The Key Periods of American Antique Furniture

antique bedframe

One of the best ways to learn about a country’s history is by looking at their furniture, and America has a long and colorful one. Most furniture styles correspond to the time when they originated, while other styles are associated with a specific person who created or inspired the furniture design, as in the case of William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Sheraton, just to name a few. Some furniture designs continue to be popular today, but either replicated entirely or having a few of their elements incorporated into modern furniture trends.

Types of American Furniture Through the Years

1640 to 1700: Pilgrim

Furniture during this period originated from various hardwoods and softwoods such as cherry, birch, maple, oak, pine, and fruitwoods. They were heavy yet simple, with joints fastened by wooden pegs. Some furniture from this era had intricate carvings on the wood, which added to their aesthetic appeal. An example of furniture from this period is Jacobean, which were often made from oak, thus, their large and sturdy exterior. Many pieces were also upholstered with silk, leather, wool, or linen.

The Pilgrim period was also the time when a distinct style started to appear within furniture pieces in the colonies that went beyond functionality. Ornamental carvings, finials, raised panels, and woodturnings were the key characteristics of the furniture during this period. Joinery was typically of mortise and tenon.

1700 – 1780: Colonial

Pieces from England heavily influenced the Colonial period. Oil varnish, paint, or wax over a stain were the popular finishes. The primary wood used during this time included mahogany, elm, and walnut.

There were three furniture styles popular during this period, namely:

    • William and Mary: This particular style was named after the English King William of Orange and his consort, Mary. This furniture style featured crisp exteriors, with facades decorated with bold walnut grains or maple veneers framed by inlaid bands. Moldings and turnings were more dramatic in size, while turnings are baluster-shaped. The feet of the furniture were typically round or oval, except for the Spanish foot, which flares to a scroll. This furniture style also uses a lacquering process that combines ash and varnish called japanning.
    • Queen Anne: This furniture style is more delicate than William and Mary, with young Colonists using their designs to express their unique taste. Queen Anne is lighter and less bulky in appearance in comparison to earlier furniture, exhibiting a change in tastes during the early 1700s. Queen Anne pieces were the first to incorporate the curving cabriole leg. The pad foot is the most common found on Queen Anne pieces, but spade and trifid feet were popular as well. These replaced the heavy look of the ball foot used previously in William and Mary furniture.
    • Chippendale: Named after cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, this style featured Gothic arches, Chinese fretwork, columns, capitals, C-scrolls, S-scrolls, and accents of ribbons, flowers, leaves, scallop shells, and acanthus leaves.

1720: 1830: Pennsylvania Dutch

This period was marked by heavy German influences, with pieces that were simple and utilitarian gaining widespread popularity. Colorful, hand-painted scenes were the predominant design. Furniture pieces featured straight lines, simple turnings, and tapered legs made from walnut, oak, and pine.

1780 – 1815: Federal

The Feder period introduced ornamental style elements, such as fluting and inlays of contrasting woods to create shapes and designs. Banding with contrasting veneers to create decorative borders was also a popular technique. The pieces of the Federal period had heavy French and English influence, with hardware typically brass in a variety of shapes found in nature. The wood used during this period were mahogany, maple, birch, and satinwood. The legs tended to be straight or tapered to the foot. Chairs and sofas were more comfortable, but not thick-cushioned.

1790 – 1820: Sheraton

Named after designer Thomas Sheraton, furniture during this period was the most widely-reproduced style during the early 1800s. While they resembled Federal pieces, furniture during the Sheraton period was straighter and plain in design. Pieces featured traditional carvings, intricate brass hardware, rich upholstery, and veneers. The wood used include mahogany, mahogany veneer, maple, and pine, as well as native woods. The pieces during this period were closely associated with rural cabinet makers.

1805 – 1830 Empire

This period had furniture that put a greater emphasis on curved arms, cabriole legs, and ornate paw or claw feet. Influences include classical Greek, Egypt, and ancient European designs. American artisans started to incorporate patriotic motifs and used mahogany heavily. Dark wood was in style, so furniture was often painted black. Ebony or maple veneer inlays were popular, as were gilt highlights. Sleigh beds and sofa tables were some of the new furniture created during this period.

1820 – 1860: Shaker

Utilitarian-styled and straightforward furniture was popular during this period, which was named after a religious movement that was guided by the principles of simplicity, utility, and honesty. These principles translate into the designs of the furniture during the period, which featured straight lines, woven or cane seat material, basic turned wooden knobs, and visible locking joinery. Cherry, maple, and pine were used, which were stained or painted blue, red, yellow, or green. Many examples of Shaker furniture are preserved today.

1840 – 1910: Victorian

Pieces of this period were formal, elaborate, and opulent, which were a stark contrast to the furniture of the Shaker period. The aesthetics of the pieces echoed those of English Queen Victoria, who is known for her love of flashy items. The upholstery matched the ornate stylings of the wood. Needlepoint and tapestry adorned intricate pieces. Black walnut, oak, maple, and ash were commonly used, with rosewood inlays for contrast.

1880 – 1920: Arts and Craft

Furniture during this period can best be described as minimalist, with leather as the most common upholstery for practical reasons. Lacquer, shellac, and wax were standard finishes on the various woods used during this period, with oak being the most popular. The hardware consisted of copper, legs were straight, feet were small, and natural materials were used for inlays, such as silver, copper, and abalone shells.

1890 – 1910: Art Nouveau

Pieces during this period borrowed elements from previous periods, such as elaborate carvings and veneer inlays offset by brass and chrome hardware. Opulent fabrics, including velvet, tapestries, leather, and linen were used for upholstery. The sweeping lines of the pieces during this period were not very conducive to mass production, which is why they are scarce today.

1920 – 1950: Traditional Revival

This period took inspiration from designs dating back to the Colonial and Federal period. Intricate inlays and veneers, together with shapely turnings to decorate straight lines, made a comeback due to popular demand. The cocktail table made its debut during this period. Vinyl or smooth fabric were used as upholstery.

1950 – Present: Modernism and Post-Modernism

Furniture designed and produced during this period used new, mass-produced materials, including molded plywood, plastic, aluminum, and molded laminates. The period relied heavily on African and Asian influences.