Early American design – why was it popular in the mid-20th-century?

early-american-living-room

In the early 50s, Duco paint featured advertisements that showcased beautiful interiors – as well as some gorgeous paint colors. This Early American living room is a classic. I love the paneling above the fireplace, and the pegboard for pewter mugs. Also notice the use of a small chest in the living room.  Moreover, this image inspired me to do some more research on Early American design, which  remained quite popular into the 1950s and even the 60s.

The world-famous American consumer economy didn’t really start until about 1953. Before that, we tended to relish our American ‘classic’ furniture: Colonial stuff, like from the pilgrims. This style of furniture also is called “Colonial Revival.” If you are studying for your online PhD in Retro Renovation, read this article on the Colonial Revival period. It explains the genesis of Colonial Revival’s popularity, which spanned 1880-1940:

The first promoters of colonial furniture were collectors and antiquarians who focused on the originals and admired their simplicity and proportions. These early advocates produced books and articles intended to elevate popular taste by providing examples of colonial refinement for adaptation to modern life. Contemporary designers were urged to follow older models. As the style became more popular, manufacturers like Wallace Nutting began to produce historic reproductions inspired by surviving antiques. Into the 1950s, popular magazines like House Beautiful and House and Garden were filled with articles on interior decoration that promoted colonial styles, while advertisements touted a wide array of Colonial Revival products…

And this on why the style remained so strong:

The continuous popularity of the Colonial Revival in America since the 1870s is due to a number of factors. Patriotism or nationalism is certainly a significant reason. The ethical argument – that furniture and architecture from a more virtuous time has an inherent moral superiority – is also important. In terms of aesthetics, much of the attraction to colonial architecture is a result of its “correct” proportions and adherence to classical principles. But economics has also entered into the equation. Colonial reproduction furniture began to be mass marketed to the public in the 1880s. While intended to denote handcraftedness, the pieces were inexpensive precisely because they were machine-made. Small inexpensive houses in various colonial styles were also marketed to the mass public in the early twentieth century. The Colonial Revival house, also known as “modernized colonial” for its combination of historic appearance with modern functionality, peaked in popularity in the 1930s. These simple houses were almost infinitely variable and required neither the ornamentation of the previous century nor the expensive materials of the budding modernist movement. In fact, the Colonial Revival achieved its most enduring popular acceptance in the domestic sphere. The home became the center of everything associated with the Colonial Revival. As a writer stated in 1899: “The American home is the object to which we may well give our best thoughts and make it the place where religion and civilization shall dwell together.”

I bolded these last couple of sentences because they seem hugely important, and track some of my other research. The importance of the American home apparently really solidified during around this turn of the century period as masses of folks started to rise above hardscrabble. The two concepts – Colonial Revival and the iconic, emotional attachment we as a nation developed to the meaning of  “home”  in America — converged in this period.

Finally, remember my good friend Royal Barry Wills. There is no question in my mind that he gets the credit for keeping the Early American / Colonial Revival style very strong in America in the immediate aftermath of WWII. My vintage postwar magazines are chock full of the stuff. As the 50s wound on, the look began to be usurped by the trickle down effect of high modernism. Although as all articles point out, Colonial style has never stopped being a part of the American landscape. I’d say this is especially true about the exteriors of our homes. The good ole center hall colonial is arguably the #1 most enduring style in America.

Relative to our own mainstreet, middle class, mid-century homes today: I say, embrace at least a little bit of colonial decor. Early American is very comfy and homey, to be sure. All the nice wood takes the hard edges off of modernism. And I always like to be a little counter-culture, to laugh in the face of what’s popular today. So be a design rebel! Plop a spindle rocker in the living room, or an early American dining room set proudly in the middle of the dining room, or a great big American eagle over the mantle, and enjoy the history.

1952

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting article, Pam! I am still amazed at how popular the arrowed “Early American” cabinet hardware was. I notice it more and more when I’m looking through old magazines, and I even notice it in pictures of houses I lived in as a child. The stuff was (and is) everywhere! I hated those cabinet pulls when I first moved into my house, but they’re growing on me. I so wanted to replace them with boomerang cabinet pulls! But now that we have redone the kitchen, the black blends in more and looks, well, authentic. For now, they’re staying.

  2. Glamorlux Nancy says

    My in-laws were married in 1959 and went for the colonial look when setting up house. My mother-in-law still has some of the pieces because it blends nicely with her other country antique furnishings. My husband and I sometimes lament the fact that they didn’t go for the “modern” 50′s look, but then again, those items probably would have been replaced in the 70′s because they were too dated!

  3. sablemable says

    Interesting article, Pam. I saw some home interiors back then that were decorated in that style.

    The first home my parents bought, a 1960 ranch had been decorated in the Colonial style-a Ben Franklin fireplace, interior wood shutters, “cobblestone” look linoleum on the kitchen floor, a cross-buck storm door, yet the house still maintained it’s MCM appearance, if that makes any sense.

  4. susieQ says

    I love reading all the comments but rarely have the energy to respond . Today’s Early American topic has given me inspiration so here goes.As a child in the 1950′s my grandmother’s house was comfy,cozy,colonial and my sister and I both grew up loving that style of furniture and decoration.Our house on the other hand was ahead of it’s day as my mom had aspirations of being an interior designer,which she actually fulfilled once we were grown.Our ranch house in Arlington Va. had a pink GE kitchen and modern teak furniture from Denmark.My mom painted the walls white and our fireplace too and was considered the interior fashion maven of the neighborhood.I think the colonial style has been so enduring because it is comfortable whereas so much of the modern furniture is harder to sit on and just not as relaxing as those big old comfortable chairs and the darker colors with all the blues,brown and red. As my mom was constantly changing her style (my sister and I grew up thinking that couches wore out every 2 years!)and especially after they moved to New England she became a fan of Early American style and especially federal design.We would be in a museum and my young children would say “this looks like Grandma’s house”.All this to say that styles do change and intermingle through the years.People rarely have one style they adhere too especially if they have inherited treasures from the past.Now with my mom gone and I the grandma to several little ones my house is filled with a little of this and that from the various era’s.Some days I long to change my style like my mom did regularly but that would mean giving up the things that I love(having just one house of modest means!).Hence my own individual style has emerged;a unique compilation of all those homemakers that came before me and shaped my design world.

    • pam kueber says

      What a lovely story, susieQ – thanks so much for sharing. Let me know if you’re ever game to show off some of your interiors on the blog. “All those homemakers that came before me and shaped my design world” – sounds so full of love. :)

  5. says

    Very fun to see. I forget how bold color was used even in the 50′s. My folk’s never embraced Colonial / Early American design, so fun to see these images. Great post!

  6. Elizabeth Mary says

    My theory on this is that the furniture style used was probably chosen to match the inside to the outside. That is, don’t you suppose that the huge popularity of the Cape helped to spur the popularity of the Early American/Colonial style furnishings? In the 20′s and 30′s the other popular style of architecture was the bungalow, but the arts & crafts furniture that looked so good in a bungalow would not have gone so well inside the Capes. And after the 40′s, when the ranch came along, while the Early American would go well in some of them, especially the simpler designed home, it would have been less fitting in the more “mid-century” designed homes. And, the mid-century furniture that came into being would not have looked very good in the Capes still being built.

    Before I lived in my current Cape Cod ranch, I lived in a classic stucco bungalow. The furniture I owned was traditional, much from my mother. It looked OK, but not great. But, I loved it and could not afford to toss it out and replace with Craftsman. So, the house never looked as good as it could have. When I moved into this traditional 1946 home with the same furniture, the mover said immediately, “your stuff looks better here than in the old house.” I was bit put off for a second, but he was right. All my mother’s things fit so well here and that helps me be happier here than in the old house — something that is a total surprise to me because I LOVED that stucco bungalow.

  7. Liz says

    We purchased a 1948 Colonial-style home, which I love. One thing I am not happy with, though, is that there is no overhead light in the living room (just two candle sconces on either side of the fireplace). Now that I want to put in an overhead fan/light to help with heating and cooling the house, I have to pay fir some pretty expensive wiring!

  8. pam kueber says

    Elizabeth Mary, I think that is exactly right. My friend Royal Barry Wills was all about Cape Cods. He wrote prolifically. By the end of war there was huge pent up housing demand. Out of the gate – America built Cape Cods. The trim, built-ins — and furniture inside – very Early American. It was only as the 50s progressed that the pull of the ranch and MCM started to exert pressure on the the colonial look. What I learned from the the research I’ve cited and linked to in this article, is that the colonial revival period that emerged in America at the turn of the 19th-to-20th century played such a defining role in our definition of American Home. The stuff became Iconic. This lasts til today.

  9. MidCent Keith says

    And wasn’t every 10 year old boy’s bedroom red, white, and blue in 1976? – or at least the bedspread was and had revolutionary war scences on the trash can .. mine did. For whatever reason, Colonial decor is timeless .. seemingly.

    • Merry says

      1976 was the year of our nations Bi-Centennial. I had Early American furniture at that time – makers were Sprague and Carlton, Tell City, Kling (prior to being Ethan Allen), etc. Most of these furniture companies designed limited edition pieces (Tell City had a dry sink and some lamps) that were Bi-Centennial issues. If you look at old television programs (like Bewitched), you will note a mix of MCM with Early American in the late 60′s moving to a definitely more Early American palette as the country moved toward the Bi-Centennial. I am so happy I was able to buy furniture during this period, as I still have many of those pieces and don’t see much out there any more to fill in with – just “cottage” style pieces poorly made in China or other countries.

  10. says

    I have a really sweet screeching brass eagle (he’s HUGE!) above the colonnades that lead from my living room to my dining room. I love touches of early Americana. Plus it really does throw people for a loop, but in a good way.

  11. Elaine says

    I still have two maple saltbox end tables from my mom’s 1964 colonial decor. I love them and they go great with my comfy leather sectional, so mixing and matching is traditional here in our 1964 wing colonial.

  12. MrsErinD says

    We have a mix of mid century modern and traditional colonial 50s/60s furniture and stuff in our house, when I was looking for step end tables/coffee I would really have liked some heywood wakefield but it was above my budget and I didn’t wanna wait and search for years, lol, so I found a 2 end step table and coffee table set on craigslist for 25 bucks by Ethan Allen/baumritter in a colonial style made in 1964. My MIL has similar furniture made by the same and the same year, when she was married! And we found a console sears silvertone stereo, early 60s, that has a colonial look too, and so does the old bench our tv is on, but then the other 2 step end tables are french provincial, but oh well! But then I have atomic barkcloth for curtains and pillows, and I am getting that Macy’s corona couch in gray, and other touches/accesories that are more “mod” and kitsch. So I mixed it up a bit in our decor, colonial is easier to find and much easier on the budget, and if you mix it with modern it can keep it from getting too colonial ( unless you want it that way!)

    Hmm, we do have one of those big eagles from his Mom, he has it downstairs though!

    • pam kueber says

      Hi MrsErinD, you have reminded me how much I love vintage Ethan Allen, too. I have two terrific vintage chairs – likely from the 70s. They are cushy upholstered chairs, kind of a cross between a club and a wing chair. The scale is just right. They were in like-new condition. $75 each at a favorite vintage store. We use them every day, they are perfect.

  13. MrsErinD says

    Those chairs sound awesome Pam!

    We are lucky to have 2 Stickley chairs from about 1915, they have a bottom cushion upholstered in a great nubby fabric from 1948, but we had to move them from the livingroom to the bedroom because they just weren’t comfy enough, so we have an old-not vintage-but vintage looking uphostered chair and a new but cute naugahyde lazyboy for the hubby, haha, but they are both a matching blue. So I had to pick comfiness over the vintage ones we had.

  14. SullyAg says

    House I grew up in — suburban ranch in Houston, built 1962 — was decorated in early Amercan/colonial throughout the decade. As I recall, most folks didn’t go in for the “modern” stuff, and colonial was a safe alternative, and a place to retreat from annoying hippy culture. Check out the furnishings in Samantha Stephens’ house on “Bewtiched,” for instance. I’d venture to say that the look persisted into the 1970s, especially with the bicentennial.

  15. Mary-Frances Main says

    Thanks Pam! Great write up and if you don’t mind, I’m going to link to this under my “colonial” description on my website! :)

  16. Angela says

    Thank you for this blog.

    My sister had Early American furniture – my mom and dad gravitated towards modern.

    I mentioned this to my husband not long ago and he had no idea what ‘early american’ furniture was – my best description for him was looking at old I Love Lucy’s home in the country. The quintessential Early American home.

  17. Thom says

    When my parents were married in 1951, my mother decorated the entire cape cod home in Ethan Allen rock maple with the braided rugs. this style blended beautifully with the many antiques that she had. I still have the Ethan Allen rock maple twin bed room set. It has been through countless children and grandchildren and is still as sturdy as it was the day it was delivered. My sister has the dining room suite complete with the hutch and tea cart. No matter where we lived, the Early American look was fitting. Many of the homes in the 1950s – 1960s sit coms had that look. Remember when Lucy moved from New York. What a perfect example of Early American. Thom

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