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Early American Furniture History : Colonial Period

Heading for the New World with high hopes and dreams of a better life, the early American settlers found themselves in wild, unclaimed country that they made their home. They brought little in the way of furniture or possessions, and built rough, rudimentary shacks. Early American furniture for the most part consisted of a few benches, perhaps a trestle table, and mattresses on the floor.

Trestle Table
Trestle Table

Bit by bit, they began to make their homes more comfortable, and the tradition of early American furniture was born. Finding virgin forests of maple, cherry, oak and other native trees, the early American pioneers were able to use the finest quality wood for their furniture, unlike their European counterparts who were already beginning to feel the effects of deforestation.

Hand Made Early Style

Much of the early American furniture, such as colonial beds, was handmade by the settlers themselves, although skilled cabinetmakers also found their way to the New World. Early American furniture from this period tended to copy the Jacobean and Carolean styles in England: heavy and solid, with straight simple lines and little fuss or ornamentation.

1684 Interior
Parlor or living room in the John Ward house, formerly on land occupied by the Salem Jail and removed to the garden of the Essex Institute. Built in 1684.

These homemade pieces of furniture were made from sheer necessity, but many of them were also made with love. Many early American settlers tried their hands at low-relief carving. Furniture was carved with simple patterns. One of the most popular of these was the maple leaf motif.


Colonial Fireplace, 1750
Colonial Fireplace, 1750.

Typically, life in the days of the early American settlers revolved around the fireplace - the only source of warmth in those bitter winters without any kind of heating system. Any type of furniture that provided a shield from the draught was popular, such as wing-backed chairs and hooded cradles.

Late 17th Century Cradle at Plymouth
Late 17th Century Cradle & Turned Chair at Plymouth.

A Heritage of Fine Wood

Early American furniture is extremely popular with collectors of antiques. One of the reasons for this is the excellent quality of the wood used during this era of unlimited, untamed forests. Woods commonly in use included maple, cherry, walnut and oak.

Maple wood is strong and durable, and is not harmed by such working techniques as steam bending. And being a hard wood, maple can be brought to a highly polished finish. All of this made maple furniture an excellent choice for the early American pioneers, as they began to add comfort to their rudimentary shack homes.

Cherry is a medium density wood with a fine grain and smooth texture. It is easy to work with, and can be bent easily. It is not as durable as maple, but produces an attractive finish. It was also a popular choice for early American furniture makers.

Oak, like maple, is a heavy and durable wood. The early American pioneers used both white oak and red oak. White oak is particularly suitable for casks as it is impermeable to liquids.

Gov. Carver's chair
Gov. Carver's chair, Plymouth.

Walnut is a darker, medium density wood; usually straight-grained but can also have a wavy or curly grain that is attractive. With polish, it has a rich patina, and this improves with age. It can be easily worked with hand tools.

Antiques and Reproductions

Genuine early American antique furniture is much sought after. The quality of the wood and the quality of the craftsmanship make it superior in many ways to European antiques of the same era. However, demand exceeds supply, and early American antique furniture is expensive and often hard to find. Many home makers content themselves with finding one or two valuable pieces, and supplementing them with good reproductions of early American furniture. Reproduction furniture is made, often by hand, in the same style and uses the same woods as the genuine antiques, thereby blending in well and creating an attractive decor effect in which history and comfort both have their part.

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