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Early American Furniture (17th Century Colonial Era)

Updated on April 20, 2018
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The earliest pieces of American furniture were stools and tables, of which there were many type and styles depending on each one’s function. The homes were sparsely furnished and because they were handmade as and when needed, they only had furniture that met the basic necessities of their everyday life. Few, if any, were ever purchased.

For the entire period of the 17th-century Colonial era, the decorative arts of the Early Americans reflected the characters of the Restoration art movements and the Jacobean style. And though some of the settlers had brought over a few pieces of furniture from England during the migration, the local craftsmen and woodworkers were the ones who produced the few basics and they were only made to order.

The early American woodworkers and furniture makers tried their best to imitate the designs of the imported pieces to the best of their ability, but without the fine woodworking tools, their productions remained crude but functional. Designs were created by relying on dimming memories of their European past.

Wainscot chairs with elaborately carved wooden back. These 17th century American furniture comes with or without  arm supports
Wainscot chairs with elaborately carved wooden back. These 17th century American furniture comes with or without arm supports | Source

17th Century Furniture Styles of the Colonial Settlers

The Early American furniture and cabinet maker had their limitations. You can’t make or craft fine furniture without good crafting tools, the types used in England. The available few was not found in sufficient numbers in the localities and because of this, the art of fine crafting was lacking.

To compensate for this, they made attempts to introduce some finesse into their crafting by adding simple wood decorations, trims, and mouldings.

All Colonial furniture of the 1800s were made of wood found in their immediate environs. Though they were hard and uncomfortable, some tried to make the chairs and stools comfortable by adding handmade loose cushions made from embroidered textiles, needlepoint work. The elites and wealthy settlers also used velvet and silk imported from England. Quilts for their poster and trundle beds were hand woven by the women of the house.

Chairs and Stools

  • Turned chairs – These were also called spindle chairs. These early colonial chairs were fashioned after the Elizabethan and Jacobean turned furniture that was popular in England and Holland in the late 16th to early 17th century.
  • Wainscot chairs – a very popular chair in the 17th century, the front legs of wainscot chairs are shaped on a lathe while the back legs are squared sections. They have a carved wooden back with a relatively complex design and arm supports
  • Backless stools – This household stool had one leg extended upwards, but was later widened by a flat pad. The legs were supported by diagonal spindles for sturdiness and strength.
  • Settle – This is a carved wooden bench, usually with arms, a very high back, and occasionally, a storage box built under the seat (monks settles). A settle furniture piece is made to seat about four sitters.

A settle - A carved wooden bench with under-the-seat storage. This was a very popular item of furniture in the 1800s.
A settle - A carved wooden bench with under-the-seat storage. This was a very popular item of furniture in the 1800s. | Source

Tables

  • Early American chair-table - The 17th-century chair-table is a dual-purpose item of furniture that can be converted from a chair into a table. It becomes a chair when you flip up the table, it subsequently becomes the chair back. The chair-table originally had a drawer that slid under the seat of the chair, allowing for extra storage space.
  • Trestle table - A trestle table has two or three bracket supports linked by a longitudinal cross-beam over which the loose table top is placed, making it collapsible. The style’s ease of assembly and storage made it the ideal dining and working table.
  • Drop-leaf table – with a design dating back to the late 16th century Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture, drop-leaf tables have fixed mid-sections with hinged panels that can be folded or dropped down to the side. When the leaf is supported by a bracket when up it is a drop-leaf table.
  • Gate leg table – Unlike the drop-leaf table, if the leaf is supported by legs that swing out from the middle section, it is known as a gate leg table. Depending on the style, the leaves can drop half-way down or almost down to the floor. They were basically used as eating tables, side tables, and nightstands.
  • Desk box – This item of furniture is basically a small chest with side panels that fold out to form a writing surface. A desk box is usually compartmentalised to hold quill pens, ink, stamps, seals, paper, and envelopes.

Gate-leg table made from walnut wood  - Early designs of the 17th to 18th century American style table.
Gate-leg table made from walnut wood - Early designs of the 17th to 18th century American style table. | Source

Beds

  • Four poster beds – They are built strong, are very heavy, and quite imposing when compared to modern sleek poster beds. Early American 4-poster beds had four upright posts that support an upper rectangular panel of wood with rails around its perimeter. Earlier beds were fitted with rods which allowed curtains to be pulled around the bed. Soon, they were made to be highly ornate.
  • Trundle beds – Because the home of the early settlers consisted of a living area and sleeping area, the family always required an additional bed. This bedroom furniture is an additional cot stored under a regular bed. Trundle beds, also called truckle beds can be wheeled out for use by other household members, children, or visitors.
  • Wooden cradles – Rocking cradles was a common Early American furniture found in every home. Made strictly for infants and babies, a cradle will rock but is usually immobile.Unlike bassinets which are generally designed to work with fixed wood legs, cradles are basically designed to rock an infant to sleep.

Baby's cradle, a common piece of furniture found in most Colonial era homes.
Baby's cradle, a common piece of furniture found in most Colonial era homes. | Source

Wooden Chests

  • Storage chests - The earlier designs of wooden chests of the Colonial era were created for their intended use. They were simple and plain, but heavy, and were constructed with legs and flat lids. The flat lids allowed them to be used as seating furniture or working surfaces. By the end of the 17th century, chests became more ornate and finely decorated.
  • Chest of drawers - This furniture first evolved around the mid-1600s when woodworkers and chest makers introduced drawer compartments built below the chest to store and organise smaller items. The chest became taller and its top fixed to the body frame, better finished and decorated with carvings, bone inlay, and finished with coloured lacquer.

17th century American chest.
17th century American chest. | Source

Though America's reproduced furniture styles were smaller in size and scale when compared to English furniture, they were better suited for the smaller rooms and lower ceilings of the typical early colonial homes.

All in all the early Americans tried to maintain the rectangular features of the Jacobean period furniture and design, but the results, though of a more crude character, still fulfilled the needs of the early settlers.


Further Reading

Georgian Period Interior Design and Furniture Styles

Historic Victorian Home Styles and Interiors (19th Century America)

Famous Furniture and Textile Designers (19th Century) Michael Thonet and William Morris

American Colonial Home Interiors (17th - 18th Century)

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