Characteristics of Early American Furniture

Characteristics of early American furniture

The earliest pieces of American furniture were basic, and there were only a few types and styles, depending on each one’s use or function. 

The knuckle-bow table and the blanket chest, for example, were both popular in the colonial era. 

Evolving from the British joined stool with a single round or square top supported by four turned or carved legs, the knuckle-bow was a uniquely American design with two extra curved supports joining the legs at the bottom. Providing stability and making it easier to construct. 

Blanket chests were a simple box-like piece with a hinged lid used to store blankets and other household items. Blanket chests got their name because early American settlers used them to keep their blankets warm at night. 

As the colonies expanded, demand for furniture increased, and because the wood was in short supply, early American carpenters had to be inventive in their use of materials, so, began experimenting with new designs and manufacturing methods, including inlay and veneering.

Inlays add another sort of material into the surface, such as wood. Veneers are thin pieces of wood that are attached to the surface, improving the look and durability of the furniture.

Industrial Revolution in the 1800s

With the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, American furniture began to alter. Factories began mass-producing furniture, using new techniques and materials, such as metal and plastic, which led to new styles and designs.

Although most people today prefer to buy factory-made furniture, there is still a growing interest in traditional American designs from the colonial and early industrial periods. And these pieces are not only beautiful but also sturdy and well-made. 

The few basics were produced by local craftsmen and woodworkers only to order, although some of the settlers had taken a small amount of furniture with them during their journey. 

Furniture was made out of available materials, primarily oak, maple, and pine. The joinery was simple, with dowel or peg construction. Later on, the use of hammered nails became popular.

One example is the Shaker style. Characterized by its simple lines and lack of ornamentation. It is still made today by a few craftsmen in the United States.

Furniture design took shape in the United States during the colonial era and was influenced by Restoration-era British designs. Tables, chairs, benches, beds, and cabinets were the most frequent pieces of furniture.

To the best of their abilities, Early American woodworkers and furniture makers attempted to duplicate the patterns of imported goods, but without superior woodworking equipment, their efforts were minimal. 


The limitations of the early American furniture and cabinet maker were obvious. And without the proper crafting equipment used in England at the time, they couldn’t produce or invent exquisite furnishings. Thus fine crafting skills were missing.

To counter this, they attempted to add some finesse to their work by employing basic wood decorations, trims, and moldings.

The majority of Colonial furniture was manufactured from local wood and was not known for being the most comfortable. But they made the chairs and stools more comfortable by adding handmade loose cushions.

Wealthy settlers and elites would have the luxury of velvets and silks that were imported, from England. Women of the home created quilts for their posters and trundle beds using hand-weaving techniques.

Chairs and Stools

Turned chairs – 

These were also called spindle chairs. These early colonial chairs were fashioned after the Elizabethan and Jacobean turned furniture that was popular in England and Holland in the late 16th to early 17th century. The turned chair leg was shaped like a spindle and tapered from the seat to the floor. The early turned chairs had simple designs with minimal carving. The legs were usually straight and the back was either curved or square.

Characteristics of early American turned chairs

The chairs seen in early America were not made by machines but were turned by hand on a lathe. This means that the chair legs and spindles were literally turned by someone’s hands. The craft of turning chairs was brought over from Europe by the early settlers.

Characteristics include: 

  • -The use of curved or serpentine lines
  • -The use of stretchers to join the legs together
  • -The use of a saddle seat
  • -The use of spindles for the back and arms

Some of the most well-known early American turned chair makers are: 

Windsor chairs – 

The Windsor chair was originally produced in the early 18th century and quickly became popular in the United States. They were called after Windsor, England, where they were first constructed. The Windsor chair is easily recognized by its unique bow-shaped back. The back and seat are made from a single piece of wood that’s bent into shape. The legs of the Windsor chair are also unique, as they are curved and splayed outwards, giving the chair more stability.

Characteristics of early American Windsor chairs?

The early American Windsor chairs were typically characterized by their simple construction, use of local materials, and vernacular form. They were often made out of wood that was readily available in the area, such as oak, ash, or hickory. The chairs also tended to have a more vernacular or folk-inspired design, with simpler lines and less ornamentation than later models.

One of the most distinctive features of early American Windsor chairs is their spindles. The spindles on these chairs are typically much thicker and more pronounced than on later models. They also tend to be arranged in a more curved pattern, which gives the chair a more flowing, organic look.

Another distinguishing feature of early American Windsor chairs is that the seats are typically much wider and flatter than on later models, which makes them more comfortable to sit in for extended periods. They also have a more pronounced curvature, which helps cradle the body and provide better support.

Characteristics of early American Windsor chairs are. 

  • -simple construction
  • -use of local materials
  • -vernacular form
  • -thicker, more curved spindles
  • -wider, flatter seats with pronounced curvature

Well-known early American Windsor chair makers are: 

Barrel chairs – 

A barrel chair is a 19th-century design that was popularized in the early 20th century. The barrel chair is so named because its shape resembles a barrel. It has a round, tubular frame with a round seat and back. While the arms of the chair curve outwards, giving the chair a more comfortable shape. 

Characteristics of early American Barrel chairs?

The characteristics of early American barrel chairs vary, but they often have a simple design. Some barrel chairs have a high back and are curved inward, while others are more like a traditional chair with a straight back. Legs could be carved to look like animal feet. Barrel chairs were popular in the early 1800s and used in homes and businesses.

Characteristics include.

  • -simple design 
  • -high back 
  • -curved inward 
  • -legs are carved to look like animal feet 
  • -popular in the early 1800s 
  • -used in both homes and businesses.

What are some examples of early American barrel chairs?

Examples of early American barrel chairs include the Hepplewhite Chair and the Chippendale Chair. These chairs were all popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Wainscot chairs – 

A popular chair in the 17th century, the front legs of wainscot chairs are shaped on a lathe while the back legs are squared sections. They have a carved wooden back with a relatively complex design and arm supports

Characteristics of early American Wainscot chairs

The characteristic of early American Wainscot chairs that stand out the most is their stylish and sleek design. These chairs were often made from maple or walnut wood and featured a tall back and spindled legs. They provided comfort and style to any room.

Characteristics Include:

  • -stylish and sleek design
  • -made from maple or walnut wood
  • -tall back
  • -spindled legs
  • -comfortable

 Early American Wainscot chair makers include:

  • -Harding & Hinds
  • -The American Chair Company
  • -Conant Ball
  • -Powell Furniture
  • -Baker Furniture

Settle – 

This is a carved hardwood chair, with arms and a high back, and may also include a storage box beneath the seat (monks seats). A settle furniture item is made to accommodate four people.

Characteristics of early American settle chairs?

Used by early American settlers to sit on while they worked. The chairs are also known for their sturdy construction and simple design. Today, settle chairs are still popular among collectors and people who appreciate their historical value.

Characteristics include:

  • – Made for up to four people
  • – Has storage area under the seat
  • – Sturdy construction
  • – Simple design.


Early American, chair-table – 

The chair table from the 17th century is a piece of furniture that can transform into a table or vice versa. You can flip up the table and it converts to a chair back; when you flip down the table, it becomes a chair again. The seat originally housed a drawer that slid beneath the seat, of the chair for additional storage.

Trestle table – 

A trestle table consists of two or three bracket supports, linked by a longitudinally running cross-beam, which allows the loose tabletop to fold. Trestle tables were popular working surfaces because of the ease of construction and the added storage.

Drop-leaf table – 

Drop-leaf tables feature a design dating back to the late 16th century Elizabethan and Jacobean furniture and have fixed mid-sections with hinged panels that can be folded or dropped down to the side. 

Gate leg table – 

The term gate leg table describes a table with leaves that swing out from the middle portion and are supported by legs that swing outward from the middle section. The leaves of the table may drop halfway, or nearly to the floor, depending on their design. The most common use case of the gate leg table would be, dining tables, side tables, and nightstands.

Desk box – 

A writing desk is a small chest with side panels that extend to form a writing surface. Desk boxes usually have many compartments to organize quill pens, ink, seals, paper, and envelopes.


Four-poster beds – 

Traditional 4-posters are big, sturdy, and imposing, compared to modern slim poster beds. Early American 4-poster beds had four upright supports for an upper rectangular panel of wood with rails around its edge. Beds were previously equipped with rods that allowed curtains to be pulled around the bed.

Trundle beds – 

Because the first settlers’ home initially included a living and sleeping area, the family required an additional bed. This bedroom furniture is stored under a regular bed and consists of a foldable cot. Trundle beds, also known as truckle beds, can be rolled out for use by other members of the household, or visitors.

Wooden cradles – 

Rocking cradles were a popular Early American piece of furniture. The cradle would rock but is generally immobile as it was designed for babies and infants, and intended to rock an infant to sleep.

Wooden Chests

Chest boxes – 

Colonial-era chests were basic and unadorned, yet heavy, with legs and flat lids. Flat lids meant they could be used as seats or working surfaces and became more elaborate and finely carved in the last part of the 17th century.

Chest of drawers – 

In the mid-1600s, woodworkers and chest makers created drawer compartments built below the chest to store and organize smaller things. This led to the chest growing taller, its top was secured to the body frame, and it became more finely finished and adorned with an inlay made from bone.

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