Southern Furniture: American Attitudes

I believe that art contains specific and important information about the nature of the human condition and how we view ourselves and the world.  Furniture is art and I think 18th-century furniture has much to tell us about ourselves. Art objects representing turning points often take on enhanced value and I think 18th-century furniture (which remains popular to this day) is a good example of this.  Early 19th-century furniture, though stylish and well made, has never held quite the cache with collectors.  Likewise, third and fourth quarter 18th-century English furniture, though often similar in style and construction to American versions, is worth a fraction of comparable American pieces.

We know there was a heightened interest in the formation of our great country during the centennial (1876).  Eighteenth-century furniture was reproduced and collecting original pieces became popular. Early collectors of 18th-century furniture may have been interested in seeing the development of regional furniture styles specifically because this indicated the formation of a uniquely American identity. They used furniture as archeological evidence of the point at which we stopped being English and became American.

In Philadelphia, most of the furniture was built by Englishmen, many of them trained in London. What is unique about Philadelphia furniture (and other identifiable regional styles) is that for whatever reason these craftsmen abandoned the way they usually built things and conformed to a new uniquely American (and uniquely Philadelphia) style. Philadelphia chairs for example are always taller than their English counterparts. Why? I don’t know. Ball and claw feet were substituted for English scroll feet. The Philadelphia high chests were unique as well.

Of course Philadelphia builders didn’t change everything they had done. Philadelphia furniture is an amalgam of English features with a  smattering of Philadelphia thrown in. As such, it’s a wonderful example of the near instantaneous transition from our English roots, to a new unique American identity. I think that’s a pretty interesting story and one I  can imagine being popular with early collectors (many of whom were interested in American identity).

For example: The leg in the photo in this blog features a raised edge, born in the knee block and extending down to the ankle. The knee carving for this chair is most certainly English. The raised edge is also present on English chairs and typically runs down the leg, rolling into the scroll foot. On this chair, the raised edge just dies off in the ankle as the English scroll foot was replaced by a ball and claw, no doubt substituted for the Philadelphia market. Here we see the  influence of the Philadelphia regional style on contemporary English furniture and an English craftsmen changing to suit the unique attitudes and requirements of his new home. This is decidedly different than a mere material change based on availability (many mid-century and later Philadelphia case pieces used white cedar in lieu of the typical oak for secondary material in English pieces. This doesn’t indicate a regional style in my mind; it’s just what the craftsmen had.)

I think there’s a belief that Southern furniture was ignored by the late 19th-/early 20th-century collectors because of Northern elitism or prejudice. I have little doubt both were rampant. But looking dispassionately at Southern furniture, I find it difficult to identify regional styles or patterns that suggest uniquely American attitudes. Fine pieces are often very similar to the contemporary English pieces with which they competed. Individualized features don’t appear to be consistent across a wide range of builders as we see in Philadelphia or Boston pieces. It isn’t at all clear that Southern pieces represent a unified American group think or a new identity. I personally find it difficult to identify a “Southern Regional Style.” What I would expect to see is a certain feature, distinct from other styles/regions being used by a number of different craftsmen. What I see instead are unique features made by individual craftsmen.

For example: Charlestonian Thomas Elfe (a life-long Tory), built English style furniture to compete with imports. Using Elfe’s beautiful work as a sample of  “Southern regional furniture” may make an attractive book cover, but a poor example of a unique Southern style. While Elfe’s characteristic frets are his own, they adorned very typical Georgian forms. I don’t know that his unique style was mimicked regionally such that it became a style all its own. To call Elfe a “Southern builder” is a bit misleading. He lived in the South, but I’m not sure his attitudes or style represented those of his home or his origin or even if there was a great deal of difference! This may be the crux of the problem.

I have found Southern furniture to be a fascinating subject, one that parses out our understandings of regional furniture , 18th-century markets, and the real “on the ground” differences between America’s Northern and Southern colonies. While I remain skeptical of Southern furniture and defensive of the insinuations that early furniture collectors were influenced solely by tribalism, I’m interested in the possibility that I may have been digging in the wrong places.

Southern furniture may not exhibit regional differences in the same ways as Philadelphia, Boston, New York, or Rhode Island styles.  So I am greatly looking forward to reading what PW editors Glen Huey and Bob Lang have to say on the subject. They have co-authored a book on Southern furniture based on their in-depth examinations of original pieces at MESDA. From what I’ve read so far, the book looks closely at construction. This will offer we armchair furniture archeologists a chance to see what we can make of the controversy. Is the Southern Regional style to be found in specific tidewater or highland construction techniques? Or is it manifest in what some would call “country pieces” the work of rural craftsmen, influenced perhaps not by international trade, but rural economies, or the availability, and work ability of domestic materials. Whatever your interests, I think it’s wise to familiarize yourself  with the subject, controversy, style and construction of Southern furniture. I’m hoping to pick up an autographed copy at Woodworking in America this year. I hope they bring enough copies.

– Adam Cherubini

5 thoughts on “Southern Furniture: American Attitudes

  1. jacon4

    Interesting discussion on early southern furniture, particularly Charleston SC & Thomas Elfe. I think Adam is correct that colonial charlestonians had a very strong preference for all things english, at least when it came to furniture. This is understandable from the fact that Charleston was the richest city in America during this period by far and had more cabinetmakers than any other colonial city as well. This great wealth enabled them to travel to london and be well informed on the latest english fashion in furniture. Many wealthy charlestonians also summered in Newport RI and must have been aware of design features in that regions furniture like block fronts & bonnet top highboys. Yet we do not see any evidence that they either purchased this furniture or ordered their local charleston cabinetmakers to incorporate these fashion features in their furniture orders. It appears that to wealthy charlestonians, if it wasnt “plain & neat”, it just wasnt happening.
    I am going to disagree with Adam on the collector part “So it stands to reason that we wouldn’t see great stylistic differences betwen Southern furniture and English furniture, thus the disinterest of early furniture collectors”. As a collector, i can tell you that in general, southern pieces command MUCH higher prices on the auction block that similar furniture forms from new england. I think there are several reasons for this, its much rarer than NE pieces due to war and climate and two, the considerable amount of snobbery in the art world which caused an explosion of interest, research in southern furniture. In 1949, at a forum in colonial williamsburg, Joseph Downs, then the curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked in his address that “little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore…..” OUCH! Not only did this offend the hell out of southerners, it also a spark that contributed to the birth of MESA and the rest as they say, is history.

  2. Mark Maleski

    When I think of the difference between English and American furniture from this era, the difference seems to me to be one of degrees. American furniture (or at least the rococco styles) seems to typically be more plain, featuring less carving and fewer variation in the types of carved forms. Ball & Claw certainly is not uniquely American, it’s just that American furnituremakers typically eschewed the other forms (scroll feet, etc). Using this line of thought, Tidewater furniture may be the most “American” of all, given their focus on “neat and plain.”

    But to have this discussion I wonder if you need to use the Revolution as a dividing line; before the split, there wasn’t as much emphasis on a unique American identify (they were *all* Englishmen, after all). Afterward, we can see the emphasis on forming a unique American identity…at least in some places (there were still an awful lot of Tory sympathies in that timeframe too).

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      Ball and claw feet were found on English furniture early in the 18th c century. By 1750, they were out of style in England. American craftsmen continued with ball and claw feet, developing unique varieties and applying them to a wide range of furniture forms.

      Wmsburg curators and crafstmen have said much about Virginia’s tidewater construction. How broadly it saturated a region that likely only ever had a few furnituremakers working at one time is a question I have. It is distinct though and thoughtful and worth considering.

      As to “Plain and Neat”, I believe this is English Georgian style furniture, not unique to Virginia (but certainly Virginians’ stated preference). Of course, such a statement is difficult to proove or disproove. Individual craftsmen (Peter Scott for example) may have produced English Georgian furniture with their own twist. Of course English cabinetmakers did the same. Viewed collectively we see similarities. What I’d like to see is a collection of Southern pieces, all similar in their differences from English pieces. I haven’t seen that yet, but I hope to see that in Glen and Bob’s book.

      As to English-ness of early americans, I think that’s the point of this blog. The differences in furniture styles suggest the formation of different lifestyles, tastes, preferences and the formation of a unique american sensibility pre-1776. I think many Southern land owners were more closely tied socially and economically with England. So it stands to reason that we wouldn’t see great stylistic differences betwen Southern furniture and English furniture, thus the disinterest of early furniture collectors. Again, this is just my theory, offered for you all to comment on.

      Adam

  3. Jonas Jensen

    Hi Adam.

    Regarding the difference in height of chairs, could it be that people living in Philadelphia were taller than the typical English citizen?
    Maybe due to a healthier diet?

    Generally even today a lot of Englishmen are not as tall as the typical American. And sitting on a chair which is too low is not that pleasant.

    So after a couple of generations, the average height of the citizens could have increased by perhaps an inch or two, which could spark someone to order chairs that actually fitted the persons intended to use them.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      Jonas,

      I don’t think the height difference between English and Philadelphia chairs is due to the physical size of the sitters. Both had similar seat heights. I think it was an esthetic choice. And there are other proportion differences between Philadelphia furniture and English furniture. Worth a look at Chippendale’s “Director”. I can say I’ve seen rooms furnished with both styles of chairs and the difference (it’s only 2″ typically, 39″ vs. 41 or 42″) is noticeable and dramatic.

      It’s possible the Philadelphia chairs are less of a departure from earlier chairs (like Wm&Mary) which had very high seat backs. So too, Philadelphia Windsor chairs had high backs. It’s entirley possible the demographics of the customers was different.

      Philadelphia customers may well have had earlier furniture they were incorporating with newer and didn’t wish to have a strong difference.

      English customers were different. They were comparing their houses not to their neighbors’ but with the French. And English politics were such that monarchists had their houses burned by Cromwell, and were refurnished after the restoration in the latest style (for example). So complementing existing furniture may not have been as big an issue. Just a theory!

      Adam

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