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