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Guides to American furniture periods prove valuable

Renown furniture expert Fred Taylor gives his professional opinion on antique furniture resources for buyers, sellers and scholars.

A previous column dealt with building the foundation of a furniture resource library based on accumulating a few selected books on the general subject of antique furniture. These generalized publications are necessary to give you the background to understand various styles and periods and how to identify them.

Now it’s time to get down to cases and talk about books that zero in on a specific period. These books are where you are more likely to find precise information about a particular item and most of them are surprisingly affordable, but sometimes can be a little hard to find.

Nineteenth Century

While the Colonial Era of the 18th century produced some of America’s finest individual pieces of furniture, it was in the 19th century that American furniture really came into its own with its unique variations of the several revival forms of the period and in the adaptation of the industry to the factory system, producing furniture that most people could afford.

A slender volume first published by Art & Antiques in 1982 entitled “Nineteenth Century Furniture - Innovation, Revival and Reform,” with an introduction by Mary Jean Madigan, is a good place to start learning about the century. It has well illustrated 10- to 12-page sections on various major elements of the period – Empire, Hitchcock, Rococo Revival and Belter, Egyptian Revival, Eastlake, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and many sections on specific subjects like the Roycrofters, Thonet and Bentwood, Daniel Pabst and others. The ISBN is 0-8230-8004-8. This one may be hard to find but worth the look.

Three of the better volumes on the 19th century come from the prolific husband-and-wife duo Eileen and Richard Dubrow. All three are published by Schiffer Books and are generously illustrated with photographs and reproduction catalog pages of the period. They are “American Furniture of the 19th Century, 1840-1880,” “Furniture Made in America, 1875-1905” and “Styles of American Furniture, 1860-1960.”

The last one overlaps into the 20th century but the emphasis is on the 19th since the Dubrows are serious collectors of the period.

Another husband-and-wife team, Harriett and Robert Swedberg, devote Volumes 1 and 3 of their three-volume work “Collector’s Encyclopedia of American Furniture” (Collector Books) to, respectively, “The Dark Woods of the Nineteenth Century” and “Country Furniture of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.”

Kathryn McNerney has two well done volumes, “Victorian Furniture — Our American Heritage, Volume I and Volume II” (Collector Books). These are excellent reference works on the period, adequately illustrated, but more involved with particular forms like bedroom suites or parlor furniture and less informative on the substyles of Victoriana such as Renaissance Revival and Rococo Revival. Volume I has a 1991 price guide but Volume II does not include prices.

One last volume that also will be hard to locate but worth the trouble is “Marketplace Guide to Victorian Furniture, Styles & Values” by Peter S. Blundell and Phil T. Dunning (Collector Books, 1981; ISBN 0-89145-166-8).

Twentieth Century

Many old-time collectors hold that there are no 20th century antiques (and very few 19th century ones for that matter), but that is their loss. Many pieces made in the 20th century are now 100 years old and a great deal of what is presented in antiques shops and shows was made in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the literature is lagging in producing reference works on the period with a few notable exceptions.

Primary among these is an examination of the longest running furniture movement in history, the Colonial Revival in “Colonial Revival Furniture with Prices” (Wallace-Homestead Book Co.) by David P. Lindquist and Caroline Warren. Lindquist explores the origin of the style and shows examples of representative works. Perhaps the most useful feature to modern researchers is his extensive use of the names of prominent manufacturers of the period such as Biggs, Baker and Century, as well as Wallace Nutting. Similar but more wide ranging is “Reproduction Furniture – Antiques for the Next Generation” by Emyl Jenkins, published by Crown.

The Swedbergs have two entries in the 20th century, Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia series titled “Furniture of the Twentieth Century,” which is very informative, and the more important work “Furniture of the Depression Era – Furniture & Accessories of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s” (Collector Books). This is by far the best source on the market for both background and specific information about this period across many forms of furniture. It also includes an explanation of the veneering process in use at the time and the most common woods found in pieces of this era. The price guide from 1996 is still surprisingly relevant.
A comprehensive snapshot of the furniture market as it appeared in 1929 can be found in “American Manufactured Furniture” by Donald Fredgant (Schiffer Books). This reprint of the actual 1929 catalog features advertisements from several hundred furniture companies of the time. Many of the ads are informative about styles, woods and construction techniques used just as the Depression was about to take hold, and some of them include the history of the company.

Many of the ads in this publication were the last ever run by some of the companies, since more than half of the listings did not survive the Depression. This is the place to see decorated rooms of the 1920s and much of the most important furniture made in America in the first quarter of the century.

Two more volumes round out the century. They are “Mid-Century Modern – Furniture of the 1950s” by Cara Greenberg (Harmony House) and “Fifties Furniture – With Values” by Leslie Pina (Schiffer Books). Both books are illustrated mostly in color with excellent examples of the period and the evolving styles of the mid century. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites. 

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