American Traditional Furniture

17th Century Furniture

When the two earliest American colonies were founded-Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, James I was the reigning monarch in England (1603-1625). For this reason, the term Jacobean is sometimes used to describe the earliest American Furniture. However, because this earliest type of colonial furniture is derived from a combination of several earlier design sources, the term 17th century is used here to denote this period. At the end of the 16th century, northern Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages. The importation of Flemish pattern books and the immigration of Flemish Huguenot craftsman began to bring influence of Italian Renaissance design to England. As this new style was introduced into a somewhat backward country, basic Renaissance elements began to appear in English Furniture: heavy turned baluster supports, flat bun feet, and arched paneled construction. These elements of design and construction were transplanted to America

A general feature of 17th century furniture is a heavy appearance. The furniture was very durable; oak was the wood of choice. It should be noted that oak was used both in America and England. Ash and maple were also used, this was because it turned and whittled, making them suitable for the varieties of rounded forms found in that period. Although little evidence survives today, much 17th century furniture was originally painted.

Rounded shapes turned on the lathe provided an important decorative element in the 17th century furniture forms. Turned balusters, spindles and bun feet, formed in a varity of shapes, appeared frequently on case furniture. Splits spindles were created by gluing two blocks together with a thin strip of wood between the blocks. After the blocks were turned, the strip of wood was knocked out, leaving two half spindles which could be applied to case furniture.

Shallow carved geometric panels were also used as decorative elements. In fact, paneled construction was widely used in 17th century America. A medieval development, these insert panels were fitted into slots within an overall frame so that they could expand and contract with changes in humidity and temperature. Pretty smart thinking.

The technique of creating joints with mortise and tenon was widely used in 17th century furniture. With this technique, a hole usually square or rectangular was chiseled into one member and a tonque shaped to fit this hole was chiseled into the other. A peg was than placed through both pieces to secure them together, forming the joint. The person that performed this task was known as "joiner."

The chest was the earliest form of what we call case furniture today. This category of furniture suggests a case or box kind of construction. Other case pieces include chests of drawers, cabinets, cupboards, desks and sideboards.

The other categories of furniture are chair furniture including settees and sofas. This type of furniture has different concerns and completely different construction methods.

These many types of categories of furniture first became prevalent in the late 17th century. This Caused the maker now to have many new skills. The simple joiner was replaced by the "cabinetmaker." His skills included joining, turning, carving, veneering, and gilding of the wood.

He used both local woods and woods from other parts of the world, most of which was obtained by sailors that sailed into exotic ports of call.

Since oak was the wood of choice, many pieces have survived into the 20th century, and will be around into the 21 st century. The American pieces that have survived have much restoration. These pieces saw this restoration in the early part of this century This was due to the poplar nature of this type of furniture. Of the surviving pieces, most come from Massachusetts, but examples are also from New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia.

Because documentary evidence is scant, dating furniture from this period is especially difficult. The pieces that have survived provide little more than a broad outline of regional differences, the techniques of special joiners. Little is known about the actual makers of this early furniture. Thomas Dennis (active 1663-1706) and William Searle (active 1634-1667), both of Ipswich, Massachusetts, are two of the earliest known American furniture makers.

Peter Blin of Wetherfield, Connecticut, is associated with the sunflower chest, and John Allis and Samuel Belding, followed by their sons, are associated with the Hadley chest.

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