FURNITURE. Far from being of a single style or culture, the first two centuries of furniture made in America reflects the transplanted tastes of many peoples, each beholden to their country of origin, and each restrained by geography and communication.
In seventeenth-and eighteenth-century New England, and farther south along the East Coast, the predominant colonizers were English. The Hudson Valley became Dutch, while Swedes and Germans settled in parts of Pennsylvania. Production was local, mostly utilitarian, and immediate: stools, benches, small tables, and chests with drawers. Furniture construction was simple, medieval, and based on few tools. The resulting shapes were massive, boxy, and mostly without ornament, except for an occasional turning to emphasize leg, rungs, stretchers, and backs. Shallow carving, called "Kerbschnitt," formed geometric bands, leaves, and rosettes, on some flat areas. Later in the seventeenth century, Kerbschnitt became more elaborate. In all the colonies, chairs with straight backs and rush seats were common, and new decorative elements found wide acceptance. Refinements and the latest style came from the mother country and were available in very limited scope to those who could afford it. The Carver chair, a chair honored with the name of the first governor of Plymouth, is an example.
While American colonial furniture was distinctly functional, often serving more than one purpose, simple in design, and heavy looking, it was just as likely to employ Renaissance forms long outmoded in Europe as it was the more up-to-date baroque decorative elements that emphasized carving. As in Europe, the Baroque came in several variations.
As the wealth of the colonies increased, first in the South, so did the demand for quality furniture. A variety of indigenous soft and hardwoods, such as pine, birch, maple, oak, hickory, and later walnut, were easily available to colonial furniture craftsmen. With each boat, new furniture forms arrived, including cane-back, slat-back, and leather-back chairs, as well as upholstered chairs, better known as easy chairs. Counted among the new pieces of useful furniture were tall clocks, high chests with drawers, and storage boxes. Furniture was often named after its area of manufacture, such as the Hartford chests of Connecticut or the Hadley chests of Massachusetts, or it was given a broad, general style-based definition—like Restoration or William and Mary—by later scholars. Construction characteristics included thin drawer linings; dovetail construction; walnut veneers; fruitwoods such as peach, apple and cherry; and chased-brass mounts instead of iron and wooden knobs. Two-tiered cupboards became popular, utilizing carving and turned decoration in the English manner. A new domestic element was the Bible box. With a secure lid, it held a Bible, but also important papers. Where space was available, it often had its own stand. By the mid-eighteenth century, the demand for comfort had grown considerably among newly prospering merchants, resulting in finer homes, with refined interiors and elaborate furnishings. Out went simple, bulky, and functional rural furniture. In came European baroque and rococo styling—elegant urban designs in Queen Anne and Chippendale styles that fit better in the enlarged houses, which now contained a central hall, a dining room, and two parlors, including a formal one with a sofa, chairs, mirror, and several small tables. Each room required specific furniture.
Starting about 1725, the fundamental baroque qualities of the William and Mary style began to merge with the more sophisticated Queen Anne forms. With its lean and taut S-shaped cabriolet legs, pad, trifid, or pointed feet, it dominated the American British colonies for the next three decades. American Queen Anne was simpler than its English counterpart. Where the English relied on carving and gilding for decoration, Americans sought symmetry and proportion, while respecting the natural qualities of the wood. On both sides of the Atlantic, claw-and-ball feet ruled. Knees on high chests and chairs sometimes appear to buckle under the weight of scalloped shells and volutes. Whatever else it boasted, the most important element of Queen Anne was the cyma curve—the one William Hogarth called a serpentine "line of beauty." No part of a piece of furniture was spared the curve—not the solid back, the vase-shaped splats, or the bow-shaped crest. Its use went beyond decoration and into the piece of furniture itself.
In major urban centers, direct links to European craftsmen were established through royal governors, successful merchants, and immigrant craftsmen. The impact of Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director: Being a Large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese, and Modern Taste, first published in England in 1754, did not become felt in the colonies until about 1760. It is by his name that American furniture of the Rococo is known.
While Queen Anne furniture lingered as a rival, Chippendale's pierced chair-back splats as illustrated in his pattern book and copied by skilled local craftsmen, became the rage in the British colonies of the 1760s and 1770s. While the pattern books themselves were scarce, the fundamental forms were widely current, and from them developed an indigenous style. Furniture making was one of the first trades in which American craftsmen could both match and free themselves from dependence on their English counterparts. In every urban center, mahogany, an expensive wood from the Caribbean, quickly supplanted the traditional indigenous Queen Anne favorites, walnut, maple, and cherry. Furniture was now found all over the house. Instead of gentle cyma curves, the C-and S-scrolls dominated. A notable innovation was the upholstered armchair. Widespread ownership of Chinese ceramics resulted in another new furniture form: the corner cupboard.
French-inspired bombé double chests and desk-bookcases became a specialty of Boston. Boston is also credited with introducing block-front furniture, including the widely popular blocked-front desk, an innovation by Goddard and Townsend, two Quaker cabinetmaker families in Newport, Rhode Island. The front of the chest, commode, or bureau-bookcase was divided into three vertical panels, or blocks. The middle block was mildly concave causing the blocks on either side to appear slightly projecting. Accenting this subtlety was a shell motif, carved alternately concave and convex. At this same time, the four-poster canopy bed with hangings of linen, wool, and damask became fashionable.
An elaborate French influence swept Philadelphia, the largest city in British America. Here, in the hands of William Savery, the highboy became the trophy of the Rococo in America. Philadelphia furniture craftsmen also focused on the production of the ubiquitous English Windsor chair. By far the most popular chairs inside and outside the home throughout the colonies, the Windsor— simple, utilitarian, and made of commonly available wood—quickly established itself as an American chair type. In Philadelphia, the Windsor achieved a lean elegance accented by lathe-turned legs and stretchers. Bows for the back were shaped by steam.
In the spirit of the times, American craftsmen ardently advanced technologies and, after independence, became leaders in innovative labor-saving devices used in all aspects of manufacturing. Starting in 1818 in Connecticut, Lambert Hitchcock pioneered a derivative of the Windsor chair with easy to assemble, mass-produced parts, which he shipped to the Midwest and southern locations for assemblage, painting, and stenciling. The finished chairs were distributed by the thousands around the country.
The Nineteenth Century
When publications introduced European neoclassicism to America in the 1780s and 1790s, their scholarly, archaeologically founded classical revival was taken as an appropriate expression of the young Republic, a trend that merged well with the new ideals of government. The publications of Robert Adam were indispensable, though they were known mostly through the designs in George Hepplewhite's Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, published posthumously by his wife in 1788. The Hepplewhite style is characterized by the use of Marlborough legs (a tapering leg of square section), shield-backed chairs, and a restrained application of classical ornament. Basic classical revival needs were also satisfied by Thomas Sheraton, whose Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, issued in four parts (1791–1794), found immediate resonance.
At much the same time, Duncan Phyfe began to make his reputation in New York, a reputation based on a still much-admired classical style. By 1820, Phyfe employed one hundred workers, each specializing in his own craft, and all working under one roof for one employer. Specialty craftsmen, upholsterers, inlay makers, turners, carvers, and gilders working as allied artists became the staple of the urban furniture industry. Rural cabinetmakers, by contrast, could do it all.
Based on Greek and Roman forms and named after the first empire of Napoleon, the Empire style—as it was defined by the furniture designed by Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, both of Paris—became all the vogue about 1800 in France. The main thrust of Empire furniture arrived in New York in 1803, with the émigré cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier. It quickly spread throughout America. Bookcases became Greek temples, couches became Roman beds, consoles became ancient altars, and clocks became pyramids. Archaeological forms were often misunderstood. Adam's Pompeian delicacy became Greco-Egyptian solidity. A major characteristic of American Empire is the increased weight of all the parts. It was wildly popular.
Unconcerned with national styles and trends, uncomplicated forms of the eighteenth century dominated the furniture of the Shakers, a religious sect. Refining their style throughout the nineteenth century, the makers of Shaker furniture became a major influence on modern design from the 1880s on.
Unhampered by a rigid economic and social structure, furniture craftsmen and manufacturers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia followed the population bubble west and set up businesses as required. Along the way, furniture craftsmen adopted and invented labor-saving machines like no other industry had before. The immediate results were acceleration in the division of labor and a significant reduction in cost, as well as constant striving for novelty combined with elegance. New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Chicago quickly developed into primary nodes of furniture production. By 1825, a steam-driven planing and grooving machine was running in Cincinnati, a city that by 1850 claimed 136 furniture-making facilities producing some $1.6 million in product and employing 1,156 hands. With the development of a national railroad distribution system after the Civil War, Chicago became the nation's center of furniture production.
The great international exhibitions in London, Paris, Vienna, Philadelphia, and Chicago sped the global diffusion of ideas in furniture design and contributed significantly to the wars of styles so evident in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, as the need to represent Empire waned, American interior decorating and furniture design fell under the spell of the Gothic Revival style. Applied to any and all surfaces, its repetitive patterns were found to be especially suitable to machine production. Those aspiring to a more aristocratic elegance sought out French-inspired revivals of baroque and rococo styles.
By merging genuine historic design with machine production and innovative handcraftsmanship, in New York, John Henry Belter and the Herter Brothers emerged as inspired, independent forces in America's furniture industry. Both were much admired and copied. By combining marble with gilding and textured silk and satin, using color as pattern, and adding thin legs to thick furniture, mass produced furniture lost all semblance of tradition,
while satisfying America's eclectic markets. New furniture forms, the ottoman, the lazy Susan table, and the wardrobe, joined those with a pedigree. Championing craftsmanship traditions rooted in the honesty of medieval and Renaissance construction, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details (1868) by Charles Lock Eastlake, was catapulted into a vogue known as the East-lake style.
Elegance may fade, but it never dies. In the 1880s, the nation fell under the spell of French academics, this time from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose support of authentic reproductions of period furnishings found broad support among America's wealthy. But American intellectuals and designers cheered strong nativism. They embraced the blossoms of the Orient that inspired forms compatible with the English Arts and Crafts style and philosophy.
Along the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena, California, the brothers Charles Sumner Green and Henry Mather Green built and exquisitely furnished a number of Japanese-influenced Craftsman-styled bungalows. The sensuous, languorous quality of California life influenced not only their style, but also that of their contemporaries Irving Gill, in San Diego, and Bernard Maybeck, in San Francisco. It was also in San Francisco that Arthur and Lucia Kleinhans Mathews founded The Furniture Shop in 1906, when the great earthquake provided a wealth of opportunity.
The Twentieth Century
In contrast, the bold lines and forthright detail characteristic of the Stickley brothers, Gustave, Leopold, and John George, are also representative of the early twentieth century. Known collectively as Craftsman or Mission, their furniture designs incorporated smooth rounded edges, elaborately pegged joints, and sometimes-intricate, sinuous inlay. In the early years of the twentieth century, Gustave Stickley sponsored furniture franchises from Los Angeles to Boston. In 1913 he opened large showrooms
in Manhattan. Two years later, he declared bankruptcy. The eccentric end of the movement is represented by Charles Rohlfs, who established his own furniture workshop in Buffalo, New York, in 1898, and soon was making entire rooms of furniture for wealthy clients throughout the United States.
By 1900, the Midwest became a hotbed of furniture design, led by such lights as Harvey Ellis, George Washington Maher, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Grant Elmslie, George Mann Niedecken, and William Gray Purcell. Two world's fairs showed off the achievements: the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis. Chicago represented the apotheosis of the "American Renaissance," through Daniel Burnham's insistence on European beaux-arts influences. St. Louis presented to America the new, stylish, utilitarian modern designs of the Arts and Crafts movement. Frank Lloyd Wright is the undisputed leader. His synthesis of Louis Sullivan's organic ornament and impeccable construction, with simplified lines, forthright construction, and insistence on the totally designed environment that subjugated furnishings to architecture took the Arts and Crafts ideology to another level. While Wright never insisted on the handcrafting of furniture, he did maintain a close relationship with manufacturing firms and craftsmen who executed his designs. Foremost among them was Niedecken of Niedecken-Walbridge.
Impressed by the Stickley and Austrian exhibits at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Oscar Onken established The Shop of the Crafters in Cincinnati in 1904. Together with his lead employee, the Hungarian designer Paul Horti, who had worked on the Austrian exhibition at the fair, they created a distinctly European look in their furniture, distinguished by its use of inlays, applied carving, and painted designs.
Although little concerned with the theoretical foundations of the Arts and Crafts movement, Chicago-based mail-order houses like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward introduced Mission-styled furnishings to a remarkably large cross-section of American society. While designers in Germany and France were successfully marketing tubular steel furniture and plate glass–topped tables, and Scandinavians were experimenting with plywood and curvilinear forms, seeking to break up mechanical regularity, some European-born American designers adopted the new rather than creating it. R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, Howe and Lescaze, Kem Weber, and others worked in the new idiom, but they did not make significant new contributions of their own. Meanwhile, Roebuck offered American-manufactured tubular steel chairs through its catalogs.
In startling contrast stood the mid-1920s luxurious American variants, based on the distinctly French modern furnishings created by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and others for the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. While much admired, items were wildly expensive, resulting in a very limited following. Just as rare as French Deco in America were products of the Austrian Werkbund, Austria's semiofficial artists' guild, which became available in America in 1928 when Marianne Willisch began bringing annual exhibitions of modern crafts and furniture to the United States. In 1930, Willisch moved to Chicago. She was soon asked to furnish interiors, and she began to design and supervise the construction of furniture.
In 1933, the Chicago's second world's fair, Century of Progress Exposition, surpassed all previous fairs in the number of model houses on display; there were thirteen at the fair's opening, and twenty in its second season. Exceptionally popular and widely published, the twelve-sided House of Tomorrow and the all-glass Crystal House, both designed by Chicago architects George and Fred Keck, showed Bauhaus-inspired furniture designed by Leland Atwood.
Immediately after World War II, American furniture design again came into its own, based on models developed just prior to the war. In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York inaugurated a competition for "organic Design in Home Furnishings," in which two architects, Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, won the first prize for seating and other living room furniture. While sectional seating was not new, the MOMA prizes were revolutionary, for Saarinen and Eames united seats, back, and arm rests in a single shell made of veneer and glue and laminated in a cast iron mold. The shell was mounted on a base. This development greatly reduced the industrial process and would have immense consequences after the war. Charles and Ray Eames produced a series of furniture designs that proved to be classics. So did Eero Saarinen. Harry Bertoia's wire chairs and George Nelson's "coconut" chair and storage walls also became familiar to a broad public. Between them, Knoll and Herman Miller made available what seemed to be distinctly American modern furniture.
While wood and metal dominated American furniture design historically, plastic and fiberglass slowly became a visible furniture material by the early 1950s. Walter Papst in Germany designed the first one-piece plastic table in 1959. The following year, the first one-piece plastic chair was designed and patented by the American R. G. Reineman. By the early 1970s, plastic furniture was in the forefront of American furniture design. The introduction of vinyl and other plastic skins allowed the creation of flexible envelopes filled with beads of polystyrene, plastic foam, as in the "bean bag" chair, or filled with air for deflatable, temporary furniture. The new materials often required rounded forms to best accommodate them. Designers followed suit. In 1972, the architect Frank O. Gehry designed domestic furniture using paper—a laminated corrugated construction he named Easy Edges rocking chair.
At the same time, electronics began invading the home, dictating furniture shapes and room configurations that included not only an almost universally black-skinned television but various black electronic gadgets, each with its own specific LED lights. The introduction of these new furnishing devices were followed closely by computers, mostly beige, and large screen televisions, mostly wood finished.
These developments forced a wholly new aesthetic on American furniture design, one no longer based on construction but on casting, molding, and shaping and the color black, followed by beige, followed by pastels and primary colors. The keen interest in new materials and the exploiting of their potential in mostly rounded forms in the 1970s helped establish an interest in ergonomics and the environment. By the early 1990s, Donald Chadwick and William Stumpf designed the Aeron chair, which brought front-line radical ergonomic, anthropometric, and environmental considerations into the office. Other environmental furniture followed rapidly. While new colors and materials continued to be introduced, an aesthetic interest in retro furniture design of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s bloomed in the 1990s. This aesthetic continued to lead at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Darling, Sharon. Chicago Furniture, Art, Craft, and History,1833–1983. New York: Norton, 1984.
Hanks, David A. The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Dutton, 1979.
Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for the Gilded Age. Exhibition catalog, 1994.
Heckscher, Morrison H. American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum II: Late Colonial Period: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.
Milwaukee Museum of Art. The Domestic Scene, 1897–1927: George M. Niedecken, Interior Architect. Exhibition catalog, 1982. Catalog by Cheryl Robertson.
See alsoArts and Crafts Movement .
Furniture made especially for children is not a modern phenomenon but has existed independent of the ways in which adult views of children have changed. At the same time, its form reflects or rises from changing pedagogical views of childhood. Children's furniture has historically been defined not just by scale but also by pedagogical purpose.
The design of children's furniture is influenced by period, material, form, function, pedagogical views, and children's games and status. It reflects the grown-up world's imagining of children's needs and also its ideals of order, dis cipline, hygieneplay, and even stimulation. Children's furniture often tries to anticipate children's behavior– mostly proscribed behavior.
One can distinguish between children's furniture in private homes and children's furniture in institutions such as nurseries and kindergartens. The distinction reflects the identity of each sphere. Children's furniture in the home often reflects the contemporary attitude to interior design and material. Institutional furniture tends to reflect the contemporary attitude toward pedagogy and hygiene.
High and Low Chairs
Of the children's furniture that has survived from earlier periods, chairs tend to show the most variety. (A great deal of children's furniture has been lost, but the oldest preserved chairs originate from the late 1500s and the early 1600s.) A Greek vase painting dated 400 b.ce. shows a child in a high chair facing a woman sitting on a stool. The earliest known example of a low child's chair originates from the Viking age. The remnants of the chair were found during excavations in Sweden in 1981. The low chair has been known throughout most of Europe. Before the Viking chair was found, the oldest existing example of a low child's chair was in a family portrait in a 1601 Swiss tapestry.
These examples indicate that special furniture for children was made at a very early stage in the history of furniture, and that equally early two basic models of children's chairs existed: the high and the low model. Scale is what most distinguishes children's furniture from that of grownups. The sitting height of children's furniture is mostly either above or beneath the average grown-up sitting height. When children's chairs are built for pedagogical purposes, they tend to follow the low strategy to make children self-sufficient. The high strategy, on the other hand, puts the child at the level of the grown-ups at a table and enables the child to learn how to behave there.
Furniture and Status
Children's furniture stresses the social position of the child in relation to both the environment and to adults. To have an individual piece of furniture indicates status and the right to a status in the home or institution. The very existence of children's furniture promotes the child's status in the home and institution, because the furniture is the property of the child and because the furniture physically occupies space–a choice that excludes other furniture and reflects a priority, stressing the child's social importance. If a child has a piece of furniture of his or her own, this acknowledges the status and rank of the child. The special form of children's furniture signals that childhood is considered an important period.
The production of children's furniture for schools was an important innovation. School classes in the old village schools had long, narrow benches on which the children sat close together. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century was the first pedagogical school furniture designed: school desks with room enough between seat and table for children to barely stand. Classrooms were small, and the new desks minimized the space between rows.
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s many desk designs were considered. So-called school hygiene supporters made detailed descriptions of the correct way for a student to sit when writing, reading, or doing arithmetic or needlework. From these, they calculated designs, relating the height of the desk and the distance between the desk and the seat to the size of the child. There were different views on about whether to bolt the desk to the floor or allow it to be pulled aside when the room was cleaned, and about designing desks in differing heights adapted to differing ages and sizes. The choice between single desks or twin desks, however, was very often made on the basis of economics.
With the development of nurseries and kindergartens in the beginning of the twentieth century, children's public space became a focus of experiments with small, movable furniture. Between World Wars I and II, a group of creative and progressive schools used individual chairs and tables, allowing new pedagogical opportunities in the classroom. The traditional organization–a master's desk facing rows of pupils' desks–continued, however, into the 1950s in Europe but had largely disappeared in the United States by then.
Light, air, and a clean environment were the 1930s ideals of European pedagogical architecture. They were meant to produce healthy, clean, sound children. The first nurseries and kindergartens were models of clinical hygiene and sanitation, derived from hospital clinics. Their furniture was designed for easy cleaning in order to minimize the risk of infection. Not only hygienic precautions, but also the practical organization of the nurseries and kindergartens were intended to form the children. Furniture built to a child's scale was meant to make children active and resourceful. Children were to learn how to organize their own playthings on childsized shelves and bookcases. Moreover, they were to learn how to wash themselves at washbasins built to their height.
Furniture and Play
The purpose of playing has been perceived differently through the ages. It may be considered, for example, to have social value or to help in motor development or to be of value in its own right. Research on children and the design of children's playthings and furniture between 1930 and 1960 shows that they were intended to prepare the child for the grown-up world and the working sphere. Therefore constructive playthings and junction furniture were popular and supported by the dominant psychologists and pedagogues.
Scandinavian furniture designers between 1930 and 1960 followed the lead of nursery schools, socially engaged designers, and experts in child rearing regarding the child's need to play. It was generally accepted that children liked to use furniture in their play. The first educated furniture designers in Scandinavia began to make children's furniture when they had children themselves and they began to attach importance to the idea that children should be able to use their furniture for more than just sitting in (e.g., to stimulate their imagination or to use as play equipment). Previously, children's furniture for nurseries and kindergartens had been made by constructing architects and consequently was designed from a technical point of view, resulting in adult furniture scaled down to a child's size.
The youth revolution in 1968 and the changing views of authority changed pedagogy and the dominant perception of the child's world, moving both in an anti-authoritarian direction. These changing values were reflected in children's furniture, which now was designed for play and relaxed behavior.
Although children's furniture in the private home has a long history, children's furniture in the public sphere is a more recent phenomenon. On the other hand, all furniture originally made for the private home was made for the upper classes. It was not until the twentieth century that mass production allowed children's furniture–like toys–to be made for the middle classes. At the same time children and childhood came to be taken more seriously than they had been previously, creating a greater focus on and demand for children's furniture and toys.
Today the difference between the public and private sphere has been minimized since most children attend nurseries and kindergartens, encountering the same kinds of furniture there as they do at home. Contemporary furniture designers do not care whether children's furniture is used in nurseries, kindergartens, or private homes. It is primarily the spirit of the time that determines the understanding of the form, function, and creation of children's furniture.
See also: Children's Spaces; School Buildings and Architecture.
Bollivant, Lucy, ed. 1997. Kid Size: The Material World of Childhood. Milan, Italy: Skira, Vitra Design Museum.
Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Gelles, Edward. 1982. Nursery Furniture: Antique Children's Miniature and Doll's House Furniture. London: Constable.
Kevill-Davies, Sally. 1991. Yesterday's Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collector's Club.
FURNITUREpeople's relations to furniture
crisis of style
Furniture framed the everyday domestic lives of Europeans throughout the long nineteenth century. Accumulating enough savings so as to be able to furnish one's home was the dream of the urban working class, whereas the wealthy expended great time and energy on the acquisition of furnishings appropriate to their station. New institutions of distribution arose to supply rich and poor; in addition to the small custom shops and open-air markets of the early modern world, consumers could now also purchase their furniture from distributors ranging from stores selling poor-quality furniture on credit to the most luxurious of specialized and department stores. The work of these new retailers was seconded by that of advertisers and commentators.
By the nineteenth century both specialized and department stores were heavily advertising their wares, providing potential consumers with a vision of what they could acquire. Those advertisements were often bullying in tone, promising social and marital success as well as psychological fulfillment to those who purchased wisely and great ills and troubles to those who did not acquire what was recommended for them. The style in which the homes of the poor, the petite bourgeoisie, and the wealthy were furnished also became a major preoccupation of both government officials and cultural critics. Competitions were held across Europe to encourage designers to imagine affordable, healthy, and appropriate furnishings for each social class. Taste professionals further argued that working-class households that dwelt in homes
furnished with styles originally designed for the palaces of kings would be dissatisfied with their lot and inclined toward revolution. Decorating magazines included long articles on how the country houses of the wealthy should differ from their apartments in town. City dwellers living with furniture designed for rural homes would be ill-adapted for the particular rigors of urban life. Carved furnishings filled with hard-to-clean crevices and too heavy to move would encourage the spread of disease. Furniture, like architecture, was also the site of polemics between nationalists and regionalists, each arguing that from the style of the home emanated a sense of solidarity. Those who sought to reinforce regional identifications argued that people should live in the traditional styles of their region. Nationalists, sought, rather, to create a single style that would undercut those local affiliations and enable those who lived in the same polity to share an aesthetic every day.
This profusion of new institutions, advertisements, and prescriptive commentaries necessarily shaped people's relations to the furniture they acquired, or sought to acquire. While this was not yet a mass consumer society, more people had more choice concerning the appearance of their homes than ever before. With that choice came a new sense of responsibility and possibility.
Europeans in this period used their homes for two, sometimes conflicting, purposes. The first was simply to provide the physical context for domestic life, the second to represent, and even constitute, the social and psychological self. A fundamental goal for all—young and old, single and married, rich and poor, urban and rural—was to create a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing context for their domestic everyday lives. Furnishings provided the props needed for sleeping, eating, dressing, socializing, and often working. There was, then, a functional role for furnishings. Equally crucial, however, was the role they played in the daily reconstitution of the self. Furnishings, like clothing and other elements of material culture, located individuals socially, temporally, and even politically. Throughout this period, for example, domestic interiors were markedly national in inflection. Thus, while German households were quite internationalist, containing goods of German, French, Italian, and English origin, French imports were limited to the British, and English and Italian households also tended to favor national styles (although French furnishings did travel throughout Europe).
Differences in national taste were equaled by differences among social classes. The gap in living standards in this period was vast. Until the second half of the twentieth century most urban dwellers lived in extremely cramped quarters, which often served as the site of labor as well as living. Single room dwellings housing multigenerational families and a workshop were far from uncommon. Those living in the country sometimes had more space, but very rarely the disposable income, or perhaps perceived need, to furnish their homes elaborately. Even those who had little space or disposable income, however, had some access to the posters and leaflets advertising the kind of interiors available to some and every major and most small cities had retailers that specialized in selling furniture on credit. The commercial, industrial, and professional classes, by contrast, came in this period to live in spacious apartments or single-family dwellings. They furnished these homes with great care and great concern for the appropriateness of that decoration to the household's professional and social position and often replaced furnishings as their social situation improved or declined. Tensions arose among these representational tasks. Cherished remnants of a past moment of life could sit uneasily with objects chosen in a later present with an eye toward the future. A subcultural identification—of class, region, or religion—could lead taste in a direction different from that of the national community.
Further complicating this dynamic was the fact that people, even if they lived alone, were also part of families. The families and family homes, however modest or luxurious, in which people passed their childhoods shaped their expectations of domesticity and the domestic environment. Whether they sought to emulate, modify, or escape those settings, they were influenced by them. Homes were often also more literally shaped by previous generations through inheritance. Even if inherited goods were discarded, they maintained a ghostly presence in the home. New families created by marriage or cohabitation were just as complex as those of birth. Husbands and wives came into their joint home with different pasts, and perhaps, different visions for the future. Those differences were often made dramatically tangible in the context of the home.
Due in part to this symbolic and representational weight being carried by furnishings and in part to changing dynamics within the world of production, by the end of the nineteenth century there was a general sense of crisis: no style appropriate to the modern era was understood to have emerged. The stylistic innovations of the end of the nineteenth century known as style moderne, jugendstil, or liberty were most often condemned by commentators as being both in poor taste and, because of their minimal use of machinery, inappropriate styles for the modern age. The British Arts and Crafts movement with its medieval referents and emphasis on hand labor, most famously represented by the English poet and artist William Morris (1834–1896), was also understood to be nostalgic and hopelessly ill-suited to modernity. Consumers were not much more enthusiastic than the critics about these styles, which were, in any case, too expensive for the majority to imagine acquiring. To the horror of design professionals most Europeans on the eve of World War I were still living in homes filled with either second-hand or antique furniture on the one hand or contemporary interpretations of historical styles on the other. The persistent dominance of historicism and eclecticism was understood to pose a threat in three domains: the economic, the political, and the social.
It was not only the perceived aesthetic archaism that worried commentators, however, but a particularly pernicious mode of production that they argued it enabled. Historicist furniture styles, because of their extensive use of carving, turning, caning, inlay, and veneer were very labor intensive. In their efforts to produce inexpensive versions of these intrinsically luxurious styles, furniture distributors (like their colleagues in the clothing industries) turned to outwork and sweated labor. Rather than create large factories, distributors built on the already existing network of small artisans, sometimes advancing materials, sometimes simply buying completed work at a low price. Workers driven
to produce more and more quickly necessarily turned out poor quality items while living in abject poverty. New, modern styles that could be efficiently produced in factories, it was argued, would enable employers to pay decent wages while also providing consumers with durable (and appropriate) furnishings. The immiseration of furniture workers was further feared because of their concentration in particular neighborhoods, like Paris's Faubourg St. Antoine or London's East End, and their history of labor organization and political radicalism.
The industry's continued production of historicist styles was also understood to weaken it on the international market. Since the working drawings and models for these styles were freely available, international competition turned exclusively on a combination of economies and efficiencies in the production process and access to cheap raw materials. Each European nation-state worried about the others' supposed advantages in the domain of production and all were worried about competition from the United States. French and English commentators worried about the greater efficiency of the Germans and the Americans while the Germans thought the British school system and the French craft traditions would enable both to outsell them. Efforts to mandate a new style or to encourage innovation through improved school curricula, access to museums and libraries, or competitions, all proved of limited effect, largely because consumers preferred historicist pastiche to the modernist styles invented for them. However engaged in modernity they were in other domains of their lives, even other aesthetic domains such as the fine arts, music, or literature, the vast majority of European consumers in the long nineteenth century looked to their homes for reassuring links to their familial and national pasts.
Auslander, Leora. Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.
Gere, Charlotte, and Michael Whiteway. Nineteenth-Century Design from Pugin to Mackintosh. New York, 1994.
Hunter-Stiebel, Penelope. Of Knights and Spires: Gothic Revival in France and Germany. New York, 1989.
Siebel, Ernst. Der grossbürgerliche Salon, 1850–1918: Geselligkeit und Wohnkultur. Berlin, 1999.
Stansky, Peter. Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s and the Arts and Crafts. Princeton, N.J., 1985.
As a more settled way of life developed, furniture acquired fixed location and function, and specialized items began to appear (lecterns/book-storage in monasteries); emphasis on textiles yielded only slowly to carved decoration influenced by Gothic arches and linenfold panelling. Houses were still sparsely furnished, but changes in furniture construction produced lighter items less inclined to split in damp northern climates, and joiners rather than turners or carpenters became the furniture specialists. Changing social custom affected form: late 16th-cent. tables broadened as host and hostess began to sit at each end rather than on one side with backs to the wall, and the use of upholstery increased. After Flemish immigrants reintroduced board construction in the late 16th cent., producing solid pieces that permitted veneers and elaborate marquetry, joined furniture became restricted to country craftsmen; differences began to appear between urban and rural furniture in both quality and technical approach.
In the 17th cent., increasing shortage of native timbers led to imports of walnut and exotic hardwoods like ebony, letting craftsmen refine their skills and leading to a healthy reciprocal export trade of finished items. The new enthusiasm for collecting boosted showpiece cabinets, while large mirrors increased light in a room and encouraged the integration of furniture with interior decoration. As trade expanded, particularly post-Restoration, overseas influences on design abounded, such as lacquering and cane-seating from the East and baroque flamboyance from Italy which prompted sculptured/gilded pieces, while France held position as arbiter of fashionable taste. For those unable to afford elaborately carved items or high-quality cabinetry, there was nevertheless much practical, utilitarian furniture. Though convention still dictated sparse furnishing and rigid arrangements (chairs aligned against a wall), associated discomfort prompted 18th-cent. development of private quarters in large country houses, away from deliberately impressive ‘state’ rooms, subsequently dust-covered; as the middle classes burgeoned, more people owned good furniture, and those in unfurnished lodgings could buy on hire purchase. The introduction c.1720 of mahogany, which gradually displaced walnut, enabled pierced openwork carving, so obsession with fashion generated new styles and the emergence of designer-craftsmen (Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton); enthusiasm for chinoiserie was renewed, eventually inspiring the royal pavilion at Brighton. Architects such as William Kent and neo-classical Robert Adam produced fully integrated interiors, while Horace Walpole's neo-Gothic Strawberry Hill innovatively created an environment to express his own personality and taste.
After the Napoleonic wars the demand for expensive furniture fell, but a plethora of styles was still available—Gothic Revival for the dining-room or library, rococo for the drawing-room—though a general diffusion of furniture throughout the population shifted emphasis towards practicality and comfort, while still heavily ornamented. Technological changes led to cheap and partly mechanized furniture, but there was no real factory system in the 19th cent. Sprung upholstery, plywood, and bentwood appeared, metal was used structurally for bed-frames (eliminating bed-bugs) and cast-iron outdoor chairs, and arrangements became more informal. Early Victorian taste favoured opulence and eclecticism, so exhibition showpieces coexisted with simpler, compact items like Windsor chairs. A substantial improvement in the standard of living of ordinary people after 1850, coupled with the spread of mass production, led to the heavily furnished Victorian parlour, with carpet, rugs, fringed tablecloths and antimacassars, and decorated with stuffed birds under glass, Staffordshire figures, and reproductions of Holman Hunt's Light of the World (1854), Millais's Bubbles (1886), homilies, or portraits of the queen on the walls. A gradual move to studied simplicity, showing strong Japanese influences, contributed to the aesthetic movement, preceding the rise of art nouveau— Charles Rennie Mackintosh's black, elongated furniture in the early 20th cent. was both distinctive and scaled to his interiors. As formal living declined and living-spaces shrank after the First World War, the modern movement emphasized function and collaboration with industry, though metal furniture established itself more easily in offices than homes. Technical advances, putting much of the furniture industry on a fully industrial basis, were accompanied by marked stylistic uncertainty, though Scandinavian and Bauhaus influences flourished; the imposition of standardized Utility furniture (1942), to enable sufficient furniture for the bombed-out/newly married, was resented but did much to break down lingering resistance to modern design, and crossed class barriers. Post-war furniture, steered by designer imagination and machine capabilities, has seen technological experimentation (inflatable chairs, granule-filled sacks, expanded plastic foam in fitted covers) and promotion of a ‘look’. With portable flat-pack, self-assembly furniture and increase in built-in storage space, the wheel has almost turned full circle.
A. S. Hargreaves
Furniture made in the American colonies in the two decades prior to the American Revolution (1775–1783) was modeled after the prevailing style of furniture in Europe, namely the French or English rococo. The importation of European furniture and the immigration of European-trained craftsmen fostered the spread of this style to the colonies. Pattern books also had a profound influence on American furniture, particularly on the costliest furniture commissions in major urban centers. Among the pattern books available in the colonies were Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman's and Cabinetmaker's Director (1754), William Ince and John Mayhew's The Universal System of Household Furniture (1762), and Robert Manwaring's The Cabinet and Chair-Maker's Real Friend and Companion (1765), all published in London. Although only a few surviving examples of American furniture are known to have been copied directly from engraved plates in these pattern books, much American furniture owes a debt to the stylistic features depicted in them, such as curvaceous forms, ornate foliate carving, and exotic motifs, which are hallmarks of the rococo style in furniture. Furniture made for average consumers also bears similar stylistic origins, although it typically appeared slightly later and generally used less costly materials than the most expensive furniture made in the colonies. Certain forms, such as Windsor chairs, were popular among all levels of consumers throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The major colonial population centers—Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, and Charleston—developed distinctive regional furniture styles. Furniture makers in Philadelphia, the largest city in the American colonies in the second half of the eighteenth century, produced some of the most elaborately carved furniture in colonial America. One well-known set of examples is a matching suite of mahogany furniture made around 1770 for the Philadelphia townhouse of John Cadwalader, who later served as a general of the Continental Army, and his wife Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader, a wealthy Maryland heiress. Made under the direction of the Scottish-born cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck, who contracted London-trained carvers James Reynolds, Nicholas Bernard, and Martin Jugiez, all recently immigrated to Philadelphia, the suite included among other forms sofas, card tables, chairs, and fire screens in the high-style London taste. Some of the wealthiest American colonists had the means to acquire fine furniture and other luxury goods directly from the merchant houses of Europe; however, most patronized local craftsmen for at least some of their furniture. The nonimportation movement prior to the Revolution encouraged colonists to support local craftsmen.
Not all furniture made in North America adhered to the cultural norms of the dominant Anglo society. Significant pockets of settlement by the Germans in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the French in Canada and Louisiana, the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, and the Spanish in Florida and far to the west in New Spain contributed to the diversity of furniture-making traditions in North America.
Following the Revolution, the economic disruption caused by the war soon gave way to increased prosperity as populations in cities grew and settlement into the hinterlands of North America created new customers for furniture. The lifting of the colonial-era trade restrictions imposed by the British allowed American craftsmen to seek international markets for their products. Woodworking craftsmen used valuable raw materials, including native woods such as maple, walnut, cherry, and pine, as well as fine imported mahogany and rosewood from the Caribbean, to produce marketable finished products for both local consumption and export. Some of the most successful American furniture makers became merchants or retailers of furniture.
In general, furniture made in America beginning in the last decade of the eighteenth century reproduced the new international style of neoclassicism in architecture and interior furnishings that was already popular in Europe. In furniture, this "antique" or "classical" style found expression in a wide variety of classically inspired forms and ornamentation. Derived in part from examples of classical architecture and decorative arts uncovered during recent archaeological excavations in Italy and Greece, the details of this style of furniture were thought to be more correct than earlier Renaissance interpretations of classical designs. This style of furniture often employed gilded and painted surfaces and inlays of wood and metal, which required specialized skills. The English-trained architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a painted, Grecian-style klismos chair with incurvate
front and rear legs in 1809 for Dolley Madison to be used in the oval drawing room of the President's House. English pattern books continued to influence American craftsmen even after the Revolution. The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide (1788), by George Hepplewhite, and The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (1792), by Thomas Sheraton, promoted designs of classically inspired furniture. So did Thomas Hope in his book Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807), which introduced a mix of Roman and Egyptian motifs, and Thomas King in Modern Style of Cabinetwork Exemplified (1829). Despite international political tensions and a thriving market for locally produced furniture, Americans continued to turn to European sources for this style of furniture, which was popular well into the 1830s.
Cooper, Wendy A. Classical Taste in America, 1800–1840. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.
Green, Jeffrey P. American Furniture of the 18th Century. New-town, Conn.: Taunton, 1996.
Heckscher, Morrison H., and Leslie Greene Bowman. American Rococo, 1750–1775: Elegance in Ornament. New York: Abrams, 1992.
Dennis A. Carr
Tomb and Household Furniture. Egyptian craftsmen were famous for their chairs, stools, beds, and storage boxes, and they improved their techniques in the course of a long history. Almost all of the furniture preserved from ancient Egypt comes from tombs. Some furniture was specifically made for tombs and thus is less functional. Other furniture found in tombs shows signs of wear, demonstrating that it was originally used in households. This household furniture is generally of a higher quality and sturdier than furniture manufactured only for burial.
Early Dynastic Period. British archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie (1853–1942) discovered furniture dating to Dynasties 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.) and 2 (circa 2800-2675 b.c.e.) at Abydos, Saqqara, and Tarkhan. The legs of both beds and chairs were carved to resemble a bull’s legs. Imitation of animal forms in furniture elements continued throughout Egyptian history. The earliest chairs and bed frames were made of wood, with some elite examples in hippopotamus ivory. The chair seats were made of rushes that were woven and plaited across the frame.
Old Kingdom Furniture. In the Dynasty 3 (circa 2675-2625 b.c.e.) tomb of Hesyre, a government official who served under Djoser, family furniture was illustrated. Some beds had bull-shaped legs, while others were made of bent wood. Stools and chairs had both bull-shaped and straight legs. Hesyre also owned boxes decorated with hieroglyphs. This type of decoration for wooden boxes and chests continued throughout Egyptian history. Furniture found in the tomb of Queen Hetepheres I, mother of Khufu, illustrates the high quality of Dynasty 4 (circa 2625-2500 b.c.e.) craftsmanship, at least among products made for the royalty. Hetepheres’ bed was surrounded by a canopy frame, armchairs, and storage boxes that were made from wood covered with a thin sheet of gold. The canopy frame supported a curtain designed to keep out insects and the cold. The curtain was stored in a gilded box, inlaid with faience. The canopy frame had joints sheathed with copper coverings, which would have protected them during repeated assembly and dismantling. Armchairs had lion-shaped legs and solid panels on the back and seat. These panels were covered with goose-feather cushions. Decorative panels, placed between the armrests and seat frame, were carved with the hieroglyphic sign for Lower Egypt, which is three papyrus flowers entwined.
Middle Kingdom Furniture. By the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) utilitarian furniture included simple stools with tapered legs, which can be found at the site of Beni Hasan. Stools were in widespread use, and many have animal-leg designs based on bulls, gazelles, and lions. There were also folding stools with two rectangular interlocking frames fastened by a bronze rivet. A stool made from latticework was popular, as was a simple three-legged stool used in the workshop. Tables were manufactured
with a cavetto cornice, a concave element at the top, and torus molding, a rounded side. These tables thus imitate architectural elements, which are also found on many boxes and are found on temple pylons.
New Kingdom Innovations. Most of the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) designs follow Middle Kingdom prototypes. Yet, the majority of preserved furniture comes from the latter period. The new type made in the New Kingdom is a round-legged stool. Round legs were handcarved with a spike at the top, with a pivot at the bottom that might have been turned on a lathe, though there is no other evidence for the turning lathe in Egypt before the arrival of Alexander the Great (332 b.c.e.).
Types of Wood. The earliest Egyptian furniture was made from acacia, sycamore fig, and tamarisk wood. All of these woods are indigenous to the Nile valley and continued to be used in all periods, but the better furniture was made from imported woods. The Egyptians began to import cedar from Lebanon in Dynasty 4. Ebony came from parts of Africa south of Egypt by Dynasty 6 (circa 2350-2170 b.c.e.). These two woods were used in elitequality furniture. A coffin discovered at Saqqara was made from a kind of plywood that alternated layers of wood at right angles that were then pegged together.
Tools. Early stone tools used in the Predynastic Period (circa 3100-3000 b.c.e.) were not appropriate for making fine wooden furniture. When copper tools began to be used in Dynasties 1 and 2, the quality of furniture improved dramatically. The tomb of Ti, carved in Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.), depicts a carpenter’s shop. In this shop artisans used adzes, saws, chisels, and a bow drill to make furniture. Sandstone was used like sandpaper to smooth the surface of boards. Geoffrey Killen, an authority on ancient furniture, believes that Middle Kingdom representations of carpenters’ shops show an assembly line with a workman repeating one task and passing the furniture on to a colleague. New Kingdom illustrations of carpenter shops, in contrast, show one craftsman using all of the tools at his disposal, apparently making a complete object by himself.
Joints. Egyptian carpenters invented several methods of joining pieces of wood, many of which are still used by modern carpenters. The most important of these joints is the mortise and tenon, known since the Early Dynastic Period (circa 3000-2675 b.c.e.). The dovetail joint was already used on Hetepheres’ furniture in Dynasty 4. Nails were nearly unknown.
Surface Finishes. Many furniture pieces were coated in white plaster. This coating allowed the carpenter to disguise the poor quality of wood. Other pieces were painted over a thin gesso foundation. Gesso was also used to set inlay, which could be made from faience, colored stone, or gold foil. Furniture from Tutankhamun’s tomb was finished with marquetry and veneers. Tutankhamun’s chairs were also decorated with scenes. Among the most famous is a chair back depicting the king, seated, while his wife rubs his shoulder with oil. The scene is created entirely from glass and silver inlay pressed into gold foil.
Geoffrey Killen, Ancient Egyptian Furniture, volume 1, 4000-1300 B.C. (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1980.
Killen, Egyptian Woodworking and Furniture (Princes Risborough, U.K.: Shire, 1994).
furniture, properly such movables as chairs, tables, and beds; it is extended to include draperies, rugs, mirrors, lamps, and other furnishings. In its gradual evolution from periods of earliest civilization, the history of furniture parallels the progress of culture. Furniture has been made in a great variety of materials and decorated by many methods, the most usual being inlaying, painting or gilding, wood carving, veneering, and marquetry. Western furniture has drawn motifs of ornament from four main sources: Egyptian, Asian (Persian and Chinese), Greek, and Gothic.
Probably the first pieces to be in demand were the chest, the stool (prototype of the chair), the table, and the bed. From remote times Oriental furniture has exhibited carving and inlay on ebony and teak. Egyptian pieces 6,000 years old display an advanced form of woodworking, structure, and decoration and are characterized by inlays of gold and ivory and by carved supports representing animal forms. The Greeks favored the low couch, the tripod, and a chair with graceful, curved outlines. The Romans adopted Greek and Etruscan forms and during the imperial period developed many ornately decorated variations.
The heavily carved Gothic furniture reflected styles in architecture. Under Italian influence, the Renaissance brought richly decorated pieces designed specifically for domestic interiors. Peasant pieces were generally solid, painted or rudely carved, and slow to change in style. Provincial pieces followed in simplified form and in native woods; the period styles developed in the centers of culture. France became a leading influence with the Louis period styles, Directoire style, and Empire style.
English period styles include Elizabethan, in oak, with huge, bulbous supports; Jacobean, lighter and more comfortable, with spiral supports; William and Mary, introducing curved outlines, the trumpet leg, and the inverted-cup foot; Queen Anne, in walnut, characterized by cyma curves (double curves formed by joining a convex and a concave line), the rounded cabriole leg, and the broken pediment; Georgian, with its fine cabinetwork in a number of styles set by such designers as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Robert Adam and his brother James, and Sheraton.
Early American furniture adapted current English styles in utilitarian form and in native woods—pine, maple, cherry. Later Phyfe, Savery, John Goddard, and other expert cabinetmakers added walnut and mahogany. The late 19th cent. brought mass production of machine-made furniture and saw an expression of flamboyant taste in golden oak of rococo design; this was followed by a reaction in the United States to the Mission style of rectilinear construction in weathered oak.
Around the turn of the 20th cent., the organic forms of the art nouveau style achieved popularity. In the 1910s and 20s many attempts were made to develop a new and at the same time functional design. The efforts of the Dutch group de Stijl are notable, especially those of Gerrit Rietveld. Modern materials were effectively employed by Miës van der Rohe in his famous Barcelona chair made of unadorned steel and leather, and contributions were also made by Saarinen and Bertoia. Other popular materials are welded metal and plastic. The use of fine woods in starkly simple design is the keynote of the elegant work that has been produced in the Scandinavian countries and won worldwide popularity since World War II.
See J. Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture (3d ed. 1965); J. Gloag, A Social History of Furniture Design (1966); O. Wanscher, The Art of Furniture: 5000 Years of Furniture and Interiors (1967); K. McClinton, An Outline of Period Furniture (1972); M. Stimpson, Modern Furniture Classics (1987).
Household Furniture. Household furniture differed over time, location, and economic status of the owners. Like modern furniture, ancient Mesopotamian furniture was usually made from wood and other organic materials that decomposed. Fine furniture might be inlaid with other rare woods or ivory. Furniture designs in the third and second millennia b.c.e. were similar. Early second millennium b.c.e. texts from Mari include detailed descriptions of how royal furniture was made.
Seating. Constructed in many shapes and sizes from a wide variety of woods, chairs had legs, backs, and sometimes arms. They were often painted. Stools were made as early as the third millennium b.c.e. and were used by lower-class workers. Some stools had crossed legs and could be folded up. Padded armchairs, sedan chairs, and thrones were also made. Chair seats were covered with leather, palm fiber, rushes, or felt. Some chairs had loose linen slipcovers. One Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668 -circa 627 b.c.e.), was depicted reclining on a couch, which
“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions”
may have been made in Phoenicia or Syria, whose craftsmen decorated furniture with carved ivory inlays.
Tables. Artwork and texts from the third millennium b.c.e. reveal that Mesopotamians of that period ate their meals at tables and tray tables. Tables, models of tables, and illustrations of tables on reliefs have survived from the first millennium b.c.e. in Assyria. Tables were typically made of wood and sometimes decorated with metal or ivory inlays. They often had three legs so they would be stable on uneven ground.
Beds and Bedding. Beds were usually made of a frame and supporting base of wood. Rope, interwoven reeds, or metal strips woven in a crisscross pattern were sometimes used to support the mattress, which might be stuffed with wool, goats’ hair, or palm fibers. Linen sheets, cushions, and blankets might be placed atop the mattress. Not everybody owned a bed. The poor slept on mats made from straw or reeds.
Floor Coverings. Tablets refer to bedside mats on the floor. Palaces may have had carpets. Limestone slabs in the palaces of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (704–681 b.c.e.) and Ashurbanipal (668 - circa 627 b.c.e.) at Nineveh were carved to imitate carpeting.
Elizabeth Simpson, “Furniture in Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1647–1661.
Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, I: 485–501.
THE HANGING GARDENS OF BABYLON?
The fourth century b.c.e. Babylonian priest Berossus described “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon” in his-Babylonaica, written to explain the culture of Mesopotamia to the Seleucid masters of Babylonia. According to Berossus, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar .II (604–562 b.c.e.) created the Hanging Gardens to please his wife, who longed for the mountainous areas of her native Media in Iran. The Hanging Gardens became one of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world. However, there are no references to such a garden among Nebuchadnezzar’s many building inscriptions or among the references to Babylon in the fifth century b.c.e.Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who claimed to have visited the city less than a century after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. In a corner of one of Nebuchadnezzar’s palaces, archaeologists found an underground crypt, where a three-shafted well in one of the cellars may have been some kind of hydraulic lifting system—perhaps the water source of the Hanging Gardens—but no archaeological finds have provided compelling evidence for the existence of the Hanging Gardens. Recent scholars have suggested that late-classical writers may have confused the vast building activities of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon with those of the earlier Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 b.c.e.) at Nineveh, which did, in fact, possess a vast artificial garden.
Sources: Stanley Mayer Burstein, The Babylonaica of Berossus, Sources and Monographs, Sources from the Ancient Near East, volume 1, fascicle 5 (Malibu, Cal.: Undena Publications, 1978).
Stephanie Dalley, “Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens; Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled,” Iraq, 56 (1994): 45–58.
fur·ni·ture / ˈfərnichər/ • n. 1. large movable equipment, such as tables and chairs, used to make a house, office, or other space suitable for living or working. ∎ fig. a person's habitual attitude, outlook, and way of thinking: the mental furniture of the European. 2. small accessories or fittings for a particular use or piece of equipment: computer hardware, software, and furniture. ∎ the mountings of a rifle. ∎ Printing pieces of wood or metal placed around or between metal type to make blank spaces and fasten the matter in the chase. PHRASES: part of the furniture inf. a person or thing that has been somewhere so long as to seem a permanent, unquestioned, or invisible feature.