17th century furniture and God’s Elect
If you resided in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 17th century, you were forbidden to wear furs. You were forbidden to wear lace. You were forbidden to wear any gold or silver decoration and you were never to “dress above your station.” This was a matter of law. You were expected to be concerned with your “spiritual estate” not your worldly one. You were, very likely, a member of the English Reformed religious movement, referred to by those outside of your community as Puritans. You lived in a community that kept no holidays, including Christmas. The work week was six days long and you were expected to be present in Church for the entire day, on the seventh. Fortunately, the consumption of alcohol was acceptable. Drunkenness, however, was not.
You probably lived in a large, framed house. The exterior was left to “weather” grey or painted using colors found in the earth or on the farm (iron oxides or blood). The interior was somewhat somber, done up in earth tones and in general was utilitarian, not highly decorative.
While life in “The City on the Hill” was supposed to give the appearance of being plain and pius, it was a commonly held belief that wealth and success were a sign of God’s favor. It’s probably fair to say that the system of governance was a theocratic plutocracy, dominated by wealthy churchmen, merchants, large landowners and the occasional aristocrat who had opted for a life “on the frontier.” These were “The Elect”, members of their church in good standing and “pillars” of the greater community. And for “The Elect” it was considered altogether appropriate to demonstrate their exceptional status in the furniture they placed in their own homes. This was not the furniture that was found in the common farmhouse. Ornate carving decorated many pieces such as chairs, joint stools, forms, tables and chests. Turned appliques were used to decorate pieces like Court cupboards. Many pieces were painted. Painting might be used to highlight carved areas or could, indeed, by the main focal point of a design.
Much of this furniture was brought from Great Britain and the Low Countries, either as imported wares or the personal belongings of wealthier members of the community. There were skilled craftsmen residing in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who provided excellent quality goods, but the desire for bespoke furniture, to impress the neighbors, has been present since the arrival of the first European settlers.
These examples from the later part of the 17th century express the skill of European craftsmen of the period:
If you’d like to know more about the history and manufacture of 17th century American Furniture, you should be following Peter Follansbee’s Blog. Peter is rightly considered as a leading expert on this period and, as many of you already know, is a gifted craftsman.
For more about the “bespoke” furniture of Great Britain and Ireland during the 17th and 18th Centuries, go to Jack Plane’s Blog, www.pegsandtails.wordpress.com. Jack’s blog is an incredible repository of information. Plus you’ll have the opportunity to see Jack replicate some of the most sophisticated furniture ever constructed. Prepare to spend hours.