It was a propitious period. Although there was widespread inflation in the paper currencies which the various colonies issued with cheerful unconcern as to specie reserve, the people were prosperous. The Treaty of Utrecht, which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession that had all but torn Europe asunder, had initiated in the American colonies an era of unprecedented business prosperity. The seventeenth century coastal settlements and those farther inland were now well-established communities with a smoothly functioning domestic economy and the coastwise and transatlantic commerce of the seaport towns was large and highly profitable. True, there were certain Acts of Trade prohibiting American ships from taking part in international trade, but shrewd merchant ship owners, like Peter Faneuil, knew how to get around the letter of the law by misleading custom officials or even smuggling.
Also a new type of American ship, the schooner, had been originated at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1713 by Abraham Robinson. It could carry cargoes faster and with a smaller crew than had been possible before. Although it may seem farfetched, I believe there is a distinct relationship between American Queen Anne furniture and the schooner. The colonies were producing more farm and forest products than they could consume. The quick and economically operated schooners, took this excess production to foreign ports where good markets were waiting. Profits from this sea-borne trade were ample to offset the dangers of an inflated paper currency, and so the American colonists could spend money to improve and augment their household furnishings.
This explains the quantities of furniture in the new style which were fashioned from Pennsylvania northward to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Also the majority of craftsmen producing it were native born. So their designs did not directly copy those of England. They had a certain individuality that makes it easy to distinguish American Queen Anne furniture from that of England. The American pieces have distinct grace but they are less ornate. It was during this period that the native woods came into their own. Study a hundred representative examples of our antique furniture made during these years and you will find that the predominating woods are walnut, maple, cherry—and occasionally pine for primitive pieces made in isolated farming regions. Rarely do you discover one of mahogany. And when one is found it has the details that mark the transition from Queen Anne to Chippendale.
At the same time, these American Queen Anne furniture examples mark a sharp cleavage from both the preceding William and Mary period and the sturdy but somewhat heavy seventeenth century furniture, Tudorlike in its construction of panels, stiles, and rails. There was grace, lightness, and delicacy of detail, which struck a new note in our furniture.
First, there was the cabriole leg terminating with either a plain, well-shaped Dutch foot or the carved webfoot, so-called for its remote resemblance to that of the barnyard waterfowl. Variations of this leg and foot were used on chairs, tables, beds, day beds, desks, chests on frames, highboys, and lowboys. In fact, the majority of Queen Anne furniture pieces had this pleasing detail, although a few simple ones were made with turned legs and button feet. In chair-making, also, there was one other type of design that was very popular. This was the chair with turned front legs terminating in carved Flemish scrolls known as the Spanish foot.
In fact, as the Queen Anne furniture period progressed, the chair became more and more skilfully designed and made. Instead of a straight-lined seat a curved one, wider at the front than at the back, came into vogue. The back with its vase-shaped central splat and crested and carved top was given an added vertical curve which made for both beauty and comfort.
But perhaps the high point of Queen Anne furniture was reached in the highboy, the lowboy, and the tea table with moulded top. These were also the background from which later came the elaborate pieces of the same sort liberally decorated with fine carving in the Chippendale period, which were without doubt the most beautiful ever made by American cabinetmakers.
The earlier Queen Anne highboys in America had simple cabriole legs and Dutch feet, a lower section with two tiers of drawers and front or skirt cut at the bottom in pleasing curves to form a valance shaping. Sometimes pendent finials were placed at two low points on this valance which divided the spacing from leg to leg equally and were in relation to the placing of the drawers above.
The upper section of highboys with either five or six drawers was structurally simple and of right-angle lines. A straight cornice moulding not too complicated in its elements but still bold enough to give decorative emphasis was applied to front and sides. The next step in giving such a piece an added touch of decoration was a fan or sunburst carving. Sometimes this treatment was applied to the front of a central drawer in the lower section. At others, it was also used for a drawer front of like shape in the centre of the upper tier of the top section.
Since highboys and lowboys of matching design were frequently made during both the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods, the lowboy generally followed the highboy in structure and design with the exception that its dimensions were smaller. As the Queen Anne period progressed, both pieces were made more decorative. Shell carvings, sometimes finished with gold leaf, replaced the fans or half sunbursts. Toward the close of the period some remarkably fine highboys were made with a beautifully executed broken-pediment bonnet top. Here the decorative value was further enhanced by the logical use of a central and two corner finials. These were usually of the spiral turned design, now known as flame finials.
Many New England highboys and lowboys were made of maple. Sometimes the drawer fronts were of carefully selected curly grain. A few, probably made during the last decade, were of mahogany. In Pennsylvania the wood used for these pieces, as with all other furniture of the Queen Anne era, was nearly always the fine rich red walnut that was then so plentiful. Occasionally mahogany was used in this section for elaborate pieces.
As for tables, although the gate-leg of William and Mary origin continued to be popular because of its sturdy practicality, those with cabriole legs were widely made. They were by no means the banquet boards of later times, but rather small tables with drop leaves. The tops were either square, oblong, oval, or circular. We think of them as tea tables but they were probably the dining tables of the time, since the elders and children of a family did not eat together. Father was too august a person to have his repasts intruded on by the junior members of his household.
Further, the custom of drinking Chinese tea was just appearing on the American horizon, together with delicate cups and plates of porcelain from the same faraway country. To meet this new fashion, the American cabinetmakers evolved a most beautiful piece. It was the oblong tea table without leaves in which the top was surrounded with a raised moulding. It was practical as well as decorative, since it guarded the precious china from being accidentally brushed to the floor and broken. Such tables invariably had delicate cabriole legs and Dutch feet. Also, the skirt or apron beneath the top was always cut with a pleasing combination of cyma curves on the lower edge to give finish and add decoration. These pieces are by no means common; and, when found, are made either of walnut of the finest quality or of mahogany, suggesting that they were made during the dosing years of the Queen Anne period. Also, most of those which I have seen were made in New England, a circumstance that suggests the tea party may have been more popular north of New York than south of it.
There were, of course, other pieces made in the American Queen Anne manner. Among them was the desk with slant top and cabriole legs, or an upper section resting on a frame of like design, the chest-on-frame, and occasionally, the chest-on-chest. But their treatment as regards structure and design was the same as the pieces that have been discussed in detail. They all had the outstanding characteristic of the Queen Anne as expressed by American cabinetmakers, grace that comes from a wise use of pleasing curves when structurally logical. They avoided the sin of using curved lines where straight ones would better suit the purpose of structure and design. In fact, the cabinetmakers who made this furniture knew something that others in foreign lands, and some who worked later in America, never understood—that too many curves could spoil a product.
In England, Queen Anne furniture, as might be expected, was more elaborate in both design and ornamentation. Even then it retained the same feeling of grace and directness that characterized what was made in America, despite the carved decorations that the English cabinetmakers of the period used whenever possible.