Most colonists initially lived in one-room dwellings. In the northern colonies, this room centered around the hearth. In the Southern colonies, the hearth
was smaller and used predominantly for heat in the winter; cooking was commonly done in a separate shelter. Otherwise, all activities required by the
family took place in this room. A loft overhead provided extra storage or sleeping space. Most houses were initially built using wattle and daub for walls
and thatch for the roof in both North and South. The wattle and daub was later encased in sawed boards for a more fire- and weather-resistant dwelling.
The first piece of furniture in a house was usually a chest. While these chests served the practical purpose of transporting smaller items from Europe, the
chests belonging to wealthier settlers also reflect styles of the time. Furniture of the early seventeenth century was heavy and ornate, similar to carved
woodwork of the medieval period. The carving was done by specialized, trained craftsmen called turners. Other items of furniture found in early houses
included beds, stools, tables, and benches or forms. A high-backed bench called a settle was designed to keep drafts from circulating behind its
occupant. Immigrants from mainland Europe brought the custom of cupboard beds with them, beds literally built into the wall; this style also was adopted
by the Pilgrims, who had lived in Holland. All of these items could be made in the New World, and only wealthier colonists would transport them.
After a second room was built, the two chambers were each used for specific purposes. The first room was referred to as the hall and was used as
kitchen, workroom, and sleeping space for younger members of the family. Furniture in it had to be easily adaptable and easily moved. A rough bed frame
or tabletop was often designed to fold against the wall. As a fire burned in the room every day of the year, items also had to be resistant to smoke
damage. The family stools and benches would remain in the hall.
The Federal style, as represented in this drawing room at the Baltimore Museum of Art, typified American furniture design, interior decoration, and
architecture from about 1780 to 1820. (Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland/Bridgeman Art Library)
The second room was called the parlor. The couple’s bed, referred to as the best or great bed, was moved into the parlor. Similar to the chests, a
wealthy family could afford a bed with extensive carving. They typically had high headboards and some form of canopy, again to protect against drafts.
The linens or bed furniture were often the most valuable item in the house. Cloth remained expensive throughout the entire colonial period, and linens
were often heavily embroidered. Keeping the bed in the parlor served to both preserve and display it, as fires were lit in the parlor only as needed. Even
after a house gained a second floor and more chambers, this bed remained on the ground floor.
Another item of furniture possibly found in a parlor was a cupboard or cabinet. Similar to the chests, these were heavily carved. Contact with Dutch and
German settlers brought the tradition of painting the chests with geometric designs and bright colors. Like the bed, the cupboard was used to display
whatever belongings the family possessed, such as pewter, porcelain, or glassware.
Upstairs chambers were used predominantly for storage or sleeping. As they rarely had fireplaces, they were unheated through the winter months and
could be almost unlivable. Trundle beds, small beds made to tuck under larger ones, were rarely found in upstairs chambers. Their frequent presence in
the parlor probably indicates a child’s sleeping space, keeping the child close to parents and whatever warmth was available from the hearth. Further
extensions to the house on the ground floor were used as a separate summer kitchen, dairy, or stillroom, depending on the needs of the family.
These traditions and choices of furniture continued throughout the seventeenth century. Primary distinctions in style came from smaller items: carpets from
the Middle East, more dishes, more cloth. By the early eighteenth century, however, changes in European furniture had begun to sweep over the Atlantic.
Transglobal trade was prospering, and Europe was now influenced by styles from the Far East. Europeans also had begun to look back to the classical
period and its flowing lines, symmetry, and balance. The eighteenth century also saw the growth of larger gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban.
Farm families often continued with the same furniture and traditions, unwilling or unable to change.
Houses in the eighteenth century continued the evolution toward rooms and furniture used for separate purposes. While the idea of a parlor, a room set
aside with the family’s best possessions, continued, wealth was now displayed differently. Furniture was prized for its comfort and genteel atmosphere. A
family that had put its money into linens a generation back might now consider a specialized table and tea service for its parlor. Other new furniture for
the parlor could include an upholstered wing chair, daybed, or embroidered fire screen. While these items were found across the colonies, regional styles
remained evident. A chair made in Philadelphia was distinguished by its short, stumpy back legs and gracefully carved front legs. Chairs made in
Newport, Rhode Island, had rounded shoulders and often a shell carving as part of the back.
Where the upper chambers of a house in the seventeenth century were used simply for sleeping or storage, the eighteenth century saw bedrooms
become rooms for living as well as sleeping. New items of furniture were clothes presses or chests of drawers, to hold the expanded wardrobes made
possible by the greater availability of cloth. Dressing tables with matching benches also became common. Linking furniture in both parlor and bedroom
together was the concept of a room arranged en suite, all of the pieces made to match. This indicated wealth enough to purchase all of the furniture at
once. It also indicated a close, ordered environment very different from that of the centuries before.
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