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]

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]

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]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [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]

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]

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]

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    

Rare 17th C Carved Pennsylvania German Bible Box Original Paint Carved FrontAntique American Primitive Kerosene Lamp Oil Bucket, Original Stenciled PaintRare Early 18th C William & Mary Ct Four Slat Ladderback Armchair In Old Surface19thc Antique Primitive Old Slant Front Victorian Country Store Desk On FeetA Great 19th C Walnut Hanging Pipe Box With Scrolled Crest And Front Old PatinaExtremely Rare 18th C Leather Covered Dome Top Valuables Box Brass DecorationA Great 18th C Pennsylvania Queen Anne Cherry & Mahogany Candlestand Nice FormRare Vtg/antq Large Wooden Firkin/pantry Storage Bucket/indigo Blue/1800'sSm Rnd Antique Wallpaper Covered Box W/ Hair Memorial Signed & Dated 1834 Aafa19th Century Primitive Original Blue Paint Small Bucket With Lid And Handle AafaAntique Primitive Painted Firkin Pail Old Country Store Mince Meat Wood BucketOriginal Revolutionary War Era Leather & Wood Block American Cartridge BoxLong, Low Primitive Antique Cricket Bench, Crusty Old White Paint Aafa, NrRare C1920 Horizontal 8 Drawer Spice Box Cabinet In Robin's Egg Blue Paint Aafa19th Century Primitive Eleven Drawers Little Wood Cabinet Lift Top Orig. PullsA Great 18th C Ct Queen Anne Chair Bold Spanish Feet Carved Crest Old Red WashRare 19th C Paint Decorated Tin Toleware Bucket In Great Mustard Paint Over RedEarly Scrub Box In Dry Attic Surface!!!!!!Small 19thc Primitive Brass Tack Hide Leather Covered Chest Old Trunk Box Rare, Primitive 1750 - 1800 Burl Wood Large Mixing BowlRare, Primitive Early 1800's Burl Wood Large Dough BowlRare Late 1700's Small Leather Covered Domed Travel Trunk / Paper Lined Interior18th - 19th C Early Old Antique Wooden Treen Dough Bowl Original Green PaintEarly 19th C Pill Box With Early Original Paint, No Reserve *Wonderful Antique Primitive Apothecary Chest Great Drawers, Cubbies Aafa NrAntique Wooden Primitive Tiny Money Box Bank Antique Industrial Cast Iron Table Legs ~ Vintage Sewing Machine Stand PartsEarly Pine Document Box With Original Paint Aafa 19th C. Antique American Spice Cabinet Cutlery Box Yellow Pine Shaker PrimitiveFine Old Wooden Dough Bowl - Huge - NrAntique Cast Iron Treadle Sewing Machine Base ~ Vintage Industrial Table Top An Antique 19th Century Amish Pennsylvania Dutch Wood Treen Painted BoxVintage Rustic Old Timey Wooden Bucket, Very SolidAntique Vtg Primitive Small Wood Spice Cabinet Box Dresser 6 Drawer Storage 9"Aafa Georgian Mahogany Trinket Box Antique Miniature Wood Dresser BoxNaive And Primitive Covered Box / Treen / Handcarved / Aafa / NrOld Primitive Dry Robin's Egg Blue Paint Ten Cubbies Wood Lift Top Box Aafa Primitive Antique Farm House Stool ..old Green Paint Wooden Bench..aafa Antique Sugar Bucket Firkin; W/lid, Primitive, Wire Handle;19th Century??Antique Mouse Animal Live Wooden Box Trap Pat 1843 Original Tag Stroop & EstealeRare Antique 19c Dry Measure Signed Pantry Box Grain Measure Bentwood Bucket EacNice Pair Of 19th C Child's Arrow Back Windsor Chairs In Great Old Brown Paint19th C Hand Made & Dovetailed 2-tier Sewing Thread Box W Drawer *Vintage Hand Carved Wooden Bread Bowl ~ Old Rustic Farmhouse Primitive DécorVintage Wooden Milking Stool Primitive Stool Farm AntiqueAntique Swedish Dugout Root Wooden BowlAntique Vintage Painted Primitive Banded Open Measure BucketVintage Cast Iron Tool Shelf Holder Wall Mounted Lot UShaker Oval Box, Finger Laps, 5 In. Varnish FinishAntique Primitive Wooden Firkin Sugar Bucket W/cover & Swinging Handle~9.5" TallVintage 6 Drawer Wood Spice/tea Cabinet, Primitive Looking ApothecaryAntique Tin Document Box W/ Dome Topped Lid-bail Handle-original Paint & StencilLarge Antique Painted Grey /blue Pantry Box / Grain Bin With LidAntique Wallpaper BoxVintage Wood Carpenters Tool Box Carrier Tote Tray 19" Long Primitive Old Wood Trencher Dough Bowl Handmade Carved Primitive Wooden Large Oval BowlEarly Glass Button Collection - In An Oneida Ny Spool Silk Thread Box - As FoundVintage Lee Brand Pimento Loaf Cheese Wood Box H D Lee Mercantile Salina KansasPrimitive Dough Bowl With Early Tin Repairs And Tons Of Character 17 1/2" X 15 Old Wooden Red Dough Bowl - Primitive Wood Chopping Bowl