Colonial Architecture................Colonial and Colonial Revival FURNITURE............ Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Furniture - William and Mary Style

Proportions: Tall and slender.

Essential elements: Stiles, rails, and legs in scroll, columnar. or spiral shapes. Crisp slender turnings, often vase- or trumpet-shaped. Elaborate carving in low relief.

Feet: ball, bun, or scroll (Spanish).

Elegantly grained surfaces; some veneered or painted. Split balusters (or bannisters) on chair backs. Seats: cane, rush, or leather.

Primary woods: Walnut or maple.

Secondary woods: Pine or others.

Notable forms: Chairs: tall-back, bannister-back, and easy. Daybed. Low-post bed. Tables: large and small gate-leg, butterfly, tavern, and tea.

- Marvin D. Schwartz, American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas and Beds. 2000

Named after the king and queen of England who reigned jointly from 1689 to 1694, the English William and Mary style is an interpretation of the Baroque mode that had swept through Europe earlier in the century.

Parliament replaced the English Catholic King James II with his daughter, Mary, who had married the Protestant Dutch William of Orange. Thus, William and Mary were called to England from Holland, where prosperous middle class capitalists demanded the best cabinetwork, and soon the furniture designs in the two countries were almost indistinguishable.

During the reign of William and Mary many changes took place in the style of furniture, due not only to the fact that William was distinctly Dutch and brought with him Dutch ideas and Dutch workmen, but also to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, after which many artisans fled to England. During the first part of this reign the popularity of the Flemish furniture was at its height, but this style was gradually replaced by the Dutch style.

The chests of drawers were raised from the floor on turned cup-shaped legs, and that same form of leg was extensively used on chairs and tables; marquetry and japanning became popular, and carving almost completely disappeared. Chinese objects were extensively imported and collecting became a fad. The furniture, however, did not reflect this fashion, except in fret design and japanning, until about 1740.

When the style reached the colonies it had a profound effect on American furniture design. Unlike the massive pieces in the Pilgrim style, William and Mary furniture is graceful, with elegant lines.

The most important new forms introduced during the period, the highboy and lowboy, clearly illustrate the stylistic change that had taken place: these pieces rest on high, elaborately turned legs, and contrast sharply with the squat, blocklike furniture made in the 17th century.

Cabinetmakers soon favored walnut, maple, and fruitwoods rather than oak. Veneer became common, especially in fancy, grained woods. Legs were turned in elaborate trumpet or spiral shapes, and even simple chests were adorned with bulbous ball, bun, or turnip feet.

Hardware, which was usually imported, became decorative as well as functional. Made of cast brass rather than wood, pulls and escutcheons are primarily scrolled plates; handles are teardrop-shaped.



Gate-leg table

Gate-leg tables wre introduced in America in the 17th century. In general, thick turnings on thick legs are an indication of early tables. Such tables were practical in small houses beause they could be folded up to save space.

New England examples are usually of maple and are more delicate than those made in Pennsylvania or New York.


The highboy first appeared in America during the William and Mary period. Only a few of these have survived, and most are the trumpet-leg variety.,

Highboys are easily confused with those made about the same time in England and the Low Countries. Foreign examples usually more elaborately decorated


The first American lowboys date from the William and Mary period, and it seems probable that, like dressing tables, they were meant to provide a place where toiletries could be stored and applied.

William and Mary examples have one to four drawers and a valanced skirt, and rest on trumpet-turned legs that are braced by flat, scrolled X-stretchers or box stretchers.


Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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