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]

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    

Antique Late 1800's Child's Walnut Chest Of Drawers Dresser Salesman Sample YqzExtremely Fine 18th C Pennsylvania Queen Anne Mahogany Tilt Top CandlestandA Fantastic 17th C Pilgrim Ladderback Mushroom Armchair Best Bone Dry SurfaceAntique Gearharts Circular Sock Knitting Machine Original Box Manual & ExtrasLate 19th C 8-drawer Oak Wall-hanging Spice Cabinet, No Reserve *Early American Antique Primitive Blue Green Painted Pantry Box Two Rare 17th Century Carved, Primitive Angel Heads, Furniture MountsFantastic William & Mary 18th C "chelmsford Ma" Bannister Back Chair Tiger MapleAntique 1817 "histoire De Fenelon" Authentic Handmade French Secret Book Box YqzLarge 13 Inch Antique Redware Red Ware Slip Decorated Bowl Beautiful OldAntique Circular Sock Knitting Auto Knitter Hosiery Machine Box Manual Buffalo 19th C Wall-hanging Pine Shaving Cabinet W Beveled Mirror & Drawer, No Reserve *1700s Primitive - Painted Red - Pine Dough Box With Hand Forged Rose Head NailsAntique Wooden Pantry Box Thick Walled Old Blue PaintPrimitive Early 1900's Antique Country Wooden Milking Foot Stool Rest Step YqzAafa 19th C Oval Bentwood Box Top Of Stack Antique Massachusetts Pantry Box Small 17th Century Carved, Primitive Figure PegWonderful 19th C Document Box In The Best Original Green & Red Painted Surface Two Small 17th Century Carved, Primitive Figure Pegs1800's Spice Storage Box, Divided, Square Nail Construction Aafa No ReserveAntique 1800s Wood Firkin Sugar Bucket Pail Mustard Yellow Slate Gray Paint Lid Antique Primitive Bale Handle Pantry Box Wood Grain Painted Lid15" Large Vintage Round Primitive Farmhouse Wooden Dough Bowl With LipSm Antique Shaker Wooden Pantry Box In Crusty Old Paint Primitive Folk Art Nores18th C Green Firkin Sugar Bucket Original Paint Wooden Bail Handle Aafa 7 InchesAafa- Early 19th Century, Country Farmhouse Maple Trencher-bowl, Mustard PaintBeautiful Huge Early/old/antique/vintage Primitive Wooden Wood Bread Dough BowlGothic Primitive Tiger Oak Wall Shelf Ebonized Victorian Photo Holder Plate RackAntique Embossed Cast Iron Stand / Base ~ Vintage Industrial / Repurposing Table Nice 19th Century Brass Desk Magnifier With Makers Name Rayner Original Antique 1870's Ladies Cotton Prairie Bonnet - Out Of Trunk AppealNice 1769 Dated Pewter Box With Heraldic Staghead Symbol Superb Orig Early 19th C. American Chalkware Sheep Ram Figure Money Box C1820sAntique Pacific Northwest Carved Cedar Wood Folk Art Shelf Wall HangingAntique Shaker Salesman Sample Arm Chair W Acorn Finials Mushroom Arms EtcPrimitive Antique Style Wood Apothecary Spice Chest Cabinet 14 DrawersRedware Slip Decorated Footed Bowl 1750 4 5/8th Inch Diameter Dug PhiladelphiaAntique Primitive Bowl Wood Dough Chopping Early Lathe Turned Out Of RoundEarly Primitive Pipe BoxSuperb Orig. Early 19thc American Chalkware Sheep Figure Money Box C1820sAntique 19th C Salesman Sample Doll Childs Furniture Miniature Bucket Bench Yqz19thc Salesman Sample Size Cherry Drop Leaf Table Turned Legs Etc13 1/4" Vintage Turned Wooden Dough BowlVintage Hand Made Salesman Sample Doll Childs Furniture Bakers Rack Shelves YqzJohn J Clark Spool Cabinet Antique Primitive Handmade Queen Bee Box/ Transporter/ Swarm/ Estate Sale/ Rare Original Civil War Era Patriotic Slate Pencils In 5 1/2" BoxVintage Old New England Wood Dough Bowl 13"Antique Late 1800's Victorian Needlework & Wood Foot Stool Rest Step Stool YqzAafa Antique Small Childs Stepback Cupboard 1 Drawer 1 Blind Door Original PaintVintage Wooden Sugar Bucket Small 17th Century Carved, Primitive Seated Figure Early Aafa Antique Wood Red Dolls Chair With Old Paint All Original-adorable!Beautiful Large Country Primitive Wooden Dough BowlHuge Antique Wooden Dough Bowl Hand Turned Heavy Primitive Old Primitive Original Green Paint Wood Round Ohio Stool Butcher Block Riser Large Old Primitive Painted Wood Dough Or Chopping Bowl Maine FindAntique Wood Humpty Dumpty Egg Crate Owosso Mfg.wooden Box Carrier With InsertPrimitive Wooden BowlPrimitive Handmade Fall/halloween Decoration - "jack In A Box"