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    

Stack Of 6 Original Antique New England Primitive Pantry Boxes Folk Art Painting5 Small Miniature Antique New England Primitive Stacking Pantry Boxes, Nr4 Small Antique C1900 New England Primitive Stacking Pantry Boxes, Painted CoverA Great Pilgrim Century X-base Trestle Base Candlestand Red Oak Tiger Maple TopAntique Late 1800's Wood Mail Hotel School Saloon Sorter Box 24 Slots Nr #2 YqzRare 18th C Connecticut Sackback Windsor Armchair In Grungy Old PaintRare 18th C Ma Bowback Windsor Chair In Great C1840 "ivory Wedding Paint"Aafa 19th Century Firkin, Sugar Bucket Original Gray Milk Paint No Reserve!19th C Treen Shaker 4" Blue Pantry Box 3 Swallow Tail Laps - Gorgeous!! Aafa A Rare Miniature Early 19th C Leather Covered Document Box Brass Initials "eb"Antique Primitive Cast Iron Table Top Grinding Wet Stone Sharpening Wheel VgWonderful Antique Original Black Painted Lidded Pantry Box Attic Find Aafa Old19th C Treen Shaker 5 1/2" Red Pantry Box 4 Swallow Tail Laps-gorgeous! Aafa An Early Southe East Pa. Dovetaied ,miniature Blanket Chest / Alms Box ,walnut Pair Of 19th C Paint Decorated Windsor Side Chairs Original Decoration The BestAntique Late 1800's Folk Art Wood Backgammon Chess Book Box Game Board Nr YqzGreat 18th C Connecticut Queen Anne Cherry Candlestand With Shaped TopPrimitive Early Homestead Antique/vintage/old Wooden Firkin BucketEarly American Antique Primitive Wood Cutlery Tray Box Square Nails Folk Art YqzReeds Advertising Seed Box / Original Red Paint / 82 Packets / Aafa / NrAntique Round Wooden Pantry Box Thick Walled Original Grey PaintAn Early American Paint Decorated Splint Box, Signe ' Hathawy " On The BottomAntique 19th C Dovetailed Wood Mail Hotel School Sorter Wall Box 16 Slots #1 YqzPrimitive Wooden Butter Bowl W/ Old Red PaintBeautiful Antique Gothic Victorian Carved High Back Walnut Chair W/heart CarvingEarly Narrow Carved Trencher / Bowl / Great Natural Surface & Patina / Aafa / NrAntique 42 Drawer Country Store Spice Apothecary Hardware Cabinet Old Red PaintAntique 19th Century Paint Decorated Box, New York StatePrimitive Pantry Box In Old Green Paint19th C Treen Shaker 6 1/4" Chrome Yellow Pantry Box 4 Swallow Tail Laps Aafa 19th Century 10 1/4" Natural Finish Shaker 4 Finger Oval Pantry Box18th C Ct Qa Sidechair Old Red Stained Surface Durand School Milford CtAntique 8 Drawer Spice Chest, 3 Drwrs With Sliding Lids, AafaOld Vintage Globe Milker Metal Milk Can W/ Lid ~ Dairy Cow Goat Farm Bucket PrimPaint Decorated Dome Top Document Box - New England Circa 1830 Folk Art - AafaAntique American Wooden Dovetailed Painted Document Box Antique Hammacher Schlemmer & Co 8 Drawer Machinist ChestAntique Painted Shaker Pantry Box. Best Original Shaker Painted Finger Band BoxAntique 19th C. Redware Plate Bowl 9"Aafa-an Antique Small Wooden Scrub Board W/soap Box-c. 1700-1850.Antique Small Arms Ammunittion Loaded Paper Shot Shells Wood Box Crate NrWonderful Antique Original Powder Blue Painted Lidded Pantry Box Attic Find AafaVintage Wood Firkin Sugar Bucket With Metal Bands & Bale Wire HandleLarge Oval 19th C Pa. German Brides Box Dated 18871800's Primitive 11 1/4" Wood Mixing/chopping Bowl Original Dry Grungy SurfaceAntique Primitive Chain-driven Hand-crank Bench Stone Wheel Grinder Sharpener19th Century Painted Bale Handle Pantry BoxAntique Wooden Dough Trencher Bowl With HandlesAntique Primitive Mustard Firkin Bucket Old Original Paint Wood HandleWonderful Antique Original Powder Blue Painted Lidded Pantry Box Folk Art OldNice1860 Tole Painted Tin Spice Box W/ ContainersAntique Wooden Box Vintage Mens Vanity Primitive Wood Box Large Tool Type ChestSurge Milker Bucket W Mod C Pulsator ~ Vintage Milk Cow Goat Dairy Farm ToolAntique Wooden Firkin Sugar Bucket W/ Original Paint--aafa19th Country Primitive Wooden Pantry Box W Lid Original Finish"boyd's Fruit Jar Co." Wooden BoxSmall Minature 19th C. New England Wooden Fingered Pantry Shaker Box3 Drawer Wall Hung Wood Primitive Spice Box Apothecary Cabinet AntiqueAntique Primitive Hand-turned Wood/wooden Chopping Bowl-old Mustard-yellow PaintVintage Lee Cheese Box Wood Crate H D Lee Mercantile Salina Kansas Ks Spice