American furniture styles changed with the times

NEW YORK – The first settlers to the New World brought what furniture they had with them but as American towns and commerce grew, furniture began to be made here in the late 1600s. The earliest examples likely were highly influenced by Dutch or British styles, but the American aesthetic was developing.

Over the last 200-plus years, American furniture has developed about a dozen distinct styles as consumer tastes changed. Early American furniture was fairly utilitarian and focused on simple forms created for a specific purpose, but American cabinetmakers began making increasingly sophisticated pieces, including high-style pieces for wealthy clients. Whole books have been written on the history of American furniture. so the following guide is a broad-strokes primer of sorts on some of the most popular American antique furniture styles.

William and Mary (1690–1730)

This style of furniture is bulky and strong, having low horizontal profiles and typically made of oak. To combat its overly rectilinear appearance, pieces would be decorated with low-relief carving, paint and applied moldings or turnings to add interest.

As an example, this circa 1750 Pennsylvania William and Mary spice chest, has a somewhat staid and boxy form. Decoration creates visual interest however with a herringbone border on the center of its door in the shape of a circle within a larger herringbone border framing the door’s outline.

A Pennsylvania William and Mary spice chest, circa 1750, 19in tall, attained $58,560 + the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Pook & Pook Inc. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Queen Anne (1730-1760)

Queen Anne furniture, noted for its restrained decoration and curvilinear forms, was among the first styles to use the cabriole leg that defined 18th century furniture. The S-shaped legs on everything from chairs to case pieces were shaped in a convex curve atop a concave curve. Curving chair crests and arms as well as decorative seashell carvings were emblematic of the Queen Anne style.

This important Queen Anne low-back upholstered mahogany chair, having a balloon seat, sold for $70,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Keno Auctions. Photo courtesy of Keno Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Windsor chairs

While a British invention, the ubiquitous Windsor chair is worthy of mention here as it became quite popular on this side of the pond. Philadelphia was the center of Windsor chair production in America as early as the 1740s. These chairs are instantly recognizable by their backs with multiple thin spindles, reclining form and splayed straight legs.

A Philadelphia comb-back Windsor chair made $5,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Wiederseim Associates Inc. Photo courtesy of Wiederseim Associates Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Federal (1790 to early 1820s)

The Federal period encompassing Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale furniture is all about straight lines and geometry. Legs are mostly straight instead of curved and pieces are distinguished by contrasting veneers and elegant geometric inlay designs. This period of furniture saw great changes in form and style. High chest of drawers fell out of favor and new styles appeared such as the sideboard. Satinwood or mahogany were frequently used as the primary wood for the base, though bird’s-eye and ripple-grain maple are hallmarks of pieces made in New England in this era. Finials, such as on secretaries or bookcases, used common motifs of eagles, draped urns, or an urn and a flame.

A rare North Carolina Federal miniature chest realized $30,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This two-piece Chippendale desk and upper bookcase, dated 1796, made entirely of walnut serves as proof that highly sophisticated furniture was being made in America this early. Capt. John Cowan, one of the first settlers in Kentucky, commissioned this piece that stayed in his family for 200 years, as a show of his status and success.

A rarity among early American furniture is this 1796 Kentucky secretary that Capt. John Cowan commissioned. It made $440,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2017 at Cowan’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Pennsylvania Dutch (1720 to 1830)

Paint-decorated Pennsylvania furniture is one of the most iconic forms of folk art. Characterized by its straight lines, plain turnings and tapered legs, the use of vibrant paint made these pieces sizzle. Regional forms popularized here saw the introduction of hanging cupboards and wall racks, usually painted with scrolling decoration or common motifs like hearts, tulips and fruit.

A rare Johannes Spitler paint-decorated Shenandoah blanket chest, circa 1790-1800, attained $36,000 + the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at Cowan’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Shaker (1780-1860)

Known for their devout religious beliefs, Shakers were guided by three central beliefs: honesty, simplicity and utility, which were evinced in the furniture they made for use in their self-sufficient communities as well as selling to the outside world. Boasting muted colors and clean lines, Shaker furniture is elegant in its simplicity. Simple dovetailed joints and a lack of fussy ornamentation are its hallmarks. A notable form is the Shaker ladder-back chair having horizontal posts on the back that look like ladder rungs.

A Shaker drop-leaf sewing table, probably Hancock, Mass., circa 1840, took $80,000 + the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Classical Empire (1820-1840)

Inspired by the French Restoration period, Classical Empire furniture was made in America by such renowned makers as Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks & Sons, who ran competing firms in New York City. Their furniture tended to scale on the large side and case pieces were distinguished by S- and C-scroll pillars. Meeks Classical Empire sofas typically had scrolled arms and used flame mahogany in the frames.

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe, this Classical rosewood table, 1815-1820, is distinguished by its fine rosewood veneers and satinwood banding. It earned $130,000 + the buyer’s premium in
September 2020 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Revival periods

The second half of the 19th century saw a flurry of Revival styles, including Rococo Revival, Egyptian Revival and Renaissance Revival as furniture began to be mass-produced in the 1860s. Taking design cues from Renaissance architecture, earlier Classical and Romantic styles, or Egyptian architecture, pieces from this era were known for detailed carving, elegant details, applied medallions, ebonized wood or ormolu gilding.

Attributed to renowned furniture maker J.H. Belter is this Rococo Revival rosewood etagere that sold for $85,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

20th century and beyond

Arguably the greatest evolution in American furniture design has been in the last 150 years as tastes changed from the highly ornate Victorian and Art Nouveau furniture styles to the streamlined Art Deco look by the 1930s. Rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, furniture makers such as Gustav Stickley focused on simplicity, creating what came to be known as the Mission style.

Boasting a unique look evocative of midcentury modern furniture is this Paul Evans floating sideboard credenza from his ‘Cityscape’ series, which earned $22,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Joshua Kodner. Photo courtey of Joshua Kodner and LiveAuctioneers

The Midcentury Modern era in the 1950s was a time of rebirth after World War II and this furniture aesthetic was unlike anything that came before. Midcentury designers/makers such as Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, Paul Evans, Paul McCobb and Wendell Castle created comfortable and functional furniture that were works of art in themselves.