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. Jan says

    I am looking for a painting my parents had above their early American sofa. I’m sure it was a print sold at furniture stores. It was ladies on a stagecoach rolling through town with beautiful hats and there were kids chasing it and one boy hanging on the back. If anyone has information on the title or where I could find it I would greatly appreciate it.

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