair back slats, which are pierced, curving, delicate and open with an emphasis on negative space. Tea becomes fashionable, so small low tea tables become very popular. Homes begin to have parlors, a public space for socializing over tea or with card games. Seating is often/usually upholstered. Fully dressed beds make an appearance. Looking glasses (i.e. mirrors) are introduced.
- Card table (c. 1735-1745, made in Boston of mahogany and secondary woods with needlepoint top)
- Side chair (c. 1735-1765, made in Massachusetts or Rhode Island of black walnut and maple)
- Bedstead (c. 1750-1770, made in New Hampshire or Connecticut of poplar and maple, shown with a crewelwork bedspread and hangings, c. 1740, made in England of cotton twill and wool yarn)
1755 to 1790 Chippendale (also known as Rococo)
Until now, carpenters have used mostly indigenous woods, such as walnut, oak and maple. But the importation of mahogany from the Caribbean (where it was being clear-cut to make space for sugar plantations) changes the preferred wood. Well-to-do folks want mahogany and they like it heavily carved. There’s a movement away from veneer again, and the grain of the mahogany is often discernible and used as ornament. Carving, gadrooning and ball and claw feet (often very literal rather than abstract) are clues to a piece of furniture’s city of origin. In Newport, RI, for example, block fronts with shell carving are traditional. New York City cabinet makers like to make folding five-legged card tables. Styles show an integration of straight and curves, often with a broken pediment. Piercings make furniture feel lighter, and tinier dovetailing in joinery makes ever-shallower drawers possible. Legs of tables and chairs often feature carving at the knee and at the top. Note the curves on the crest rail and splat and long gentle curve to rear legs. Upholstered seats are typically attached. Brass pulls and escutcheons become larger, almost gaudy.
- High chest of drawers (c. 1760-1800, made in Philadelphia of mahogany and secondary woods)
- Bureau table (c. 1760-1800, made in Massachusetts of mahogany and secondary woods)
- Desk and bookcase (c. 1745-1780, made in Boston of mahogany and secondary woods)
1790 to 1810 Federal (also known as Neoclassical)
The end of the Revolutionary War inspires an entirely new style of furniture design. The United States is dizzy with patriotism, and the faces of leaders such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin find their way into ceramics, artwork, even carved detail on furniture. Intricately worked ornament disappears and is replaced with smooth surfaces, low-relief ornament and details inspired by ancient civilizations, such as columns, urns, swags, shields, wreaths and eagles. Marquetry and inlay work are popular. “Saber” legs – narrow, dainty furniture legs on tippy-toe feet – replace the heavy carved Chippendale style. Less wood is used, and there is more geometry – lots of rectangles – and repeated designs. Metal pulls, sometime with colored enamel, are popular, as are multiple kinds of wood in a single piece. There is an emphasis on contrast and color, as well as an architectural suggestion in the shape. Sheffield silver plate, roller-printed fabrics and ceramic lusterwares are invented.
- Sideboard (c. 1785-1815, made in New York of mahogany and secondary woods)
- Gentleman’s secretary (c. 1790-1820, made in Salem, Mass., of mahogany, glass and secondary woods)
- Cabriole sofa (c. 1785-1820, made in New York of mahogany and secondary woods)
1810 to 1845 Empire (also known as Late Classical)
Now the pendulum swings the other way, and furniture returns to a very heavy, weighty style, often with huge carved feet – think lion feet or dolphin feet. Still, some Federal/Neoclassical features, such as lyre shapes and a patriotic world view, remain. Gilding is big. Chair legs may splay out in all four directions, such as klismos chairs. This is not so much a reference to ancient civilizations as “ripped from ancient styles.” (Think of it as Greek or Egyptian influence as translated by France.) Ornamentation runs rampant, but usually remains within borders. Case furniture often includes mirrors. Men began to leave the house for offices, leaving the home more woman-centric; hence, more objects for women, such as ladies’ desks and worktables, are invented. Americans, even those in the middle class, have more access to “nice things,” such as musical instruments, oil lamps and clocks. We note an emphasis on comfort and cleanliness.
- Center table (c.1825-1835, made in New York of mahogany and secondary wood, paint and gilt)
- Sofa (c. 1810-1830, made in New York of mahogany and secondary woods)
- Chest of drawers (c. 1815, made in Philadelphia of mahogany, tulip poplar and secondary wood)
1845 to 1876 Revival Styles (also known as Victorian)
Furniture design begins to go in several directions now. On the one hand, you see lots of straight lines, architectural elements, some wood turning. There’s a movement to lighter designs with carving and architectural references. Or, hold onto your swatch book! We also see what’s commonly called Victorian design with super-elaborate carving, piercing and intense upholstery colors. Such furniture is almost overwrought and inspires a strong love-it or hate-it response. Rich materials, such as rosewood construction and satin upholstery, appear. Spring upholstery makes seating more comfortable, and steamed and laminated wood makes all kinds of crazy designs possible. Drawing from furniture in the Belter Parlor at Bayou Bend, here are three examples of Victorian furniture design – also called Rococo Revival – at its most flamboyant.
- Sofa (c. 1855, made in New York of rosewood, ash and black walnut)
- Étagère (c.1855, made in New York of rosewood, black walnut, mahogany and other secondary woods, marble and mirrored glass)
- Pitcher (c. 1850, made in Baltimore of sterling silver)