American Furniture By E. T. Joy

been inspired by the desire for impressive show. No such noble grandeurs occur in American furniture, no broad and spacious sizes, no courtly elegance, no lavish luxury, no sumptuous ornamentation, no massive, monumental plainness. American furniture is unsophisticated, informal, and democratically modest. Based on English originals though they be, American examples tend to be more forthright in design, more straightforward in construction, smaller in size, quieter in taste, and more utilitarian in the practicalities.

The spirit of early American furniture-makers was one of buoyant vitality, of energies released by exhilarating opportunity and channelled into handicraft by freedom of choice. Some workmen might be rude in skill, some naive, some expert, but almost never were they routine. Their spontaneity was as endlessly fresh as life itself in the New World. Added to the spontaneity was the aspect of unassuming skill. To be sure, there was pride. Early American furniture-makers clearly were as proud of their work as artists are of their art, yet none, not even the most adroit, showed overweening self-assurance.

Sobriety, spontaneity, informality, demo-cratic modesty, unassuming skill; there is a common denominator in these qualities of spirit, and the factor can be stemmed up in one word - simplicity. American antique furniture is simpler than English antique furniture. The tendency holds true not only up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but from 1620 to 1820, and the reason is obvious. In America the environment, the times, and the people were simpler. This simplicity of spirit manifests itself in physical characteristics. The forthright design in American furniture becomes, in the working out, a physical characteristic. So does straight¬forward construction, modest approach, spon¬taneity and unassuming skill. The excellence of the American handiwork often astonishes Englishmen. Skill that was rough and ready did occur - possibly too much of it - but there are surviving examples which show masterly skill, on occasion as fine, though never as formidable, as any achieved in London.

Several scholars have remarked on the generally smaller size of American furniture, and given as the reason for it the smaller size of the American home. Few, however, have as yet pointed out another physical characteristic equally central: that while English antique furniture tends to be broad and horizontal (perhaps the broader size led naturally toward the horizontal), Ameri¬can furniture tends to be vertical. Slender, lean, thin, tallish, these are the adjectives that generally describe it. The tendency appears in every American furniture style from Queen Anne on through Sheraton, and appears in every type of article - the height of the side chair in relation to width, of the arm chair as well, and the wing chair, the highboy, the secretary, and so on. Even in post-Revolutionary forms, late forms such as the sideboard, the American accent is on vertical line, the English on horizontal. This American tendency to be tall and slender, combined as it is with less carving than the English liked - indeed, less ornament of any sort - makes for a quite distinctive and non-English character.

Comparisons aside, American antique furniture is worthy of praise for its own sake. At its best it has the vigour of direct, of functional design, the merit of harmonious proportions, the grace of slender line and outline, the charm of informal size, the beauty of richly grained wood surfaces, and the force born of lack of elaboration, simplicity.



the first furniture made in North America was based on the English Jacobean style. Modelled after characteristic household pieces which the Pilgrims of 1620 and later permanent first settlers brought with them from England to the New World, the earliest examples now surviving probably date between 1650-70. They are of strong, straightforward, simple design and con-struction, generally bulky, yet often remark-ably well proportioned. From the many Jacobean examples which have been gathered into museums, we judge that the woods employed were mostly American oak, pine and maple. Perhaps most numerous are oak

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