English, Scottish and American Furniture

It is a common misconception that early Canadian furniture consists only of pieces (eg, chairs, tables) roughly hewn from pine.
It is a common misconception that early Canadian furniture consists only of pieces (eg, chairs, tables) roughly hewn from pine.

Furniture, English, Scottish and American

It is a common misconception that early Canadian furniture consists only of pieces (eg, chairs, tables) roughly hewn from pine. In fact, much "fine" or formal furniture intended for the drawing room, parlour, dining room, etc, was made, following European models, by craftsmen well versed in their craft. ENGLISH, Scottish and LOYALIST influences are apparent in much surviving Canadian-made furniture, in specific details and characteristics unique to particular areas.

Georgian Period

During the earliest period of English settlement in Canada (in NS from 1713 to 1783), domestic furnishings were either imported or homemade. A few cabinetmakers, notably Edward Draper, are recorded as working in Halifax after 1749. No known Canadian-made furniture survives from this period. The Loyalists, who arrived in 1783-84, comprised the first substantial English-language population and were followed by an influx of Scottish settlers. Both groups included a great variety of specialized craftsmen, cabinetmakers among them.

The earliest known English Canadian formal or stylized furniture dates from about 1785 and follows then fashionable English styles. The so-called Chippendale style, in vogue in England until the 1780s, was followed by the Hepplewhite, Sheraton, classical-revival and regency forms into the early 19th century. While the cabinetmakers produced what their markets demanded, they were also products of their conservative training.

As in most CRAFTS, training in cabinetmaking was through the APPRENTICESHIP system, so that cabinetmakers had a strong tendency to build furniture in the same styles and the same manner as had their teachers and masters. Changes in style and fashion most rapidly affected the larger cities. In outlying areas, particular styles in furniture, notably the Chippendale, were produced long after their periods of actual fashion had ended (see FURNITURE, COUNTRY). One notable craftsman, James Waddell of Truro, NS, made Chippendale chairs as late as 1825.

Canadian furniture also includes examples of "throwback" pieces - ie, items produced from observation or memory in styles long out of fashion. Although derived from English forms, Canadian-made formal furniture was far simpler. It was also relatively unornamented, compared to its English or American colonial counterparts; inlay work and carving were rare.

The earliest centres of sophisticated cabinetmaking and production were Halifax and Montréal. Many examples of Chippendale furniture of the 1780s and 1790s survive from these centres. Montréal furniture of the late 18th and 19th centuries was, by all accounts, the finest produced. Some Montréal examples are well veneered with exotic woods and include complex inlaid stringing and banding. Halifax furniture was far simpler.

Although Québec was a smaller city than Montréal, specialized cabinetmakers were in operation there as early as the 1780s, producing very fine work. Most notable perhaps are clock cases by the Loyalist James Orkney. The Bellerose brothers, who operated in Trois-Rivières before 1800, are also known for fine clock cases.

Cabinetmaking in NB developed in the 1780s and 1790s in Saint John and the Saint John River valley, but no NB furniture predating 1800 is known, nor has any NB Chippendale furniture been found; all pieces are in the later styles of the early 19th century. In Upper Canada in the first generation of settlement, furnishings also seem to have been imported or homemade. A few cabinetmakers are known to have operated before 1800, but again no formal furniture survives which can definitely be dated to before 1800.

While Canadian formal furniture can generally be identified as Canadian and often be ascribed to a particular region, it can rarely be attributed to a specific maker. Before the industrial period of the 1840s and 1850s, very few cabinetmakers marked or labelled their furniture. Before 1825 only 3 cabinetmakers are known to have used paper labels: the firm of Tulles, Pallister and McDonald of Halifax (1810-11); Daniel Green of Saint John, NB (before 1820); and Thomas Nisbet of Saint John (1813-48). Occasional pencil or ink markings found are often the signatures of owners rather than of makers.

Imported West Indian mahogany was the favoured cabinet wood, as in Britain and the US. Mahogany logs were relatively inexpensive to transport by sea as ballast cargo. Mahogany was available, however, only to cabinetmakers in port cities: Halifax, Amherst, Saint John, Québec City, Trois-Rivières and Montréal. Transporting the heavy wood overland was so impractical that cabinetmakers even slightly removed from the ports depended instead on native woods.

In the Maritimes, birch, stained to a dark colour and known as "poor man's mahogany," was a widely used cabinet wood. In simple inlays, or segments such as drawer fronts, birch was often mixed with maple. In Québec butternut and maple were quite widely used in areas where mahogany was not available. Upper Canada, inaccessible to imports of mahogany until about 1830, depended for finer furniture on cherry, walnut and figured maple. The secondary or structural wood of virtually all Canadian furniture was pine, although exteriors were made of hardwoods. Mahogany was the only imported wood available before about 1810.

Especially after the WAR OF 1812, satinwood and rosewood began to appear in Canadian furniture, usually in small segments and as veneers or inlays. Except for simple iron hinges, all hardware (ie, drawer pulls, casters and small knobs, typically of brass) was imported. As well as typically being of mixed woods, Canadian stylized furniture is often of mixed styles: characteristics of 2 or more design forms are often evident in a single piece of furniture.

With the coming of canals, steamships and finally railways, the increasing mobility of people led to an increasing homogenization of style and design forms. Identifiable regional characteristics began to disappear slowly by 1830 and were entirely gone by 1860. New technologies also had an impact on the style and craft of cabinetmaking. The development of the circular saw after 1820, followed by the veneer mill in the 1830s, made veneers far less expensive to use than had been the case in the earlier period of hand carving. The screw-thread lathe led, in the 1820s, to a fashion for round, rope-turned legs on tables and case pieces. Again, these details were inexpensive because of mechanical production. Elaborate carving machines followed, making possible the decorative excesses of the Victorian period.

Beginning in the 1830s, furniture styles were increasingly adapted for component manufacture by machinery. The growth of the factory system after the 1830s led to a complete homogenization of design throughout North America and, by the 1860s, to a decline in the craft of cabinetmaking. Although there were many changes of style and fashion in the mid-19th century, furniture itself more and more became the product of factories and mechanization, and less and less the product of individual skills.


Empire and Victorian Furniture

During the Empire and Victorian periods, furniture design largely abandoned the restrained geometry of Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Adam in favour of picturesque outlines and historical revivals more in keeping with the eclectic ARCHITECTURE of the time. In addition, factory production and new forms of woodworking machinery began to replace the traditional methods of the furniture craftsman.


Empire refers to styles which first gained popularity in France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I, in the first 2 decades of the 19th century. This period corresponds roughly with the time of the English regency. Fashionable furniture of the time was inspired by ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian designs, popularized through publications such as Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). Classical styles continued to dominate through the 1830s and 1840s. In Canada, "Empire" sometimes is used to describe the later manifestations of this style, which tended to follow American precedents; "regency" is the preferred term for earlier work.

Chairs from this period often followed the Greek klismos form, with sabre-shaped legs and a broad crest rail (ie, horizontal member at the top of the back). Armchairs had scroll-curved arms left open below. Sofas also tended to have scrolled arms, upholstered and often fitted with cylindrical cushions where they met the seat. The scrolled arms of Empire sofas found their counterpart in the high, curved headboards and footboards of "French bedsteads" (now commonly called sleigh beds). Tables often were supported on heavy pedestals set on wide bases with scrolled feet. Case pieces (eg, chests of drawers, sideboards) often had overhanging top drawers with columnar supports. Mahogany veneer over pine was commonly used.


By the mid-19th century, a wide variety of styles was replacing the classically derived Empire. The Victorian period (1837-1901) first saw the development of the rococo-revival or "modern French" style, which brought a return to rounded curves and naturalistic carving. The balloon-back side chair with its rounded open back and cabriole (S-shaped) legs was popular. The introduction of coil springs and factory-made upholstery materials in plush and horsehair brought a new era of comfort. Almost all lines were rounded; frames and cases were ornamented with carving in the forms of fruit, leaves and flowers.

At the same time, Gothic-revival furniture was coming into vogue, making use of architectural elements such as pointed arches, finials (eg, decorative knobs) and tracery. It was deemed most suitable for the library or entrance hall, where Gothic-revival chairs and benches often were the only unupholstered seating furniture in the house.

"Elizabethan" was another popular midcentury style, although its characteristic ball or spool turnings had little to do with what actually had been used during the reign of Elizabeth I. All of these styles and their variants could be found in such popular handbooks as A.J. Downing's The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) or Blackie and Son's The Victorian Cabinet Maker's Assistant (1855).

By the late 1860s, some began to question the widespread use of revival styles, applied ornament and the trend toward factory production. In 1868, the English designer C.L. Eastlake published Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, which advocated what he believed to be a return to simple, sturdy craftsmanship. The furniture he illustrated was invariably solid and geometrical in outline, eschewing the rounded curves of the rococo revival. It was ornamented with incised decoration in geometrical patterns, simple turnings and pierced decoration. Details of construction often were made visible through exposed pegs and joints.

Eastlake's ideas found their counterparts in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the development of "mission" furniture. Much to the chagrin of the reformers, however, factories began taking up the name "Eastlake" and applying it to mass-produced furniture of simple, squarish outline. The Victorian period saw the introduction of a wide range of woodworking machinery which, combined with the development of steam power, the growth of markets and improved transportation, brought an end to the small, independent craftsman's shop.

Among the largest Canadian furniture factories was that of Jacques and Hay in Toronto, which produced such large quantities of furniture (from school desks to parlour suites) that often all Canadian Victorian furniture is erroneously called "Jacques and Hay." Proximity to the US also influenced furniture making in Canada. From an early date, Canadians purchased furniture, at both wholesale and retail levels, from American suppliers.

Interest in revival styles continued to dominate the furniture trade. Among the most influential by the 1870s was the renaissance-revival style, characterized by the use of bold cornices, pediments and pilasters, high-relief carving, classical anthemia (ie, floral or foliated ornaments) and a multitude of finials and drops. Bedsteads, sideboards and dressing bureaus with attached plate glass mirrors grew to astonishing heights. Marble tops became increasingly popular. Chair and sofa frames took on an often spiked, attenuated look; legs often were tapered, with either turned or panelled decoration.

The last years of Victoria's reign saw revivals of nearly every preceding style. Reproductions might be faithful to the original form or might be creative revivals influenced by the sinuous curves and sometimes bizarre shapes of art nouveau. The use of upholstery reached its height, the frame often covered entirely with several types or colours of fabric and fringed with tassels. New materials became popular, particularly wicker, iron, brass and bentwood. Oak replaced black walnut as the preferred wood for most furniture. Mail-order houses such as The T. EATON COMPANY offered to ship furniture anywhere by rail.


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Further Reading

  • H. Dobson and B. Dobson, The Early Furniture of Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces (1974); H. Pain, The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture (1978).