Similarities Between 18th Century Furniture and Silver
by Tiffiney Cole
The similarities in furniture and silver are evident throughout the 18th century. When tastes changed, furniture styles followed. For silver goods to stay in vogue, silversmiths often imitated the cabinetmakers. This made cohesion possible throughout the home, not just with wood pieces, but with table settings and decorative items as well. These parallels can assist you when dating some 18th century pieces.
William and Mary Period
The first quarter of the 18th century was the William and Mary period. During this time there was a blending of plain and ornate designs. Geometric shapes were extremely popular as evidenced in the beautiful chest-of-drawers and cabinets that were often embellished with elaborate inlaid patterns called marquetry. Geometric shapes were placed on many chair crests and front stretchers as well as the crests of mirrors. Silver antiques, such as porringer handles and punch strainers, were given cross, heart and diamond-shaped cut-outs.
Foliage was another prevalent element during the 18th century. Chests were often beautifully painted with winding vines, leaves and flowers. Chest-of-drawers regularly featured inlaid flower designs. Foliage continued into silver items too. There were two-handled bowls, caudle cups, beakers, casters and punch bowls embossed with acanthus and palm leaves and flowers.
There were also simplistic elements in this period. The simplicity can be seen on the unornamented tea table, common slat-back chair, folding table, cupboard, chest-of-drawers and settle. Most of those have little to no decoration. There were also numerous plain silver pieces. Some that were made with zero embellishment are the punch bowl, trencher salts, tumbler, beaker and globular teapot. The variety of designs in the William and Mary period catered to the exorbitantly wealthy as well as the thriving middle class.
Queen Anne Period
The Queen Anne period, around the second quarter of the 18th century, was notorious for simple lines and elegant curves. One noticeable feature of this period is the baroque shell. It showed up on chair crests and knees, side tables, settee knees, stool knees, chest-of-drawers, desks, cream jug legs and feet, salver borders and many others. The most well-known attribute from this time is the cabriole leg. This is a leg that curves outward at the top, inward in the middle and back outward at the bottom. Just about everything that had legs was made with cabriole legs. The following are just a few of these furniture pieces: chairs, drop-leaf tables, tea tables, side tables, card tables, candlestands, sofas, daybeds, stools, chest-of-drawers and desks. There are too many to list them all. With silver, the leg appeared on items such as the kettle stand, cream jug and circular salt. The elegant curves did not stop with the cabriole leg. They can also be seen on the vase-shaped chair splats, spoon-shaped chair backs, wavy uprights, mirror crests, cream jug handles, the body of coffee pots, candlesticks, etc. Queen Anne furniture and silver moved away from the classically straight lines that were so popular in the previous period to more curvaceous lines.
The third quarter of the 18th century brought about the extremely decorated Rococo period. Some pieces were almost completely covered with some kind of ornament. One similarity in furniture and silver was shells. These shells were even more detailed than the earlier baroque shells. When it comes to furniture, they appear on all sorts of places. With chairs, the knees, seat apron, splat and crest were popular spots to find the beach-themed embellishments. On tables, one can find them on the knees and apron. Settees, chest-of-drawers, bureaus and anything adorned with finials also had shells on them. When it comes to silver, one will find them on the top part of legs, where the leg connects to the base of the object. Two examples are cream jugs and inkstands. These florid shells are on spoons, circular salts and sauce boats too.
The Rococo era treasured the use of c-scrolls and gadrooning. The c-scroll is a slender, gracefully scrolled capital 'C'. A few furniture pieces with these are chairs, tea tables and mirrors. On silver, they are circling sugar bowl covers, teapot bodies and sauceboat handles. Gadrooning, a continuous pattern of convex curves usually used as edging, was the other feature used. It edged small tables, desks, bible boxes, salt cellars, salvers, sauceboats and many others. Sometimes described as overly ornate, the Rococo period enriched many homes around the mid-1700s.
The last quarter of the 18th century brought the Federal period.
Cabinetmakers left the excessive decoration behind and moved forward with
simplicity. Because of the formation of the United States, a popular
embellishment was the American eagle. This beautiful bird, a symbol of the
new republic, can be found spreading his wings across a chair back, laying on
top of a candlestand or card table, holding up a sofa table or perching on top of a bookcase. He also flew across a number of silver pieces. Silversmiths engraved the eagle on anything and everything. A few examples include the creamer, coffee pot, teapot, ladle, pitcher, napkin ring, cufflink, and sword.
Another decoration of the Federal period was fluting. Fluting is parallel convex channels that usually run vertically. With furniture, it adorned slim, vertical things such as legs or supports of tables, chairs, beds, sofas, stools, commodes, standing mirrors and cellarets. This ribbed feature made its way to silver too. It can be found running down candlestick columns and bodies of teapots and cream jugs. Unlike the really ornate Rococo period, the Federal period can be described as simple and elegant.
When new fads appeared throughout the 18th century, both cabinetmakers and silversmiths incorporated them into their wares. Some cabinetmakers even made silver themselves, which made the ornament designs almost identical for both. In conclusion, because there are so many similarities between furniture and silver, being knowledgeable in 18th century furniture could help date some silver antiques and vice versa.
Butler, Joseph T. The Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. New York:
Facts on File Publications, 1985.
Wenham, Edward. The Practical Book of American Silver. Philadelphia &
New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1949.