American Furniture History

American Furniture History

This is an essay by Gustav Stickley on the history and heritage of American antique furniture.

American Colonial Period

¶ With the older styles of furniture, such as the English and the Dutch Colonial, we have little to do. They were importations from older civilizations, as were the Colonists themselves, and they expressed the life of the mother country rather than that of the new. When we first began to make furniture in this country, the cabinet makers naturally followed their old traditions and made the kind of furniture which most appealed to them and which came within the scope of their experience, for, after the first primitive days of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England and the earliest settlers in the South, the life of the Colonists was modeled closely upon that of the old country and this life naturally found expression in their homes and household belongings. Therefore the Colonial style was so close to the prevailing style of the eighteenth century that it may be regarded as practically the same thing.

Early American Furniture

¶ After the end of the Colonial period, and during the swift expansion that followed the Revolution, there was inevitably a return to the primitive. Importations from the old world were no longer popular and while the houses of the wealthy were still furnished with the graceful spindle-legged mahogany pieces of earlier days, most of the people were forced to content themselves with much plainer and more substantial belongings.


¶ Little chair factories sprang up here and there, especially in Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, and these supplied the great demand for the plain wooden chairs that we now call kitchen chairs, and the cane seated chairs which were usually reserved for use in the best room. As the demand increased with the increasing population, the alert and resourceful New Englander began to invent machinery which would increase his output. As a consequence, the business of chair making made rapid growth, but the primitive beauty of the hand-made pieces was lost.

Windsor Chairs

¶ The Windsor chairs, with their perfect proportions, subtle modeling and slender legs shaped with the turning lathe, became a thing of the past, for in the factories it was necessary from a business point of view to effect the utmost savings in material and also to consider the limitations of the machinery of that day. The object of the manufacturer naturally was to turn out the greatest possible quantity of goods with the least possible amount of labor and expense, and the result was so many modifications of the original form that the factory made chairs soon become commonplace. When machines were invented to take the place of hand turning and carving it was inevitable that vulgarity should be added to the commonplaceness, because it is so easy to disguise bad lines with cheap ornamentation.

Black Walnut Furniture

¶ Side by side with these chair factories another furniture industry was springing up, mainly in the Middle West because that was the black walnut country and black walnut was the material most in demand for the more elaborate furniture. At the same time that the New Englander was evolving from the artisan who carried on his work with the aid of a little water mill, to a manufacturer who owned a chair factory run by machinery, a number of German cabinetmakers who had settled in Indiana and the neighboring states were accumulating, by means of industry and thrift, enough means to set up general furniture factories, which supplied the country with black walnut "parlor suites", upholstered with haircloth, repps or plush, while the New Englander remained content to furnish it with dining room and kitchen chairs.

The Victorian Era

¶ This period in American furniture corresponds with the architectural phase in this country which has aptly been termed the "reign of terror", but we are in some measure consoled for the hideous bad taste of it all by the reflection that it was contemporary with the early and mid Victorian period in England, a term that everywhere stands for all that is ugly, artificial and commonplace in household art.

Grand Rapids Furniture

¶ It was succeeded by the first of the Grand Rapids furniture, which was in some measure a change for the better. tempted by the success of the German furniture makers, the shrewd New England manufacturers, with their superior knowledge of machinery, managed to plant themselves in the Middle West and to distance their competitors. The center of these new manufacturing interests was then in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so that the new style of furniture which was produced came to be known as Grand Rapids furniture. It was plainer than the black walnut furniture and was fashioned more after the Colonial models, but the best features were speedily lost in the ornamentation with which it was overlaid, as well as in the modification and adaptation of the earlier forms by a new generation of designers, who had studied foreign furniture and so gained a smattering of the traditional styles which they proceeded to apply to the creation of "novelties" About this time the large department stores sprang up and, as they very soon became the principal retailers, they naturally assumed control of the furniture that was made. The demand for novelties was unceasing and the designer was at the beck and call of the traveling salesman, who in his turn was compelled to supply a ceaseless stream of new attractions to the head of the furniture department, whose business it was constantly to whet the public appetite for further novelties.

Antique Period Furniture

¶ The greater part of the demand thus created was satisfied by the Grand Rapids furniture industry but as wealth and culture increased, and people became more and more familiar with European homes and European luxuries, the new vogue for the "period" or antique furniture sprang up among the richer class, and some of the factories turned their attention to endeavoring to duplicate the several styles of French and English furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These factories are still running, some of them being employed in turning out the closest imitation they can make of the "period" furniture and others in reproducing Colonial models.

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Other topics in this section include: Art Nouveau Furniture, Primitive Furniture. is Copyright © 2005-12 by International Styles