Early American folk furniture reflected European furniture style that would first emerge at an English or Continental court and almost immediately be adapted by those associated with the ruling classes. It would then filter down to the lesser nobles and ultimately to the lower classes. Immigrants then brought these styles with them to the New World. The designs first enjoyed popularity in Colonial cities where they were incorporated into the patterns of the leading cabinetmakers. Finally, the basic styles were adopted by rural craftsmen. They adapted the designs to the needs of their clientele and the materials they had available.
Patterns and Colors
Nearly all country or folk furniture was painted. It either to hide the fact that it was made from inexpensive types of wood, such as pine. Or, also, would disguise the fact that a number of different woods were used in the construction. Paint finishes could create a beautiful grain on lumber giving it the appearance of more expensive wood, such as mahogany and rosewood. To achieve different grain patterns, the paint was often applied with sponges, putty, leaves, and combs.
Many 19th-century Americans used vivid colors, swirling patterns and symbolic or decorative motifs. And these enhanced furniture surfaces that reflected fashion, family heritage and a sense of design. Painted surfaces elevated furniture made of inexpensive and plain woods to objects of decoration and beauty. Some painted designs expressed current fashion. While others reflected the cultural background of the maker or owner, or their pride in the new nation.
Folk Art Chests
Painted chests with or without drawers were commonly found in the homes of Germanic settlers and their descendants in America. Their chests were often painted with motifs symbolic of love, marriage, life, and religion. The decorated chest was among the most common and symbolically important pieces of furniture within these early households. These chests were presented as part of a dowry or commissioned by a new couple for their marriage household. And, such chests not only held valuable household textiles and other treasured possessions but served as important symbols of wealth, stability, and ancestral identity.
Furniture Styles Through Time
Throughout America’s history, craftsmen have honed their skills to build exquisite pieces of furniture. Eight periods of furniture styles evolved throughout America’s early history, according to the “Field Guide to Early American Furniture.” They include Puritan Span (1650-1690), William and Mary (1690-1720), Queen Anne (1720-1750), Chippendale (1750-1775), Hepplewhite (1785-1800), Sheraton (1800-1820), American Empire (1820-1840) and Early Victorian (1840-1865). According to “Field Guide to Early American Furniture,” the gap in time between the Chippendale period and the Hepplewhite period is due to the American Revolution.
Folk Art Furniture Today
Today Manufacturers and Individual Folk Artists are reproducing American Folk Art Furniture pieces in a variety of styles and finishes. You'll find handmade and finished pieces representing the simple styles of early rural craftsmen as well as elaborate painted pieces that employ the same techniques of smoking and texturing the paint to reproduce original finishes. Many of these modern American Folk Art Furniture items are as much “functional art” as they are useful “furniture”. From antique to modern reproduction, Folk Art Furniture is one of the hottest trends in collecting today.
Written by Tamara Pearce, owner of Pearce’s Craft Shop