If you ask most people what they know about period furniture, many will shrug and say something like, “Oh, you mean that Colonial-style furniture.” Most woodworkers tend to gravitate to Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal or Arts & Crafts pieces. Sure, those names represent different styles of furniture but, until you really begin to study them, you may not realize that the periods flow from one into another. As you study the different styles you begin to see how each period builds on the one before it. And as you move backward through the periods, studying the design and construction changes that took place, you’ll eventually come to the one style that kicked off a furniture revolution: William & Mary.
Prior to the William & Mary period (in this country, at least) most furniture was boxy, massive and simply decorated. Chests were simply boxes that sat on the ground or were on stump legs that were an integral part of the construction of the box. Frame-and-panel construction was rampant in this early form of furniture. Decoration was in the form of applied bulbous half turnings or shallow relief carving. To top it all off, much of the furniture was made from that most plentiful of woods, oak.
When William of Orange and Mary II were welcomed into England in 1688 from Holland, they brought with them lots of Dutch craftsmen. They also brought with them a new sensibility in furniture design. In general, furniture became a bit lighter in feel. The ornamentation began to change from the low-relief carving and applied half turnings to turned structural elements, pierced carvings and caning. The choice of primary wood began to shift from oak to a wood that already had a deep, rich, dark color: walnut.
For you fans of Jacobean furniture, I’m not disparaging pieces from that period. I have a healthy respect for them. I’ve even been known to make one from time to time. But even the most devout fan of Jacobean furniture has to admit that the pieces made during the William & Mary period shifted design emphasis from a stiff, ecclesiastical design architecture to one that was much more inviting and gracious.
William & Mary furniture is identifiable by its bun feet, symmetry in design, the use of bold mouldings with architectural proportioning and chairs with canted backs. One of the period’s greatest contributions to English furniture was the highboy. In this country, the form held favor long after it had faded in England. If we look at the design changes in chairs, tables and case pieces during this period, we can easily see how William & Mary furniture took major steps away from the Jacobean style and ran headlong toward the Queen Anne.
The United States began life as a British colony, so naturally we took our decorating cues from the mother country. And though we may hate to admit it, we looked to England even after the American Revolution to find out how our homes should look.
Why do we now favor Queen Anne and Chippendale? Perhaps because the furniture of those two periods was the furniture of our Founding Fathers. And, while we took cues from England, the furniture from both periods had a distinctly American flair. It deviated from its English counterparts in so many ways that it’s sometimes difficult to associate the two in the same context.
So why does William & Mary furniture get ignored by most folks these days? Frankly, the furniture was long out of style by the time of the American Revolution. And, although we added our own flair to the style, it still had a very distinct “English” look to it.
By 1695, the official “starting” date for the William & Mary period, we were no longer a group of ragtag settlers. We had established “civilized” colonies populated with craftsmen who were eager for new settlers to come and buy wares. Because most of the settlers were coming from England and other parts of Europe, they wanted to own things that were familiar to them, yet they wanted to distinguish themselves as Americans.
The presence of a growing number of professional craftsmen changed both the design and construction of furniture in a great number of ways during this period. One such change was drawer construction. We began the period with the side-hung drawers left over from earlier days and moved rapidly toward the paneled bottoms and bottom runners of the Queen Anne period.
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