Furniture Styles

Furniture > American > Antique > Early > New England

New England Furniture, Colonial Pilgrim Furniture

The pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 with little or no furniture to speak of, the hold of the Mayflower carried only a handful of wood cutting tools. While hewing their homes, and a new life, out of the raw wilderness of New England any furniture used could have consisted only of tree stumps, logs, or stones used to sit by fires or otherwise.

After the initial extreme hardships and trials were overcome and permanent settlements fully established the hands and tools of budding craftsmen and artisans among the pilgrims turned to work in the forest to build more comfortable homes and early New England furniture began to be built.

Early Pilgrim Chairs
Early Pilgrim Chairs.

While very early pilgrim furniture was crude and extremely utilitarian, lacking much meaning in the great story of furniture styles, later use of more advanced tools such as broad axes, and adzes, in addition to labour intensive pitsawing, enabled squared lumber to be harvested from the virgin New England forests and thence more character-full furniture was built in the style that later would become known as "New England Colonial".

Wood types used in making pilgrim furniture were maple, birch, and honey coloured pine. Some walnut and cherry were also made use of. These softer woods were the natural choice of the early colonists, being easily felled and sawn.

The pilgrims were of course Englishmen and the furniture they made bore a heavy debt to the heritage of the English furniture tradition, in particular the country furniture of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over time however, perhaps due to the independent mind of the early settlers, the old world designs for carved chests, chairs, tables, benches, and beds, with their somewhat "heavy", overbearing, Gothic lineage, were revised in tune with the spirit of a new nation and gained more delicate proportions and were decorated with more humanly appealing carving and scrolling.

Pilgrim Furniture
Pilgrim Furniture, 17th century.

Scrollwork especially, in the form of curved scrolls, like the cyma scroll, and turned shapes, was a special skill of the colonial woodworkers of New England.

Making Pilgrim Furniture

In the very early period of pilgrim settlement in New England metal, nails, and glue were unavailable thus requiring pilgrim furniture craftsmen to use wooden pegs and wedged keys in the joints of stools and chairs and other early colonial furniture.

Table tops of antique American furniture evince that the pine trees encountered by pilgrim settlers were of considerable width enabling wood planks to be utilised up to 30 inches wide. This allowed for tables to be constructed without the need for joining boards together.

In the surviving examples, (and perhaps in some reproductions) of antique chests, stools, candlestands, hutches, sconces, wallboxes, racks, shelves, benches, and a myriad of other furniture types from the early years of the pilgrim settlement in America it can be seen that the minds and hands of the founders and pioneers of the American nation soon turned to works of art, beauty, and simplicity of design attuned to the everyday needs of those living in a frontier land.

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