The longest lasting continuous furniture movement in American history is the Colonial Revival. The style is an appreciation of and interest in furniture and forms from the early years of this country as a colony of the English crown. After the Revolution ended in 1783, the fledgling country struggled to establish its new identity in a number of areas including furniture style and design. It plowed through the Federal period, unabashedly using the ideas of English designers like Hepplewhite and Sheraton and then climbed into the Empire period in the footsteps of Napoleon.
When the English crown again beckoned, this time in the form of Queen Victoria, in the mid-19th century, American furniture styles reverted to customized versions of the European revival forms for most of the rest of the century. That is, until the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
This medium quality secretary by Maddox passes for Colonial Revival in today’s marketplace.
Philadelphia hosted the 100th birthday party of the nation with a great exhibition of furniture and technology from across the country and around the world. While the Japanese exhibit was popular, most of the American furniture on display was in the Renaissance Revival style. There was an awakening of interest in what American furniture had looked like 100 years before when the country’s founding fathers had the nerve to start the struggle for independence.
In spite of the commercial success and public accolades of the Exhibition, sentiment at the grass roots level was still looking over its shoulder to the glorious Colonial past. An effort was made, by those who could, to surround themselves with articles from this era, attaching a new importance to history, value and integrity. This was the beginning of the Colonial Revival.
But it soon became apparent that there were many more Victorians wanting to acquire Colonial antiques than there were actual Colonial antiques. In a collection of essays originally written for Scribner’s Monthly and published in book form in 1877 as The House Beautiful, Clarence Cook, a contemporary art critic, noted the shortage of genuine Colonial antiques and suggested that well executed reproductions would do just as well as the real thing. That opened the floodgates.
While the two concepts would later seem to be at odds with each other, the revival of interest in colonial American furniture and colonial reproductions coincided with the advent of the basic tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to basic craftsmanship and honesty in construction techniques as espoused by William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Elbert Hubbard.
A number of companies such as Sypher & Co. of New York and Potthast Brothers of Baltimore were making faithful reproductions of 18th century items. Some of the items were even totally handmade. By the 1920s, some small shops were also doing excellent work, such as Margolis in Hartford and of course Wallace Nutting in Massachusetts. But their work, while excellent, was limited in quantity and could not satisfy the growing demand for good work at a reasonable price.
Then along came Hollis Baker, son of Siebe Baker, the Dutch immigrant who founded Cook and Baker in Holland, Mich., near Grand Rapids, in 1893. By 1925 the company was called Baker & Co. and Hollis Baker was the president. He saw the reality of the business situation and knew that whoever could solve the problem of combining the quality of handcrafted furniture with the practicalities of mass production would be very successful.
Baker attacked the opportunity with zeal. The company introduced a line of American reproduction furniture in 1922, a Duncan Phyfe suite in 1923 and furniture based on Pilgrim styling in 1926. The company was renamed Baker Furniture Factories in 1927 and began to specialize in high quality, faithfully executed reproductions. By 1931 the company was producing a line of Georgian mahogany furniture called the Old World Collection and, in 1932, opened the Manor House in New York City to produce top of the line handmade reproductions.
Thousands of American furniture manufacturers made and still make fine Colonial Revival furniture, but only a few made high-quality faithful reproductions. For more information about the colonial revival see Colonial Revival Furniture by Lindquist and Warren, Wallace-Homestead. For more information about Baker furniture, see Fine Furniture Reproductions, 18th Century Revivals of the 1930s and 1940s published by Schiffer Publishing.
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