The Federal Period

George Washington took the oath of office in 1789, which began the Federal Period, a new era in American history and the name of a new style in furniture called the The Federal style, 1785-1810. The pieces had lightness of form and flat geometic and naturalistic ornament and inlays. This early neoclassical style or “style antique” was derived from English souces. Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton published design books which were immediately transported to America and used by cabinetmakers in the major centers.

Antique Carved Mahogany Hepplewhite Chairback Settee
Antique Carved Mahogany Hepplewhite Chairback Settee, circa 1790.

Robert Adam left Scotland in 1754 for his Grand Tour or extended journey to Italy to study architecture and design and his interpretation of classical ornament developed into the English neoclassical style and called Federal style in America. George Hepplewhite, was a London cabinetmaker. His book of furniture designs “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide” was published in 1788, and Thomas Sheraton’s “The Cabinet Makers and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” was published starting in 1791. These books popularized early neoclassical taste in England and America.

Today the name Hepplewhite infers a furniture piece with a shield back and a square tapering leg and Sheraton infers a round turned tapering leg often with reeding.

Classical and Neo-Classical

The origin of furniture in the classical style dated back to the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompei in Italy which were destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD 79 and were rediscovered in the 1740’s. Writers and architects traveled to these ruins and were inspired by artifacts and wall paintings found there. These discoveries later influenced Thomas Hope (1769-1831), a weathy and scholarly amateur architect, whose book “Household Furniture and Interior Decoration” 1807 was based on his travels and study of Egyptian, Grecian and Roman archeology. In line drawings he depicted klismos and curule-form chairs, Egyptian sphinxes, and lion monopodia on couches, bedsteads, and candelabra, all based on antique forms. His work had endless influence on other designers such as George Smith in London, publishing his design book “Household Furniture” in 1808, and Pierre de la Mesangere in France.

Napoleon’s expeditons to Egypt beween 1798 and 1801 inspired designers to work in the Egyptian taste. He emulated the Roman Empire by having his court designers, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, create interiors and furniture based on ancient designs-directly derived from the actual shapes and ornamentation of ancient furniture and architecture.

The later neoclassical taste that became so popular after the beginning of the 19th century. 1810-1840 is today called Classical, Late Neoclassical or Empire. Pieces in this style are architectural and sculptural with broad expanses of beautiful veneers and carved ornamentation. The architect of America’s capital, Benjamin Latrobe who designed buildings based on architecture of Greece and Rome also designed a suite of seating furniture for President Madison’s White House that was done in the classical taste, and painted, gilded and varnished by John and Hugh Findlay of Baltimore. This set of furniture was lost when the British burned the White House during the war of 1812, but Latrobe’s designs of the set remain today.

There were regional differences in the styles of American classical furniture in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston that are easily recognized today. Boston favored the restrained architectural designs, adhering closely to French and English design. Baltimore was known for its painted decorated furniture and related to Philadelphia pieces since the workmen often traveled easily between the cities. Joseph Barry and French emigre Anthony Quervelle were outstanding Philadelphia cabinetmakers known for pieces with beautiful carving. New York had important craftsmen such as Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854) and the French trained cabinetmaker Charles-Honore Lannuier (working 1803-1819), and Joseph Meeks & Sons, (active 1797-1868).

Differences in Classical Style - Egyptian, Grecian, Roman

In the American Classical style the regional differences and variety of forms can easily be seen in tables. Center tables were a new form, and are still very desirable for collecters today. Card tables or fold top game tables and pier tables were also made in great numbers, and very often these tables were given marble tops and sometime marble column supports. The “Egyptian” or black marble was always priced more than the standard white marble in the cabinetmakers price lists. Writing and sewing or ”work” tables were popular. Chairs were made in the Grecian klismos form with front and rear sabre legs. Upholstered seating furniture, such as easy chairs, sofas, recamiers and window seats were also popular, often made in pairs.

Antique Gilt Decorated Mahogany Pier Table, Phila, Attrib. to Quervelle

The finest pier tables were often decorated with ormolu or cast brass gilded mounts which were thought be have been imported from England or France or with gilt stencil or penwork decoration to imitate the expensive mounts. The style of decoration varied by region, so the elaborate New York classical gilt decoration of lyres and cornucopia is easily identified when compared to gilt stenciled borders of Philadelphia pieces. Dining or library/breakfast tables usually had little decoration but used the fine mahogany woods that were heavily imported at this time for their beauty. Very often table legs would be capped with cast brass paw feet resting on heavy casters for mobilty.

We carry a wide range of antique furnishings that depict the range of styles, architecture and construction that represents the federal, classical and neoclassical style. Antique American Furniture & Furnishings from Aileen Minor.


Aileen Minor American Antiques
208 South Liberty Street
Post Office Box 410
Centreville, Maryland 21617