The Grace of Queen Anne
When the first English settlers came to America, England was just emerging from the Middle Ages. Furniture of the time was heavy and cumbersome and constructed chiefly of oak. By 1700, furniture had become gradually more plentiful and new forms appeared to fill domestic needs. The Queen Anne style offered homeowners lighter, graceful, more comfortable furniture, and the first "period" pieces were born.
Political events, economics (including prosperity at home and trade with other countries), and the freedom to travel from one country to another influenced the styles of furniture as well as the amount considered essential in a home. Every so often, also, a great furniture designer who introduced new and different-looking pieces established a style and set a period. Between 1700 and 1800, five distinctly different furniture styles prevailed in England and America. The names attached to these styles or periods were sometimes those of the reigning monarchs, sometimes of a furniture designer. The Queen Anne style was, of course, named after Queen Anne of England. Though the style had become popular in England by 1705, it took another 20 years for it to become popular in America.
Queen Anne furniture was lighter in appearance and much more graceful looking than the ponderous 17th-century pieces. Furniture remained functional, however, and also became comfortable. Lines were simple, with emphasis on the curvilinear. The single most important decoration of Queen Anne furniture was the carved cockle or scallop shell. Often, one large shell was carved on the slant top of a desk or on the front of a highboy, lowboy, or chest. A smaller shell sometimes was carved on the knee of a leg and-with or without carving on the legs-to top the splat of a chair or daybed. The shell motif emphasized the curvilinear element. On some pieces, this carved motif is more clearly recognizable as a fan or a sunburst.
Cabinetmakers replaced the straight, turned legs on chairs, tables, and cupboards, with more graceful, curving ones called cabriole--that is, the leg had an out-curved knee and an incurved ankle. Feet were likely to be the simple pad or Dutch foot, occasionally the drake foot, which was carved with three toes, or the Spanish foot, which curved gracefully and showed rectangular lines of carving. Stretchers were omitted or else not particularly noticeable. The kettle or bombe base, which swelled outward at sides and front, appeared on cupboards and some other case pieces.
Oak was still widely used in England but walnut became the preferred wood in both England and America. After walnut, cherry and maple rather than oak were the choices in this country. Regardless of the wood, a small amount of Queen Anne furniture was painted white and gilded.
The drop-leaf table, either oval, round, or rectangular, replaced the trestle table for dining. Dropping the leaves, of course, saved space when they weren't in use. Rectangular tables with marble tops were made for dining rooms because, so far, no one had thought of making a sideboard.
Card or gaming tables were another Queen Anne innovation that continued to be popular for more than a century. By the mid-18th century in America, it wasn't uncommon for a household to own a half-dozen or more fine examples of card tables. Each one was well made of selected hardwood and was handsome, for it was part of the furniture of the room at all times. No comparison is possible between this style of table, which has become a classic, and the collapsible bridge (card) table so common today.
All of these card tables, now bonafide antiques, had tops consisting of two leaves that were hinged so that one could be folded on top of the other or be supported against a wall when the table was not in use. Of the four or occasionally five legs, one was movable to support the folding leaf when the table was opened to full size. The square table with a top 36 to 38 inches when opened flat usually had rounded corners to hold candlesticks to light the gaming. Some tables also had four oval saucers, one at each player's left, for coins. Occasionally there was a drawer under the top.