American furniture of the 19th Century was directly influenced by English and French designs. Not surprisingly, many of the earliest woodworkers in the United States came from Europe, and brought with them an already-flourishing industry. A worldwide fascination with classical lines and intricately detailed designs had moved to North America and started what would become a fundamental part of history.
The period of 1790 through to the early 1800s is known as “Federal” because it coincides with the establishment of the United States, although it is referred to as neoclassical elsewhere. Primarily inspired by Roman styles, many of the pieces designed during this time contain sharp contrasts of light and dark wood.
One of the most prevalent English cabinetmakers who helped to form this type of design was George Hepplewhite. While little personal details about Hepplewhite are known, his unique, creative eye influenced woodworkers for years.
Furniture from this period has distinguishable characteristics, including curvy shapes, decorative inlays, and slender, tapered legs. Chair backs were usually designed in the shapes of ovals or shields, a defining attribute of this time.
Perhaps the most influential of all designs in the Federal period was that of Thomas Sheraton. Another English cabinetmaker, Sheraton became famous for publishing The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, which gained instant fame. Approximately six hundred woodworkers subscribed to his book, providing an indirect invitation to copy his distinctive style.
As tastes and styles changed, the Federal-inspired pieces diminished in popularity. The following fifty years developed from French designs. Veering away from the Roman look, American furniture began to assume Egyptian and Greek detailing, such as bronze decorations and “masterpiece” is used to express a design that surpasses the expectations of that particular era.
Although many cabinetmakers were producing similar pieces, several American cities developed their own style. In particular, the renowned craftsmen of Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York all contributed significantly to the history of American furniture.
Antique American pieces are admired by collectors and dealers worldwide. As with any other type of antique, the better the condition, the higher the value. True antiques are at least 150 years old, although some pieces at the 100-year mark are often considered as antiques as well.
Antique furniture is usually placed in one of five categories: good, better, best, superior and masterpiece. “Good” is the equivalent to average or below, “better” contains some kind of minor imperfection(s), “best” contains enough quality and craftsmanship to easily become a part of a collection, “superior” describes a piece that is flawless, and “masterpiece” is used to express a design that surpasses the expectations of that particular era.