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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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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! 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. Nellie says:

    One of my strongest memories from when I was a pre-schooler in the mid-1960s was the Early American decor in a neighbor’s home. They furnished the place when they got married circa 1960. The cobbler bench that they used as a coffee table and the captain’s desk they had particularly stand out in my mind. I would agree that the look was pretty common through the end of the decade, even if it was less fashionable by that point.

  8. Gail Fulks says:

    In 60s my mom had a 3-corner end table and am searching for one. If know of where would love to know. Our LR was the pillowed couch and wood coffee table that match the end table.

  9. 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.

  10. Erin says:

    Jan,

    My late mother-in-law had a copy of the painting that you described. Google “Pemigewassett” and see if that’s it.

  11. Larry Beckford says:

    My mother had the same print. And yes they bought their pictures at a furniture store. I have seen this on a smaller scale at various thrift stores in the Dallas Ft Worth area

  12. sonya says:

    my mom is looking for the early English couch it has a barn type print she had one in the 1990″s and would like to buy another. Where can we buy one website?

  13. Martha says:

    Pam,

    This article with picture is so helpful! I have recently purchased a home built in 1955…the year I was born, that has had very little updating (love). There’s lots of knotty pine, hardwood floors, beautiful brick fireplaces and, of course, a precious pink bathroom. This home is not modern, but I’m not completely sure what design it is. I’m guessing Colonial, though the exterior looks somewhat Cape Cod.

    Can you suggest any web sites or even books that might help me learn more about my type of home? I’m interested in both the interior design as well as the exterior. The brick is common red with white shutters… true width, white wooden shutters. I’m considering painting them black.

    No, not taking out the pink tile or the burgundy bullnose, but the blue commode, tub and lavatory do make decorating the bathroom a bit tougher. Still not sure what I’ll do in there.

    Thank you for any direction you can offer. I LOVE your blog. I’m one of those “design rebels” you mentioned.

    Martha

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