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Overview of American Antique Furniture and styles

There are so many different antique furniture periods, often times different periods and styles overlap and scholars have a difficult time placing certain pieces within a particular period. Even today, cabinet makers haven't stopped making Queen Anne Style furniture!

One fact remains, though, every period or style has been influenced by the makers from previous periods. It is the uniqueness of each period that really sets the antique furniture from that period apart. The beauty of each style is very easy to see. Here are the major antique furniture periods:

Colonial period
Colonial and Jacobean: 1620 - 1720
Queen Anne: 1720 - 1750
Chippendale: 1750 - 1780

Federal period
Hepplewhite: 1780 - 1800
Sheraton: 1790 - 1810
Classical: 1810 - 1820
Windsor is another style that does not fall into a specific time frame. However, in the context discussed here, it usually falls in to the last half of the 18th century. Windsor pieces, along with those of other often-imitated styles, must be examined closely with an eye for quality to determine exactly when they were produced. Valuing Fine American Furniture Regardless of the period or category and item falls into, my grandfather learned long ago that it takes more than being old to determine the value of an antique. Not only must an item be of high quality, it must have artistic merit to command attention worthy of a high price. My uncle, respected antique dealer Albert Sack, describes measures of quality in his most recent book, The NEW Fine Points of Furniture - Early American. This sequel to his first book, The Fine Points of Furniture - Early American, both from Crown Publishers, was the first book on antique furniture to evaluate the quality of each type by comparing good, better and best. In his latest book, he expands the categories to include superior and masterpiece. These terms are defined as follows: # Good - mediocre at best. # Better - items crafted by good or fine craftsmen but with a weakness either in proportion, design or workmanship. # Best - produced by a superior craftsman and is worthy of the most discriminating collection. # Superior - executed with extreme beauty and quality. Some superior pieces are masterpieces and all masterpieces are superior. # Masterpiece - beauty and quality that transcends the bounds of the era or even the field of art it represents. As my uncle explains, these concepts can be applied to any decorative art form including antique period furniture, and are important to consider when determining the value of individual pieces.

Antique Furniture Periods and Styles

Rococo Revival (1845-1865)

Walnut, mahogany and rosewood are the favorite woods used by craftsmen during the Rococo Revival period. The antique furniture pieces most commonly found in antique stores from this period are parlor pieces. Parlor pieces will feature naturalistic carvings of fruit, flowers, and vegatation and will normally have cabriole legs. The favorite shapes for tables tops of Rococo Revival craftmen are typically turtle shaped, round, or oval. John Henry Belter is considered the leading cabinet maker from the Rococo Revival antique furniture period. He often used a laminating wood technique to produce a curved yet durable surface in mainly rosewood. His process is often seen copied by many of his peers. Another often seen trend during this period are pieces with naturalistic carvings with the fascade of dressers are often taking serpentine shapes and fruit or vegatation often decorate the pulls on the drawings. The Rococo Revival style is still very popular today and is often reproduced. The reproductions are easy to locate since the their carvings are much less intricate and dull compared to originals. Another way to spot Rococo Revival furniture reproductions is the fact the new reproductions are almost never made out of rosewood or black walnut.

Renaissance Revival (1860-1880)

The style was mostly produced out of walnut but mahogany, chestnut, and rosewood were also frequently used. Attributes of the Renaissance style are turned and fluted legs, raised or inset burled panels, heavily carved finials and crests, inset marble tops, and cookie cut corners. Many pieces are further decorated by black and gold incising, marquetry inlay, and bronze or brass mounts. John Jelliff of Newark, New Jersey was one of the more popular craftsmen of the Renaissance Revival furniture. His parlor sets featured carved heads on the arms and crest, with Sevres painted plaques sometimes in the crests. Many gargantuan pieces of this style were produced with some sideboards or beds exceeding 14' in height. The Renaissance Revival period reached its zenith at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 where many of the foremost furniture makers of the period exhibited their proudest accomplishments.


As it's name would suggest this period of furniture was made between the Spanish American war and World War I. With the sudden scarcity of black walnut and chestnut wood, furniture makers turned to oak as their medium. By cutting it in a special way (called quartering) sawmills of this time produced lumber that had a rich "tiger" type grain. (Because of the difficulty of this cutting method, few lumber yards today produce quartered oak). Borrowing from the prevalent art nouveau style, the better furniture companies made lovely pieces with shaped drawers, curved beveled mirrors, curved legs oftentimes ending in a claw foot, profuse swirly carving, and fancy turned spindles and columns. Drawer pulls were commonly made of fancy cast brass on the better pieces or sometimes pressed sheet brass on the more ordinary ones. While most collectors prize the oak from this period, mahogany was also used and was in fact usually more expensive than the oak when it was originally sold.
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