Chez Dining Room: Early American Meets Hodgepodge

Sunday June 13, 2010

illustration by Betty MacKensie Dew/note the Windsor baby high chair

The American Colonial period dates from about 1620 to the end of the American Revolution. Popular furniture styles included the familiar designs of Jacobean, Queen Anne, and Chippendale. Most commonly, Colonial American furniture is based pretty extensively on the Jacobean style of English furniture. It is named after James I of England, and covers the period of the reigns of James I and both Charles I and Charles II, 1603 – 1688. It is easy to get confused since there is also Indian Colonial furniture and style, as well as British Colonial, which is Caribbean. Federal describes after the revolution (think Duncan Fyfe rather than Ethan Allen).

Starting in the late 16th century, England, Scotland, France, Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands began to colonize eastern North America. On the eve of the Revolution, Americans were still quite close to England in terms of native identity. They aimed to make their cities, homes, and bodies as British in appearance as possible. Wealthy merchants and farmers were able to import furniture from England since they wanted to decorate their homes in the British manner, but most middle-class and less affluent folks (most of the original immigrants were indentured servants and convicts) depended upon local craftsmen to create their furnishings. They were importing tables, chairs, fabric for clothing and upholstery, liquor, and all manner of fancy goods. Their desires compelled American craftsmen and artists to compete with and imitate things English. Naturally, American craftsmen used the English imports as inspiration. With typical American inventiveness, they enhanced their creations with their personal artistic vision, and within a few decades regional “personalities” developed in major metropolitan areas like Boston, Philadelphia (ie the Windsor chairs as in this photo said to be designed by Thomas Jefferson, who was also a trained architect), and Savannah.

Genuine early American antique furniture is much sought after today, but is a limited commodity. The quality of the local forested woods and the quality of the craftsmanship make it superior in many ways to British antiques of the same era. However, demand exceeds supply, and in-good-shape authentic early American antique furniture is expensive and often hard to find. Most home makers content themselves with finding one or two valuable pieces, and supplementing them with reproductions, which are very affordable and easy to find on the East Coast. I remember my mother scouting in antique stores for beat up authentic pieces and my grandfather working refinishing them in the garage. This augmented her vast house full of more sleek reproductions, which were accumulated piece by piece when I was a child. My mother’s sister, Aunt Joan, had similar taste and when I recently watched a CD of old family home movies, here was the landscape of each room filmed, like a dreamscape replete with the decorative spinning wheel in the corner, that confused me momentarily whose house it was.

Reproduction furniture is made, often by hand, in the same style and uses the same woods as the genuine antiques, thereby blending in well and creating an attractive decor effect in which history, collecting valuable pieces, and comfort all have their part. Almost all Jacobean furniture was made of oak, a wood well-suited to the massive sturdy style, while its American counterparts would be made of lovely local woods including pine, maple, cherry and walnut. My mother’s favorite craftsman was Mr. Frueller, who had a workshop in northern New Jersey. I even went to visit him once with my parents and saw his workshop.

When I saw this dining room, I was sent back through the years to my growing up. My mother was a Colonial furniture lover and our entire home was furnished with early American antiques. While this is not exactly our kitchen dining area, all the elements of I remember are in this photo.

Convenience and comfort are key in a kitchen. Our family kitchens (we moved most every year while I grew up so there were lots of them) doubled as eat-in areas and multifunctional family tv hangouts, a standard feature in small houses. This kitchen dining area photo really brought back my childhood surroundings with the reproduction standards–bowback Windsor chairs, highly polished maple dropleaf table, built in bookshelves and cabinetry, double lamp chandelier, and oak plank floors (real ones, not veneers, with pegs instead of nails), even the clay moonshine crocks up on the top shelf. All we are missing is the baskets hanging from an eave. The early American colonial furniture leaf table with an oval top, compact and easy to move, was much more suited than its long counterpart to the smaller, more intimate domestic settings of the late 17th century and afterwards. We always had rectangular harvest tables for seating the family of 8 in the kitchen area. My mom still has her classic Queen Anne table and chairs for the dining room. In perfect shape, I might add, after almost 50 years.

The Colonial-style room always has wooden floors. Often they sported a large oval braided rug or more luxurious knotted Persian or Oriental rugs (although I like no carpet under an eating area for easier cleaning). Originally early American carpets were imported from Persia through Venice. With the discovery of the maritime trade route to India, the Portuguese brought Indian varieties, which came through Amsterdam and Antwerp, then the mart of the world by Dutch trading companies (Britain vied for this in later centuries, breaking up the trade monopoly).

Colonial style focuses on the hearth, which is really neat sitting eating dinner in front of a fire. Life in the days of the early American settlers revolved around the fireplace – the only source of warmth in those bitter winters without any kind of heating system. Any type of furniture that provided a shield from the cold drafts was popular, which is how wing-backed chairs evolved. The originals of the “bowback” Windsor chairs are typical of the work of Joseph Henzey of Philadelphia, circa 1765-1780. Rarely has a piece of furniture enjoyed such wide popularity as the Windsor chair. Virtually every period American chair maker produced them and a goodly number of design variations were developed. Most native craftsmen saw the inherent appeal in the Windsor chair’s broad seat and supportive spindled back which provided remarkable comfort. In The Story of American Furniture, there is a photograph of a Windsor chair that was a schoolroom style writing desk off one arm that belonged to Jefferson. The photo is captioned “The cradle of the Declaration of Independence.”

mom's blue willow china is considered early American

I lived my early life in rooms with this atmosphere (four poster beds with the canopy), and the only things that were not colonial, I think, were the baby playpen and stuff in the garage. While it was a bit overkill at the time (think the American eagle watching down in various rooms and an upholstered gold high back chair covered in the “in God we trust” eagles with talons encircling a globe) and we kids used to joke about it since we were not allowed our own touches of personal photos or knicknacks even in the bedroom to destroy the ambiance of stylized arrangement. But now I own some of the castoffs (including a square pine dropleaf table and ladderback chairs from an earlier incarnation when our family was only 4) and I am quite comfy with them as part of my mix and match decorating hodgepodge, which is far less orchestrated and more spontaneous a style that suits me.


Welsh Rabbit with Broiled Tomatoes, Colonial Tavern Style

Colonial reproductions can be the focal point of a very different type of dining room with a mixture of country style furniture plus the painted chairs. I love this table. It would make a good computer desk as well.

courtesy of the Marchi Group kitchen designers

Andrew and Betsy Wyeth’s dining room at Oar House, their summer home off the coast of Maine. The side fireplace oven, used for baking bread and Boston baked beans, is off to the right. The corner cabinet is a Colonial touch; stressed painting is a favorite refinish. Maine is known for its fabulous antique stores, as well as lobster roll shacks. Notice both rooms have as focus the Colonial style dining table and reproduction chandelier.

courtesy of architectural digest

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