The growth of nationalism and liberalism, in part stemming from the French Revolution, provided the background for the changes that were to make this the century of transition. The reforms in education (1870 Elementary Education Act), representation (1832 First Reform Act), transportation and communication were all part of a tendency towards improvement, growth and material gain.
The so-called 'Industrial Revolution' has been blamed or praised as a prime mover in changing the way furniture was designed, made and used during the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that there was a redistribution of wealth that encouraged more spending on furniture and furnishings but overall there was only a gradual change in the furniture industry and this was piecemeal.
Other changes such as accessible steam (and later electric) power, personal communications and the mechanization of many parts of industry all helped to improve the infrastructure that was necessary for a burgeoning economy. Living conditions improved immeasurably assisted by medical improvements and this in turn laid stress on the notions of comfort and well being.
Following the Revolutionary War of 1776 in America, the taste for a neo-classical style was further developed in the Federal period (1780-1810), which was followed by a Graeco-Roman revival up to 1835, both of which continued to echo European fashions. As in Europe, fashionable historical revivals followed.
Architecturally the search for a style for the new century was confounded by the demands of the new age. Railway stations, hospitals, courts, museums, factories and warehouses all made demands on architecture that it was ill equipped to handle. The search for and the subsequent battle of styles, led to an eclectic approach to architecture, and consequently furniture design, which resulted in a series of revivals and other configurations. This was combined with what was perhaps the most important social change, the usurpation of the aristocracy as arbiters of taste in favour of a prosperous middle class.
The romantic literature of the period, exemplified by Sir Walter Scott, led to a troubadour or medieval style. This vied with a more scholastic Gothic revival urged by A.W.N. Pugin. Associated with these was the Tudor or Jacobean style. In contrast there was a demand for a continuation of the classical taste, which included a Greek and an Egyptian revival. The French Rococo was seen as an especially suit able style for the newly wealthy. All these styles led to an interest in old furniture and the reproduction of original pieces. In France there were similar movements: a Gothic revival; a Louis XVI revival between 1815 and 1840; a Louis XV revival between 1830 and 1930; and a further Louis XVI revival between 1850 and 1900.
In the United States a Rococo revival was manifested in the work of Henry Belter, Charles Baudouine and Alexander Roux. A Gothic revival was advocated by A.J. Downing and Clarence Cook, whilst the so-called Eastlake style was popular, perhaps due to the relatively inexpensive production processes associated with it.
This muddled state of affairs was recognized at the time and one of the aims of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was to identify the weaknesses of English design and compare it to foreign efforts. The confusion led to some attempts at combining reforms of a social nature with design and making in the form of the Arts and Crafts movements. In 1860 William Morris's business was founded, and in 1875 Arthur Liberty's first shop was opened. In 1882 the Art Workers Guild was founded and in 1888 the Art and Crafts Exhibition Society was established. In 1902 the Guild of Handicraft was founded by C.R. Ashbee.
The linking of progressive architects with the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement has been seen as one of the foundations for the modern movement that was to come in the twentieth century.
In the United States of America two different evolutionary paths were evident, the major one being the trades connected with enterprises in the major cities and populous areas. They followed the trends set and maintained standards appropriate to the growing moneyed classes. Both cabinet-work and upholstery was made to reflect the growing status of the new establishment. In contrast were the settlers moving west, who were often only part-time craftsmen. Whatever furniture was not brought with them had to be built. Furniture was based on a make-do philosophy when there were more important issues to consider. Once there was some settlement, some furniture was made with care and thoughtful use or reuse of materials. Once frontier establishments had grown to a sufficient size the exchange of labour was possible and specialist chair or furniture-makers could set up shop. The obvious conjunction between raw materials and a market place with water or steam power meant expansion as the towns became regional centres of supply. When the physical frontier had been reached, another trend was noticed. The wealthy eastern consumers were looking to the wild and the rustic as a source of design inspiration and purchased furniture made from cattle horns, or established summer camps in the wilder parts of the east. The Adirondacks were home to a complete style of rustic furniture which to some extent reflected the romantic vision of the frontier and the 'good life'.
One important American group who produced a very particular 'style' of furniture were the Shakers. A religious group, the Shakers reached their peak in the 1840s. They lived in communal groups in centres across the United States. Shaker design follows simple traditions that would have reflected the vernacular origins of the group members. Although they made for themselves and their own use, the Mount Lebanon community also made furniture for public sale. The practicality and simple lifestyle encouraged furniture that was easily stored and cleaned, that was functional and not overtly decorative. Early furniture was painted, but later the simple varnishing of plain wood resulted in a functional and decorative surface. The range of woods reflects their attitudes. Hickory or oak for chair slats being easily shaped; maple for door knobs as it is durable; cherry for table tops as it dense and solid. Many other slight differences such as the number of slats, the seating method etc., can often identify the workshops. The qualities of the Shaker furniture are once again appreciated both in the original models and in numerous reproductions.
Was this article helpful?