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.

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