Revivalist furniture styles reflect progressive spirit of 19th century

By Fred Taylor

It is tempting to think of the 19th century as the “Victorian” century, and it is true that Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England for 63 of the 100 years, beginning in 1837. But as far as furniture is concerned, the century did not begin with Victorian furniture and it did not end with it either.


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American furniture of the 19th century reflected the changing technology of the century, as the country grew from a small, mostly agrarian society to an international industrial powerhouse. As the century progressed, innovation in furniture was marked by the adaptation of the furniture style to the technology rather than the adaptation of the technology to the furniture.

When the century opened, the country was still celebrating its independence with the continuing creation, at least in the major population centers of the East, of so-called Federal furniture, a movement which had begun during the latter stages of the Revolution. The idea of the neo-classical Federal period was to glorify our new country with a distinctly American flair but instead it established a pattern of resurrecting previous styles, a technique politely known as “revival.” This approach was to characterize American furniture design for the rest of the century, with a few notable exceptions.

Here is a brief look at the major furniture styles of the 19th century.

This recamier by J. H. Belter, circa 1850 is an outstanding example of the Rococo Revival style of the 19th century. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

This recamier by J. H. Belter, circa 1850 is an outstanding example of the Rococo Revival style of the 19th century. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

Federal (1780-1820): Sometimes referred to as American Neo-classicism, it is the skillful blending of classical Greek architectural and decorative elements with the 18th century layouts of such noted English designers as Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite and the Scottish Adam brothers. These creations were skillfully rendered by hand in the shops of such notables as Duncan Phyfe, the Scottish immigrant craftsman and Charles-Honoré Lannuier, who arrived in New York from France in the 1790s.

American Empire (1820-1840): This hand-crafted style was the American interpretation of Egyptian animism first commissioned by Napoleon for his new French Empire. After Napoleon’s empire failed, the style died in France but remained alive in England where it was known as Regency and in the U.S. as American Empire. Many of the same craftsmen employed in Federal works turned to Empire as it became fashionable.

Gothic and Elizabethan Revival (1825-1865): The first of the pure revival forms, these styles dredged up European Gothic motifs like pointed arches, round windows and trefoils. Elizabethan forms in particular were among the first to benefit from manufacturing advances such as the multiple cutting head lathe that produced spool-turned items like the Jenny Lind bed.

Empire Revival/Late Classicism (1835-1850): Also sometimes called French Restoration, this was the second attempt at Empire in America but this time machinery played a major part in its production. This large-scale furniture is typified by C-scroll cases, little ornamentation and vast expanses of crotch mahogany veneer. The most famous makers of the period were Joseph Meeks and Sons of New York.

Rococo (1845-1900): The most popular form of the century, this is one of the “Victorian” styles, an unabashed revival of the excesses of the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. One the most famous of the Rococo practitioners was John Henry Belter with his patented (yet probably pilfered) method of bending and laminating layers of rosewood to produce otherwise impossible forms. Alexander Roux and the Meeks family were also important figures in Rococo cabinetry. Rococo was the watershed event in handwork in the American furniture industry. Despite its popularity, the complexity of the design did not lend itself to the mass production techniques of the factory system in place at the beginning of the Civil War. While it was produced in limited quantities by hand for the rest of the century, Rococo essentially died during the 1860s because of its defining characteristic – its own excess.

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This exceptional book from the man who brings you the Furniture Detective column in Antique Trader each issue. Get your copy of this top-seller today at www.furnituredetective.com. ($18.95+S&H).

Renaissance Revival (1860-1885): Another of the “Victorian” styles, this was a revival of a revival. Napoleon III tried to establish 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance themes as his trademark and forever tie his name to classical art and architecture. His attempt largely failed but his idea was enthusiastically revived in America as the straight line alternative to the flowery Rococo. Featuring architectural elements such as columns and pediments, this was the ideal form to adapt to factory production, and adapt they did. Grand Rapids, Mich., became the bastion of Renaissance Revival furniture. Renaissance was the overriding theme at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. This “battleship” furniture, so called because of its size, seemed to suit the larger-than-life images of the Eastern industrial establishment and reflected America’s growing opinion of itself.

Colonial Revival (1875-Present): This revival of America’s Colonial past proved immensely popular and is still in production today.

Eastlake (1880-1900): The last of the “Victorian” styles, this was one of the only original styles of the century. Charles Eastlake, an English architect, postulated his own revolution against the Rococo of mid-century. His approach was austere and even more straight-line than Renaissance, but his ideas were soon taken to extremes by the capabilities of the American factory system, and he later expressed regret that his name was attached to the style.

Arts and Crafts (1880-1910): The century ended with another attempt to revive the Gothic and Middles Ages with a return to the values of individual craftsmanship under the philosophical leadership of William Morris and Elbert Hubbard.

But Gustav Stickley grabbed the simplicity movement by the horns and threw it into the late 19th century factory system. By giving it the appearance of hand craftsmanship, he and his brothers made it the most famous mass-produced furniture of the early 20th century.

Furniture Detective by Fred TaylorAbout our columnist: Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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