American Empire



IN SEPTEMBER 1782 the preliminaries of peace between Great Britain and America were concluded at Paris and the treaty was signed the following year—when the Revolution is commonly regarded as ending.

The Colonies had become a Federation of States— a nation: and its furniture was no longer Colonial, but Federal. Chippendale was the la& Colonial Style.

But—London ¿till remained the seat of fashion for America; the new Styles were quite as British as the old! For eight long years we had Struggled, and the end was not yet. After the separation many questions naturally arose for settlement—particularly those regarding trade relations and, later, the impressment of American seamen—and these led to irritation and bitterness enduring for another thirty years. As usual, pride, prejudice, and mere policy—three enemies of peace—did their work. Vision was lacking on both sides: no broad outlook for the future or spirit of kindly accommodation exited, every temporary advantage was seized; and so again, in 1812, came war. "Two days before its declaration the principal pretext had been removed and had the ele&ric telegraph exited there would have been no war."

Notwithstanding these events and the development here of the national and social consciousness appropriate to an independent and complete organisation, English influence retained its power. Our newspapers of these early years give large space to British

news and social intelligence. There were announcements of goods juSt received from England, and occasionally the advertisement of some artisan newly arrived on our shores, with, of course, the lateSt Styles in vogue in London. And so we kept abreaSt with the times. Notwithstanding our separation, England was Still regarded as the "home country."

If, superficially, this seems Strange, do we not find the case of England herself far more so ? For centuries, Britain and France had been traditional enemies, yet —and especially from the accession of Charles II—the influence of French Style upon England was enormous, and never more so than when Great Britain with Continental aid was doing her utmoSt to crush the power of Napoleon the FirSt. In our case it is to be remembered that we were of British blood and were imbued with British thought and habit; and, though we were rapidly developing American characteristics, traditional impulses are exceedingly difficult to escape.

But by the side of these inherited tendencies we find the French influence, later to become so dominant in the enthusiasm over Lafayette's visit in 1824 and 1825. It was now already Strong, but double-edged in its effect upon our people. It is an absorbing Story; would that there were adequate room for it here!

Many illustrious French names are among those of the exiles to this country from the days of the Huguenots till well on into the nineteenth century. These firSt émigrés soon assimilated themselves into our American life. In 1792 came the refugees from the revolution in St. Domingo, also those fleeing from that in France, and finally many of the Revolutionary party itself, after the restoration of order. To the South, Baltimore, New York, and especially Philadelphia, they came in numbers, Catholics and Free thinkers alike—moSt of them adaptable, genial and cheerful in surmounting their misfortunes, a few lofty, critical, and troubling. In Philadelphia they were welcomed by Mrs. Bingham and by the influential Philosophical Society, of which a number became valued members. Many Philadelphians were imbued with the Gallic craze and took on French manners and ways of thinking. On the other hand the cynical lack of principle of Talleyrand (whom Washington refused to receive), the activities of Citizen Genet, the cold yet peevish criticism of Volney, and the like, had their contrary effect, so that the latter on reembarking in 1798 speaks of the "epidemic animosity against the French/' It was much more likely sporadic, and directed solely againSt those who had made themselves unwelcome.

One phase of the matter is distinctly curious. We already know of the lavish scale of living in Philadelphia; we are aware, too, of the very democratic opinions of the men to be mentioned. But they were men of birth and used to the high life of Continental Europe, and it seems Strange that Volney should condemn the growing luxury in America, expecting it to draw down upon us incursions from the Algerian pirates, and that Brissot de Warville also inveighed against the "luxury and refinement of American cities as a decay of republican simplicity."

Why should any one expert American cities in their human aspects to be very different from other cities? The Quaker has never been accused of inability to make and to hold the dollar, and though he lived simply he lived exceeding well: the New Englander found no incompatibility between caSt-iron virtue and that form of near-piracy called privateering: New York was established as a trading-poSt and cer tainly has never failed in living up to its primary purpose. It always was a mad world, my makers! and with a vaSt deal of humbug. Through the ages the wealthy have lived extravagantly and there are no indications of their ceasing to do so.

The effedt upon our furniture and decoration of all this French influence was to appear in its fulness a few years later—and we shall realise, perhaps with some surprise, how much of it even then came by way of London!

But in the years we are now to consider the Styles of Hepplewhite and Sheraton held the field.

By about 1790 America was fully ready for these new Styles in furniture and decoration. Furniture designed in the Shearer and Hepplewhite modes was made here as much as five years earlier, but we can now see the full flowering of the Classic Styles.

Our infant nation had experienced the usual troubles of childhood and had with difficulty found its own political feet. Now it Stood alone, alert and vigorous. The Constitution went into force in 1789. In the same year Washington was inaugurated firSt President, and again as leader was proving himself both Strong and wise. The battle for Democracy was already on, but society and politics remained essentially aristocratic. Financially we were faSt recovering from the exhaustion of war; again there was money to spend and a desire for the amenities and luxuries of life.


We may very briefly see how the new Styles came into being; for all these matters have to do with the very existence of the American furniture of this period— one of the finest of them all. The discovery of the buried Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii early in the century had caused a permanent sensation all through Europe, resulting in the rebirth of the Classic influence.

A man may apparently be a throw-back; he may greatly resemble the portrait of his great-grandfather, painted at about his own age; he may largely have the qualities that made his ancestor notable in his family, but—he will not be a duplicate of his great-grandfather. He will lack qualities of his forebear; others will have been added. For if heredity has its influence, so do the passage of time and the spirit of the age have theirs.

While, therefore, the Renaissance was a Classic movement, it was not that of Greece and Rome: while the very term Neo-Classic shows its inspiration, it also implies its modernity. It was neither the Classicism of the ancients nor of the Renaissance—it was the new Classicism of the late eighteenth century, and bore its characteristics. This was not a large and spacious age; it was one of luxury and, at least outward, refinement.

While in England, in France, and in Italy, this Classicism was the result of a fresh Study of ancient work, either from the remains of ancient buildings or their pictorial reproductions, it was, in all three countries, a smaller, more attenuated version of the paSt.

By 1760 we already find in France what we know as the Style of Louis XVI—fourteen years before the death of the predecessor of that monarch. As has been mentioned in the Chippendale chapter, by February, 1758, Robert Adam, returning from four years firSt-hand Study of the classic remains of Central and Southern Europe, had opened his London office. He speedily became the moSt famous architect of his time, with an influence so great that these years are often, and juStly, termed the Adam Period. The classic archite&s, but Adam above all through both his architecture and furniture, may be said to have formulated classic contour and ornament for the cabinetmakers, and their enormous indebtedness to him is seen throughout their productions.

Yet no Adam furniture was made here. It was through Shearer, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton that American furniture became classic. The reason is obvious. All three of the widely known men issued books, and Shearer's designs were included in Still another volume, but the "Works of Robert and James Adam" illustrated their architecture and contained no designs of what we term "household furniture." His own pieces were moStly elaborate and for palatial establishments. Even had our craftsmen had access to them, they would not have been apt to adopt such coStly and ornamental types as models.

To be sure, his less elaborate furniture was imitated by others, but this was evidently either too late or had too little influence to penetrate to our shores before we were cut off by the Revolution. At its ending Hepple-white's Style was dominant in England and was adopted here.

Shearer was an excellent designer, and we shall see some of his work, but his reputation has been smothered by those of his more eminent compeers.

We do not know when George Hepplewhite entered business. He died in 1786 and the establishment was carried on by his widow Alice under the firm name of A. Hepplewhite & Co. "The Cabinet Maker's and Upholsterer's Guide" was published under those auspices in 1789. The plates are dated as being published in 1787, but whether this publication was general or merely formal would be difficult to determine.

There were but slight omissions and additions in the second and third editions, the latter being published in 1794.

The preface to the firSt edition of that volume claims that its designs follow "the latent or moSt prevailing fashion only" and we do not know how closely the furniture previously made by this firm conformed to the designs shown in the book. The earliest date that we are aware of Hepplewhite furniture being made here is about 1785.

Two of the early advertisements are of special interest as bearing on this point. The firSt is of January 8, 1785, in the Pennsylvania Packet, where among the articles advertised as being made and sold by Samuel Claphamson "late from London" and then of Philadelphia, are "oval and circular card-tables"; these forms indicating the Style of Hepplewhite.

And the Virginia Gazette and Petersburg Intelligencer, for December 27, 1787, contains an advertisement of Henry Monroe, "in Petersburg Street opposite Mr. Barkdale's Store," of a large and elegant assortment of mahogany furniture manufactured in Philadelphia, including circular and square card-tables, and commode chairs "all inlaid." Inlaying was not employed in America in the Chippendale period and this is an unmistakable reference to the new Style. Furthermore, though there were excellent cabinet-makers in the South (we even know some of their names), this announcement proves that the Virginians Still adhered to their practice of bringing considerable furniture from the northern port.

In towns occupied by the British, imported pieces of course found free ingress during the war. For instance, William Smith, on the Bay, Charleston, South Carolina, announces in the Royal Gazette in October, 1781, among goods received from London, "tea and card tables, plain and beautifully inlaid" and "chairs of sattin and other woods."

The new mode seems to have soon become popular, but most of this furniture, especially the more important pieces, was likely made after the publication of the "Guide," that is to say, from about 1790 onward, after our craftsmen would have had an opportunity of obtaining this volume.

There is. no evidence or likelihood that Thomas Sheraton ever made furniture either in his native town of Stockton-on-Tees or after he came to London as a journeyman in 1790—he was never a maSter cabinetmaker. He died in destitution in 1806, yet he was one of the greatest designers of furniture that England has produced.

It is not probable that every design in his "Drawing-Book" was original, and indeed there are evidences to the contrary, and it is plain that he was very free in helping himself to the ideas of Adam, Hepplewhite, and the French designers. But even to his borrowings he gave the mark of his own individuality. It is possible that some pieces in what we know as the "Sheraton Style9' appeared here even before his advent in the furniture world; but so far as definitely Sheraton work is concerned the following fadts muSt be remembered. The usual date given for the publication of the "Drawing-Book" is 1791, but this book was issued in parts, and it was not till Part III that he arrived at plates of designs for furniture. The firSt of these plates is dated as published November 18, 1791, but almoSt all the remaining ones are dated 1792 and 1793, so that the part containing these designs was evidently not issued till the latter year. There was an Appendix containing some very fine things, and the plates in this are dated as published in 1793 and 1794. The laSt edition of the book was issued in 1802 but contains no plates dated later than 1794.

"Sheraton" furniture was made not by him but by others. He was an unknown man when he published his book, and the designs shown therein had to win recognition and adoption by cabinet-makers in England and become known in America. While we muSt be very hesitant in dealing with doubtful matters, I cannot help but feel that Strictly Sheraton American furniture, and especially that plainly based upon his book, should not be dated before 1794 or 1795.

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  • tobold
    When was american empire furniture made?
    11 months ago

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