Making a Federal Case: A Young America Tries to Find its Own Style

This reproduction Federal-style cabinet base shows Sheraton-style spool turns and a tapered reeded column with Hepplewhite drawer pulls.

One of the most popular and most reproduced styles in America for the last 100 years has been the Federal style of the early 19th century. It is so ubiquitous that it is almost unrecognizable as a separate style and is often just called “traditional” styling.

In fact “Federal” is not truly a style unto itself. It is period of American history just after the American Revolution, when the young nation of the United States struggled to establish itself with a separate identity from its mother country, England. The period is commonly said to be from 1780 to 1820.

But the new identity, as expressed in furniture style, was distinctly English, even though it was called American Neoclassic—the “new classic”—style.

After the Revolution a new wave of cabinetmakers, primarily from Ireland and England but also from France, immigrated to the new country and brought existing European and English ideas and furniture designs with them. These designs were slowly integrated into existing styles, such as Chippendale, using classical elements of style. Interesting that the “new” American style turned out to be just a rehash of older European styles!

And with the new-and-old ideas and styles, a couple of the older traditional forms disappeared and few new ones showed up. The first to disappear was the highboy—the tall single-unit chest of drawers—but the chest-on-chest, a variation of the highboy, remained popular.

The low dressing table was another casualty of the shifting taste, but one of America’s most enduring forms, the sideboard, was developed as a variation of the Southern hunt board and the traditional mixing table.

One oddity of this transformation was the evolution of the Queen Anne–style sideboard. Even though Queen Anne lived in the early 18th century and her namesake style was popular from the 1720s to the 1750s, a sideboard in that style was not shown until the form, itself, developed in the late 18th century.

This worktable designed for sewing, with tapered Sheraton rope-turned legs, drop leaves and two drawers, was a new form in the Federal period.

Another new form was the worktable with drawers, specifically designed for the craft of needlework.

Two of the overwhelmingly popular designers of the period were, of course, English. They were Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) and George Hepplewhite. Sheraton’s popularity resulted in great part from the 1791 publication of his style book “The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book.” More than 600 cabinetmakers subscribed to the publication, and his work became widespread.

This was followed in 1803 by his book on joinery called “The Cabinet Dictionary” and in 1805 by “Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and General Artist’s Encyclopaedia.” Sheraton had the Federal-period equivalent of a media blitz. No wonder he was so popular.

One of Sheraton’s claims to fame that has lasted for more than 200 years was his clever variation of legs, starting with spool-turned legs at the top corners of his work tables. Other variations included square-tapered legs, tapered rope-turned legs, tapered round-legs, round and tapered fluted legs and round and tapered reeded legs.

George Hepplewhite (1727-1786), on the other hand, was already deceased when his widow posthumously published his book “The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterers Guide” in 1788. He is given credit for the light touch in chair splat design, and his name is immortalized in the “Hepplewhite shield-back” chair, which literally incorporated the shape of pierced and carved shield as the back of the chair.

His other outstanding contribution was the oval-shaped back plate of a drawer pull with an embossed design, often acorns or leaves and later American flags, and a simple drop bail. The Hepplewhite pull is almost universal on “traditional” cabinet work.

The most famous cabinetmaker of the period was, of course, Scotland-born Duncan Phyfe, who ran a factory system in New York so large that he actually made very few pieces. His work is often referred to as from the “school of Phyfe” or the “workshop of Phyfe.” His early work was actually Sheraton in design before he moved into the French-influenced Empire style slightly later.

The style he didn’t work in was “Duncan Phyfe,” because there was not then and is not today a style by that name. Somehow his name became attached to any piece of furniture from any period that has sweeping legs extending from a pedestal or a frame. 

The reproduction Federal-style chair is a typical Hepplewhite shield-back chair.

This chair was made by Duncan Phyfe, New York, circa 1820,

While it is true he made some furniture in that style, so did every other cabinetmaker in New York. The sweeping legs were actually in style before Phyfe was born. It was an English Georgian–style used in pedestal dining tables just after the middle of the 18th century.

The outstanding elements of Federal style are the Hepplewhite shield-back chair, the Hepplewhite oval pull, the Sheraton reeded leg, brass-urn shaped finials on clocks and chests, oval and round inlaid geometric patterns called “patera,” cascading bellflower inlay on legs and the rice carving found on bed posts. Almost all of these elements can still be found in 20th century reproductions of Federal period furniture.


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