The Subdivisions of American Periods
It's more specific to delineate the American periods, though the styles produced before the nineteenth century are often linked together under the general heading colonial. Here are the subdivisions:
1. Early American(1608-1720 in Virginia; 1620-1720 in New England)
2. Georgian Period (1720-1790)
3. Postcolonial or Federal Period (1790-1820)
4. Greek Revival Period (1820-1860)
5. Victorian Period (1840-1880)
6. Eclectic Period (1870-1925)
7. Modern Period (1925-present day)
One of the main differences in the development of the decorative arts in the United States and those of European countries is that the early expression in America was that of a pioneer people whose demand was for satisfaction of the primary necessities of life; appearance was a nonessential, and beauty only an accidental result. The earliest productions were structural and functional in their forms; good proportions and charm of detail were gradual developments. European industrial art, on the contrary, originated in nearly every case in a conscious effort to produce luxurious surrounding for royalty or rich patrons of the arts in which visual appeal had as important a part as utility; these forms were finally imitated and cheapened for the middle classes and eventually influenced the peasant productions.
American architecture and decoration began as a distinctly provincial style in a country where the inhabitants were possessed of a humble refinement but had few of the earmarks of sophisticated culture. Written records by Captain John Smith and others would indicate that those who first stepped ashore from England to become permanent settlers in America built huts or wigwams of clay, mud, bark, and limbs of trees, roofing their flimsy structures with thatch, but this type of dwelling need hardly be considered in a history of the decorative arts. It is even doubtful that the log cabin type of structure was early adopted by English inhabitants. Probably the Swedes, who had come from a land of small wooden homes , and who settled in Delaware in 1638, were responsible for introducing the method of laying the trunks of trees on top of one another to form a wall, interlocking them at the ends with those of the adjoining wall and filling the cracks with clay to make them weathertight.
Practically all houses in both New England and Virginia were built entirely of wood during the 17th century. Oyster shells, the early material for making lime, were difficult to obtain and made a plaster of poor quality. It was not until around 1680 that other materials for mortar were found in abundance. Only the inside of the exterior walls of the house were sealed with it; the interior partition walls remained in wood planking. Three plastered walls and one wooden one became a characteristic feature of the interior treatment of the rooms in the two room house.
New England was very slow in developing an appreciation of architectural design or in adopting any of the academic forms of classical architecture for either the exterior or the interior of the house. Houses in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia and other southern states were built of brick as early as 1670, and a few of these showed the first evidences of the use of classical trims in the interiors.
The early settlers found oak and pine forests had to be cleared in order to obtain land for farming, and thus with an enormous supply of waste lumber, it was natural that the earliest houses were built of these woods. The houses were constructed by the braced framing system. This was an adaptation of the English half-timber or whole-timber house, which had been in existence since Saxon days. A skeleton frame of heavy posts, girders, and beams was assembled and interlocked by mortise, tenon, dowel, and dovetail. The oak members forming the skeleton were larger than structurally necessary. The spaces between the posts were filled with wattle. Oak planks were used generally to cover both the inside and outside walls until about 1700, when pine was used.
The planks on the inside of the room were placed vertically, forming what is known as a palisade wall. On the outside they were placed horizontally, the upper one overlapping the one below, forming a clapboard wall. The planks, cut from first-growth trees, were of great width, sometimes exceeding three feet each, and they were used as they came from the log, in varying dimensions. To compensate for shrinkage of the vertical planks, and to make the wall as weathertight as possible, a tongue was cut along the edge of each plank to fit into a groove on the adjoining plank. Simple ornamental moldings of varying shapes were also added along the joints. The wall thus had both an outside and an inside layer of planks for weather proofing, but the structural posts and beams always protruded on the inside. The exposure of the structural forms became a characteristic part of the room decoration. A very noticeable element in nearly all of these rooms was the large beam that spanned the width of the ceiling of the room near its center, one end of which was supported on the stone chimney, the other end resting on a post in the wall. This beam was known as the summer beam. All the woodwork was left in a natural finish; as pine became red with age, the walls were warm in color and dark in appearance.
The earliest two-room frame houses had a central stone chimney with a single flue serving a fireplace in each room. One room was used as a combination kitchen, dining, and living room; the other was used as a bedroom for the whole family. The entrance hall was placed in the center of the house, and it often contained a steep ladder or stairway to the attic. The space at the side of the masonry of the fireplaces, between the two rooms, was usually turned into closets or cupboards. The attic was floored over, and the floor boards formed the ceiling of the first story rooms.
The rooms were low-ceilinged, being seldom over seven feet high. The windows were at first of the casement type. Glass, oiled paper or isinglass filled the panes, which were either rectangular or diamond shaped, and were separated by either lead or wooden sash bars, forms borrowed from Jacobean architecture. Many windows had no glass at all, but were furnished with blinds. It is doubtful whether double hung sliding sash were used until after 1700.
The flooring of the first story was at first just earth. Stone was used, in some cases, but pine, oak, and chestnut planks were soon adopted.
It was not until the opening of the 18th century that the English trend in classical architectural forms, as introduced by Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, began to be reflected in America. Considerations of form and line only gradually developed importance. The styles of England were transmitted to the colonies partly through immigration, partly through the importation of books on building and architecture, and partly by royal governors, who insisted on having for their residences houses that conformed to the dignity of their position.
The printing press was a huge influence in spreading the details of classical architecture among the general run of carpenters and builders. The English version of Palladio's work was particularly in demand, but the works of James Gibbs, Abraham Swan, Batty Langley, and William Halfpenny were eagerly purchased, and they had a very direct bearing upon the development of decoration as well as on that of architecture. The diffusion of these book designs tended to develop similarity in style in all parts of the colonies and left little to the originality of the designer.
The craftsmen who built the houses in many cases also produced the interior equipment. The general divisions of the styles are, therefore the same as those of architecture and interior decoration.
The major portion of American furniture followed English prototypes, and broadly speaking, may be considered an English provincial style. In addition to the English types, styles of Holland, Germany, and France influenced the furniture craft where inhabitants from those countries had settled. The whole of the seventeenth century reflects the design and character of Jacobean and Restoration forms. The chest, cupboard, and desk-box, the turned and wainscot chair, the stool and settle, the trestle table, a few smaller tables and such space-saving types as the table-chair, and the gateleg and drop-leaf table were used in the combination kitchen, living, and dining room. Four-poster beds, trundle beds, and wooden cradles formed the furnishings for the sleeping rooms, with additional chests for storage. Clocks and mirrors were rare.
The ornamentation consisted of turnings, strapwork patterns, applied split spindles, round or oval wooden handles, carving and painting. The carved motifs were usually a crude imitation in low relief of English prototypes. Frequently they consisted of jack-knife incisions in patterns unrelated to traditional forms, obviously representing the playful fantasy of some farmer's son or apprentice joiner who chose this method of passing the long winter evening. The Tudor rose, the tulip, the sunflower, the acanthus, and the arcaded panel were frequently seen as carved motifs.
The chest, used as a container or seat, was by far the most important piece of furniture in the home, and was made in a variety of forms. The lid at the top was hinged, the sides were paneled, and occasionally it had one or more drawers at the bottom. As chests were heightened, the tops were used for display of small objects of metal or potter, and the hinged top then became impractical. The chest of drawers eventually evolved into the chest of drawers or bureau as it is known today. A special type, known as a Connecticut chest, stood on four short legs, had two rows of double drawers below the chest proper, and was decorated with large split spindles painted black to imitate ebony. The handles of the drawers were wooden ovals, usually placed diagonally. The Hadley chest, also of Connecticut origin but misnamed for a Massachusetts town, was similar, but it generally had only one drawer and was decorated with a very crude incised ornamentation. One type of small chest was known as a desk-box; this had a flat or slanting pine top, while the sides of the box were in carved oak. It held writing materials and a few books. The desk-box was finally placed on legs, evolving into the early type of slant-lid desk.
The tables of the period had turned legs; the tops were frequently of pine and had wide overhangs, molded stretchers connected the legs. Drawers were sometimes placed in the apron under the top. The drop leaf tables were designed with gatelegs, swinging arms, butterfly wings, and pulls for supporting the hinged flap.
Chairs of the 17th century were built on straight lines. The oak wainscot chair, reserved as the seat of honor, was more simply ornamented than its English prototype, and had a paneled back, curved arms, and turned legs. The Carver chair , a simplified version of the Brewster chair which had more spindles, had straight turned legs, the rear legs continuing upward to form the back uprights, between which were placed vertical and and horizontal turned spindles. Stretchers strengthened the leg construction. Slat-back chairs were of similar design, but they had wide horizontal ladder rails between the back uprights. The tops of the legs and back uprights in both the Carver and slat-back types were usually terminated in a turned finial motif or a mushroom form. The seats were made of rush or of plain wood boards.