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Furniture - Federal Style

Sideboard: Ansley Wilcox Mansion / Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site

Table of Contents:

Examples are from Buffalo, NY, unless otherwise noted

British Origins

In Britain, in the second half of the century, Roman precedents were popularized by Robert Adam who toured Europe, especially Rome, 1754-8. (Scientific exploration of Pompeii had begun in 1748.) This was the British version of European Neoclassicism.

With its distinctive use of relatively simple masses and its novel handling of a fine-scale ornament based mainly on Pompeiian sources, the Adam style rapidly superseded the heavier early Georgian forms and the Chippendale Rococo decorative mode.

Robert's brothers John (1721-92) and James (1732-94) were also architects, and all three trained in their father's Edinburgh office. The Adams designed homes and furnishings. They designed furniture, but they never made it; instead, they engaged well-known British shops as those run by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton to make the pieces.

This neoclassical taste was promoted through publications such as Robert Adam's The Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian (1764), Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (1793), and Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director.

Robert Adam's interior/exterior decorative approach included the following:


Federal style in America, 1780-1820

Neoclassicism was the dominant style in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In America, there are three parallel phases of Neoclassicism:

Although the Revolution and a consequent diminished liking for English fashions delayed and to some extent prevented the complete adoption of this Adam classicism here, it became the main inspiration for most of our design around 1800 and prepared the ground for what followed. Labeled "Federal," it was enthusiastically embraced by Americans, who then adapted it to suit their own tastes and circumstances. The young Republic saw itself politically and artistically as the spiritual heir of republican Rome (and later of the Greek democracies with Greek Revival).

Most architecture and furniture of the period was based on Robert Adam's work (see above), although Federal style furniture is usually described as either Sheraton (also see below) or Hepplewhite (also see below), although it is difficult to establish how much American craftsmen actually depended on their designs. The style reached America by way of British pattern books and an ever-swelling wave of masons, carpenters, and joiners who emigrated from England.

New forms, such as the work table, appeared. Side tables, too, became popular as did chair backs with a center splat carved with classical motifs such as urn and feather or a series of columns. After 1800, however, chair designs became simpler.

The Grecian couch found its modern counterpart as a daybed.

Federal style commonly used inlay patterns:

Examples of interior rooms:

Furniture (including Sheraton & Hepplewhite styles)

In Britain, the Adamses designed homes and furnishings. They designed furniture, but they never made it; instead, they engaged well-known shops as those run by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton to make the pieces.

Chippendale also made Adam style furniture. For example, see Harewood House. including illustrations and text for a major entire house commission.

In America, in general, if a piece can be identified as Chippendale, Hepplewhite or Sheraton substyle, it is calssified as such; otherwise, the piece is referred to as "Federal."

Proportions Slender and delicate.

Essential elements Geometric overall shapes. Flat and simplified classical ornament, such as pateras, bellflowers, urns of flowers, columns, feathers, and patriotic symbols; executed in low relief, inlay, veneer, or paint. Legs: tapered and round or square, or saber; sometimes reeded. Spade or arrow feet. Vase- or lyre-shaped pedestal bases on tables.

Primary woods mahogany; satinwood or other contrasting veneers.

Secondary woods Pine or others.

Notable forms Chairs: shield-back, oval-back, square-back, Martha Washington, and painted Fancy. Sofa with straight-topped or arched back. Tables: work or sewing, large dining (extension or sectional), side, pier, and serving. Low-post and canopy beds.

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


These Early Federal forms are well represented by the work of Samuel McIntire of Salem, Seymour of Boston and the early work of Duncan Phyfe of New York. Phyfe's name, however, has been generally identified with the first and best phase of the succeeding so-called American Empire style, of which he became perhaps the leading representative.

The Hepplewhite manner, representing the transition between the Chippendale curvilinear style and the modified classicism of Sheraton in England, was only partially adopted in America, with the notable exception of the shield-back chair. This was primarily because of the intervention of the Revolution.


Federal chairs are lighter in construction and more delicate in design than those of the preceding periods. Two types are common: the Hepplewhite, with a shield or oval back, and the square-back Sheraton. Both have tapered legs , and ornamentation -- by inlay, painting , or carving, -- is common.

"Boston" Rocker.

A particularly popular type of the early nineteenth century was a development of the Windsor rocker with a tall, spindled back crowned with a broad top rail known widely as the "Boston" rocker.


The Federal leg is square if Hepplewhite, or, if Sheraton, round and reeded, tapering down from top to bottom.

Decoration is largely confined to the skirt, or valance, beneath the tabletop. It was often inlaid in the Federal period.


Although large slant-front secretaries continued to be made throughout the Federal period, smaller types developed as well. In one of the most common forms, a writing surface is created when a hinged flap folds outward to rest on slides or a drawer.

Other innovations include the pullout writing shelf and the tambour secretary. In the latter, tambour slides, consisting of thin wooden strips attached to fabric, roll into recessed areas in each side of the desk section.

In some Federal pieces, the upper section was also modified to include glazed doors, made possible by the greater availability of glass. Federal cabinetmakers separated the glass panes by thin wooden strips, or muntins, often arranged in complex geometric patterns.

Miscellaneous Furniture

Principal text sources:

Photos and their arrangement 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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