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How to Identify Furniture Styles of the 1800s

Mixing old and new furniture creates casual, eclectic style.
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You can’t always use wood to identify 19th century furniture styles, since many of the same woods, such as mahogany, walnut and rosewood, are used in numerous styles. Similarly, marble is found in several style types, including French and American Empire as well as Rococo Revival.

Furniture styles of the 1800s vary widely. Political activity heavily influenced early to mid-19th-century furniture style as seen in two dominant styles, French and American Empire. Victorian style reigned over furniture in the last half of the century, but you can’t use the term “Victorian” to accurately describe a 19th century furniture style, since the era is defined by style “revivals,” such as Gothic Revival and Rococo Revival. The late 19th century closed with the Arts and Crafts style, a pared-down, simple style that reacted to Victorian excess.

Look for any emblems or motifs carved into the furniture piece. An image of a crown, a bee, laurel leaves, torches, lions, trophies, mythological creatures or Egyptian themes indicate a firm possibility that the piece is of the French Empire style, an early 19th century style associated with Napoleon’s interest in Roman themes. Rose, shell, scroll and grape carvings are in Rococo Revival style, and water-leaf motifs are in American Empire style.

Examine the piece’s hardware. The drawer pull is another giveaway of French Empire style. A common French drawer pull includes a lion's head with a large ring running through its nose. Both French and American Empire styles feature brass and bronze hardware and decoration. Gild is often used with Rococo Revival and Gothic Revival styles.

Look at the piece’s feet. Spool turned legs, which look like rounded spools stacked one on top of another, are indicative of Gothic Revival style. The style was popular between 1840 and 1880. American Empire furniture legs often end in brass, claw-shaped feet.

Study the furniture’s legs. Cabriole legs, which curve outward and then inward in an inverted “S” shape, often indicate Rococo Revival style. Fluted or reeded legs are often found on American Empire furniture.

Examine chair backs. Gothic Revival chairs often feature high, pointed arch backs. Rococo Revival chairs have curved, ballooning backs. American Empire chairs are often shaped like lyres. Arts and Crafts chairs feature right angles and typically do not have ornamentation. A lack of ornamentation, exposed joinery, and plain design are indicative of the Arts and Crafts style.

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