Primitive furniture, also commonly called early American country furniture, refers to handmade tables, desks, dressers, and chairs from before the era of mass production. These pieces often feature interesting carpentry techniques, such as dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints.

Most of this furniture, made between the mid-1700s and early 1800s, was built by farmers, who were able to supplement their incomes during the dormant months making practically anything their farm or community could need—coffins, axe handles, repaired rails or chair seats, window sashes, etc. When asked, they would also produce their own versions of city furnishings.

That said, country dwellers tended to be decades behind the trends in the big cities, and were much more conservative in their taste. Their furnishings were generally made from local woods like pine or birch instead of fancy imported varieties like mahogany or rosewood, and their finished pieces tended to be painted instead of polished.

Everything in the house, from the furniture to boxes and tools—sometimes even pine floors and staircases—would be painted in the popular style. Some artisans used stenciling to create elaborate, symbolic designs on their wood furnishings, while others employed sponges or crumbled paper to give their pieces a patterned effect.

One common painting style is known as “graining.” A piece would be painted one color, like red, and then allowed to dry. Then another coat of paint, say in black, would be added, and before it dried, run over with a comb, to give the illusion of the fine wood grain of an exotic wood.

This painted style is particularly prevalent in the free-standing cupboards, wardrobes, and blanket chests of German communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as in the Piedmont back-country villages of North and South Carolina.

In contrast, the strictly religious Shakers in New York, New England, and Kentucky made spare, elegant, streamlined tables, chests, and cupboards. Most of these pieces were made ...

Windsor chairs, made from lathe-turned wooden spindles, have been consistently among the most popular primitive furniture designs, as have bentwood chairs, which are sometimes made into Windsor styles as well.

Around 1830, hand-made furniture fell out of favor, thanks to affordable, mass-produced furniture in popular ornate Victorian styles. The Arts and Craft Movement, epitomized by Gustav Stickley’s Mission-style furniture, briefly revived public taste for handmade furniture—but it wasn’t long before these styles were mass-produced, too.

In the 20th century, a few important modern artisans have maintained and built upon these handmade traditions. Craftsmen like George Nakashima seemed to take the word “primitive” literally—the rough, barked edges of his tables, for example, are often left unfinished. Sam Maloof, on the other hand, built upon the Shaker tradition by introducing curves and gentle undulations where straight lines had been.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Index of American Design

Index of American Design

The Index of American Design project (1935-1942) was an effort to catalog American decorative arts objects from the… [read review or visit site]

Buffalo Architecture and History

Buffalo Architecture and History

Chuck LaChiusa's wonderful guide to the architecture and history of Buffalo, NY, also happens to host an impressive… [read review or visit site]

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum's website showcases current and past exhibitions along with their permanent collection… [read review or visit site]

Chipstone

Chipstone

This beautiful site showcases the collection of Stanley and Polly Stone of Fox Point, Wisconsin, consisting of earl… [read review or visit site]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [read review or visit site]

The Outsider Art Pages

The Outsider Art Pages

A modern look at folk and outsider art with a focus on what people are doing to keep these traditions alive. The si… [read review or visit site]

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

This huge online database from the Speed Art Museum is a rich trove of beautiful photos and reference information o… [read review or visit site]

Folk Art in Bottles

Folk Art in Bottles

Whether you call them Bottle Whimseys, Whimsey Bottles, Puzzle Bottles, or Whimsies, this site showcases great folk… [read review or visit site]

Stoveburner.com

Stoveburner.com

A stunning collection of 162 images of stoveburners, those corroded cast iron elements that power stoves, broilers,… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Aafa-small Dovetailed Paint Decorated Chest-bittersweet-circa 1790-1820Small Size Treen Wooden Lidded Box - Tulip Decorated - Blue Paint AafaAn Extremely Rare, Soap Hollow Paint Decorated,folk Art Chest Of Drawers ,superbEarly-20thc Antique Cigar Box Tramp Art Carved Wood Folk Art Primitive Box, Nr18th C Burl Bowl, 12 1/2" Diameter, No Reserve *Rare Miniature 18th C Blanket Chest Original Red Paint Till And Snipe HingesRare Late 19th C Hancock Ma Shaker Cherry Bed Steps Or Step Stool DovetailedA Fantastic 18th C New England Hanging Watch Box In Best Original Red PaintStack Of 6 Original Antique New England Primitive Pantry Boxes Folk Art Painting4 Small Antique C1900 New England Primitive Stacking Pantry Boxes, Painted CoverAafa Hersey Bentwood Oval Box, Portsmouth N.h. Apothecary Label Oval Pantry BoxRare 18th C Newport Rhode Island Qa Dishtop Candlestand Original Grungy Surface5 Small Miniature Antique New England Primitive Stacking Pantry Boxes, NrA Wonderful 19th C Wash Stand In The Best Screaming Tiger Maple Dovetail GalleyDavis Level 6" With Box Antique Cast Iron Old Level Millers Falls Stanley Antique Primitive Staved Wooden Piggin Bucket; 19th Century Old Pine Barrel KegSmall 19th C Initialed Puzzle Box, No ReserveAafa 19th Century Bail Handle Pantry Box Thick Walled Old Paint - No Reserve!Matched Pair Of 2 19th C Round Pantry Boxes In Green Paint Over Original GreenMade In Japan Red Metal Berry Pail Bucket Hp Sunflowers Handpainted T. McmurryWonderful Early Childs Walnut Country Sheraton Dresser -1800's Salesmans SampleAntique Country Primitive Carved Wooden Dough Bowl, 22 Inches Long, Old TrencherAntique Vintage Wood Advertising Crate Box Densmore Typewriter 1904 Worlds FairRare William And Mary Child's 3 Slat Ladderback Armchair Old Red Over Blue PaintBeautiful Antique Brown Painted Pantry Box, Square Wood Pegs, NailsRare Pilgrim 17th C Plymouth County, Ma Ladder Back Hearth Chair Very Bold FormPantry Box,bail Handle,ca: 1880s ..original Green PaintOld Large Wooden Dough Bowl 21"Antique American Spice BoxRare 18th C William And Mary Rhode Island Bannister Back Chair Great Bold DesignAntique Vtg Tall Primitive No. 40 Wood Dovetailed Box Coffee Grinder Waddell Antique Swedish Wooden Tina Box - Svepask - Handpainted Dated 1898 Antique Pantry Box--original Blue Paint--aafa10 Primitive Wooden Boxes Cheese Box Kraft Velveeta Blackola Dovetailed Primitive Old Firkin Sugar Bucket From Vermont - New England Red PaintWonderful Old Apothecary Cabinet Cupboard Table Stand Chest, Doctor, PharmacyEarly Vintage Small Make-do Wooden Box In Beautiful Old Soldier Blue PaintAn Extremely Early ,south East Pa. Hand Carved ,chestnut Wood " Lap Bowl " L",Antique Pheasant Egg Primitive Wood Box Old Covered Crate Fishers Island Farm NyLate 18th/early 19th C Low Footed Wooden Bowl In Best Sea Green Paint2 Antique Wooden Pantry Boxes. Shaker & Harvard Type Pantry Boxes. Pantry BoxAntique John Deere Tractor Seeder Box Moline Illinois Ill Seed Planter Round Primitive Old Firkin Sugar Bucket From Vermont Blue PaintAntique Primitive Vintage Collectible Handmade Wooden Wood Bowl Oblong Antique Primitive Adams Wood Dovetailed Box Coffee Grinder Cast Iron Handle Antique French Dough Trencher Butter Bowl Dough Bowl. Hand Carved Wood + RollerWonderful Primitive Cabinet - Great Color!Two Antique Primitive Wood Measure Boxes Buckets One Shaker TypeBriggs Bros Seed Box Vintage Vegetable Garden Rochester Ny State FairAntique Folk Art Primitive Childs Miniature Toy Pine Cupboard Hoosier Grain BinPrimitives Early 18th Century Walnut European Treenware Eatting Bowl 9 Inch 19th Century 10 1/4" Natural Finish Shaker 4 Finger Oval Pantry BoxAntique Neverout Kerosene Lantern Electrified Table LampAntique Early Primitive Wooden Red Stained Tool Chest Trunk Box Steel Wheels Nice Wooden Salt Box With Painted Ship Primitive Old Firkin Sugar Bucket -next To Bottom Of Stack - Med. Green PaintLate 18th/early 19th C Low Footed Wooden Bowl In Best Sea Green PaintNice 18th Century French Snuff Box With Military ScenePrimitive Old Firkin Sugar Bucket -middle Of Stack -medium Blue PaintPrimitive Firkin Sugar Bucket -second From Top Of Stack -white Paint