Describing household items is one of the most important skills in the estate sale and online auction business. As anyone who has ever seen Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers knows, the detailed history of objects is crucial to determining their value. This means including, how items were produced, what features they have, and what they are made of. These details are not only fundamental to their worth, but a fascinating way to engage with history. Especially the unique history of furniture production across the United States.
In this piece, MaxSold will begin at the beginning of that story – in New England and Massachusetts where the first American settlers established colonies and began making goods domestically.
Settlers and Pilgrims: Colonial Furniture (1620-1690)
Massachusetts’ early history is unlike that of any other State. Among the first 17th century colonial outposts, for decades, Boston was the largest, most populated outpost in British North America. As a result, by the 1660s, coastal New England had become a center for shipbuilding and lumber trading. The expanding industry of woodworkers produced increasingly high volumes of goods, primarily chairs, for export. Some of the first American, non-indigenous objects were made at this time in Massachusetts.
The first settlers in New England brought very few objects with them from Britain. However, they did bring the heavier, stolid, and dependable oak styles popular in Britain at the time. The woodworking craftspeople of early 17th century Massachusetts made everything from ships, cabinetry, chests, and various domestic objects. The most elaborate furniture of the early colonial period was often composed of several parts, providing work for many craftspeople.
Early American Furniture and Makers (1660-1725)
Peter Blin (1675-1725) of Wethersfield, Connecticut, is among the first known colonial craftspeople to advance a more decorative treatment of the chest. These imposingly simple, rectangular frame-and-panel constructions were both sparse and highly utilitarian, reflecting the rural nature of the settlements from which they came. Painted and adorned with its owner’s initials, the “Hadley Chest,” named for the Massachusetts town in which it was initially produced, remained prevalent between 1675 and 1740.
Prominent among these early known Massachusetts Bay Colony craftspeople were William Searle (1634–1667) and Thomas Dennis (1638–1706) of Ipswich, Massachusetts. The renowned colonial-era furniture makers were trained in Devonshire England, and settled in the small outpost of Ipswich. Making it a center for expert joinery, furniture making and carving. The Searle/Dennis aesthetic was characterized by the full-cover use of intricate carving – a florid decorative style, popularized in Devon, England. Relative to the sparse and puritanical feel of everything that had come before, these objects were decoratively sophisticated, though to the contemporary eye they would still feel heavy and Gothic.
What is Queen Anne Style? (1730-1760)
Subsequent stylistic periods evolved and found expression in New England furniture over the next century. Including the Queen Anne style, that became popular in the American colonies between 1730 and 1760.
This style is characterized by newly emergent fluidity and elegance. The functional and decorative use of the “s” and “c” curves began to dominate the production of new forms. The backs of chairs curved to conform to the sitter’s body more ergonomically and the shape of early furniture softened, and became more decorative.
Boston, the most important colonial city in the early 18th century, was understandably the first to embrace this new style. Producing thousands of chairs in the Queen Anne vernacular, a regional type emerged and became known as the “Boston Chair”. Its popularity in the colonies resulted in its inter-coastal trade and export, which led to a competitive market for the chair’s production and craft evolved between Boston and Philadelphia.
What is Chippendale Furniture? (1755-1780)
The Chippendale style (1755-1780), probably the most widely collected and recognizable period of American colonial design, became very popular throughout Massachusetts and New England. The finest examples were produced primarily in Boston, Newport, and Connecticut, while others came from New York and Philadelphia. In many ways, it evolved from the Queen Anne style and retained many of its features.
Examples of Chippendale made in Massachusetts are some of the most sophisticated American furniture ever produced. The finest known pieces have secured as much as six figures at estate auctions. The style originated in England and was newly eclectic, drawing inspiration from French Rococo, Chinese decorative art motifs, and Gothic architectural detailing.
Nathaniel Gould of Salem Massachusetts (1734–1781) was among the finest producers in New England. A prominent importer of mahogany. His shop became a prolific, and bespoke, fine furniture producer of the period. Another notable Massachusetts craftsperson, with whom Gould worked, was Boston carver John Welch (1711-1789), responsible for some of the finest extant examples of ornate Chippendale furniture carving.
The American Revolution unambiguously bookends the colonial period. No less fascinating, however, is the subsequent history of Massachusetts furniture making in the wake of America’s founding. As Neo-Classical styles emerge in the early American Federal period, a freshly minted country stands a century away from industrialization which would continue to shape its material history.