Monday, August 5, 2013

The "Early American" Revolution: A War for Mid-Century Independence

When imagining the living rooms of the quintessential American TV families of the mid-20th Century - The Cleavers, The MitchellsThe Stones, The Williams, The Baxters, et al - one would be hard pressed to find in that dreamscape of design a starburst, an amorphous coffee table, a George Nelson timepiece, a Barcelona chair, or anything even remotely resembling an Eames' design.

Speaking of seminal television families, what about the Ricardos?
With its braided rugs, wide-plank floors, and traditional furniture, 
Lucy & Ricky's country house was anything but "Mid Mod."

Maybe it was a conscious effort on the part of ultra-conservative television executives to pretend that American domesticity skewed decidedly toward the traditional OR maybe it was art imitating the reality of life.  Perhaps, if I may dare to conjecture, the design movement generally referred to as "Early American" was far more prevalent than the atomic shapes, patterns, and colors that abound in contemporary iterations of mid-century design schemes.  Speaking only from the experience of a) having two sets of grandparents with houses full of reproduction windsor and ladder-back chairs, turned-wood four poster beds, colonial secretary desks, and classically-styled spinets and b) seeing a glut of similar merchandise in resale establishments, garage/estate sales, and thrift stores far exceeding the availability of their "modern" counterparts, it seems as if "Early American" might have a had a larger audience than our romantic notions of popular culture history might have led us to believe.

Encountering this article in the November 1951 issue of Better Living Magazine, I was reminded 
of how strong a movement "Early American" design was.  So strong in fact, that the article just
 takes the major elements of the room for granted.  Not wasting a word on the paneled wall, the 
brick hearth with traditional molding and mantlepiece, the camelback sofa, the tilt-top tea table, 
the brass candlestick lamp with gilded eagle, the wingback chair, the hobnail glass, the chintz
 upholstery, or the classical symmetry of it all, the author focuses exclusively on the color 
scheme - red, white, and blue.

A patriotic color palette was indeed a unifying theme among Early American interiors, commonly accented by yellow and gold.  Other recurring elements included the use of metal accessories (copper, brass, pewter), mass-marketed reproductions of 18th and early-19th Century furniture, indications of primitive crafting (needlepoint, braided rugs, etc.), and electrified, antique light fixtures.

Pewter mugs hang above the hearth in a colonial blue room lit by a
counterweight desk lamp as the milk pail turned side table is under
 the ever-watchful eye of that EAGLE!

My grandparents always had an eagle hanging in their house (usually
above the doorway) and it is one of the things that I have kept since
their passing.

I'll admit it, sometimes I get sucked in by the glamour of blonde wood and mobiles and starbursts and boomerangs, but I'm kind of hokey pokey at heart and I love the comfort and nostalgia of 1950's-does-1780's.  So much so, that I try to encourage other people to participate in these anachronistic design choices with me.

After visiting Mt. Vernon, I learned that brightly-painted woodwork was actually a
hallmark of Early American design.  The mid-tone wooden furniture, the rag rug,
the hardware on the doors, the wall sconces, and the saturated, coral-red paint are
 evocative of the early American spirit.

But the battle is mostly uphill.  It took a lot of convincing to get my sister-in-law on board with the incredible, 1950's, Ethan Allen, sleeper sofa that my brothers and I found at a thrift store for $12.50!!!  Its beautiful red-and-blue plaid upholstery, wood trim, high back, and turned-wood spindles, were so contradictory to the streamlined, low-profile silhouettes of its contemporaries that it just seemed downright un-American  In actual fact, it screamed "Early American" so loudly, that we thought it was going to start another revolutionary war.  She quickly changed her tune when I found an Early American side table with a built in lamp fitted out with hurricane glass and one of those glorious, fluted/ruffled, fabric lamp shades.

My very favorite is when the two worlds, Early American and Mid-Century Modern, collide; in my travels I often see that ubiquitous icon of mid-century decor, the two-tired end table, executed with turned-wood legs and spindles and a scrolled apron.  The mash-up of competing styles is pure magic.

The barrel chair with turned wood spindles at the secretary, the red wingback, the paneled walls, the floral upholstery, the exposed ceiling beams, the braided rug, the tea service, and the brass light fixtures all speak to colonial America.
Nevertheless, you couldn't fool anyone into actually believing that this was a colonist's residence; it is early America viewed through the prism of post-War, patriotic nostalgia.  I love this room!

Having just defeated the enemy, America was on a post-WWII high, fueled by extreme optimism and unbridled patriotism.  That heady combination just might be the reason for the broad embrace of the stylistic elements of colonial America.  U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! (Are you chanting with me?  Hahahahaha!!!)

Early American print on Barkcloth

Sometimes rustic, sometimes refined, the Early American style wasn't just limited solely to sitting rooms; kitchens (don't you love those black strap hinges and Early American Pyrex?), bedrooms, and clothing trends were subject to the influence as well.  As a matter of fact, even eateries capitalized on the success of the colonial craze (see our coverage of  Colonial Kitchen in San Marino, CA).

The breakfast nook of an Early American style kitchen

Mid-century/Early American style
serving tray from my collection.

Better Homes and Gardens - April 1951

So which do you prefer?

Colonial Casual?
(from my copy of Better Homes and Gardens - April 1951)
Or Federal Formal?
(from my copy of Women's Home Companion - April 1952)

Given that much of Early American design is rooted in tradition, it seems counterintuitive to highlight it in a wacky tacky post.  However, I think that amongst the current old-timey set it is so positively subversive to be such a fan of "Grandma Style" that it fits well within the realm of wacky tacky, don't you?  Sacrifice mirrored shadow boxes and boomerang coffee tables for wingbacks and decorative butter churns???  Oh, the horror!

Well, does the Early American style remind you of mom or grandma?  Do you think that there is a reason this style goes unappreciated?  Is it best forgotten?  I wonder if this style (along with other American exports of the time) became fashionable in other countries.  Non-US readers, please feel free to weigh in on the subject!


Mr. Tiny


  1. Ethan Allen - that's a name I haven't heard for a long time! I think you're right in thinking that this style was the norm, and therefore rarely documented. It wasn't led by major name designers and architects, so wouldn't have had the attention of the modernist movement. There's a brilliant scene in one of my favourite films, 'Auntie Mame', where she ridicules her new in-laws house which is covered in wagon wheels and strewn with spinning wheels - watch it judt to get an idea of how this style was viewed by the modetnists.

    1. You're absolutely right; the style was so traditional that it wasn't "revolutionary" in the slightest. My problem is that I love it all but, in my heart, what I really want is the mid-century traditional - not necessarily spinning wheels (I love Rosalind Russell) but a sort atomic-influenced country charm. To me that's what mid-century Early American was (new attitudes, new materials, with a nod to a rural/historic aesthetic). Thank you so much for chiming in on this topic - you bring perspective from both sides of the Atlantic! Thanks!

  2. Sorry Mr Tiny but your not going to convince me to go all bewitched on my living room anytime soon.;)

    1. Oh, I completely forgot The Stevens!!! I'm not fooling anybody, huh? More for me, I guess. Hahahahaha!!!

  3. Bob and Ray did a radio bit where Wally Ballou visits an Antique Factory... "well you see, we build it to fit a television set, but we tell folks the colonists stored dishes in it..."

    1. HA!!! I guess there is an Early American sucker born every minute. On the other hand, I've always been of the opinion that just because something is old doesn't necessarily make it valuable in my life. If I like the look of something brand new and it serves my purposes, then it is coming home!

  4. When I met my husband (who is 8 years my senior) he told me of the abundance of midcentury gems laying in waste at his moms house. My future MIL was thrilled to hear I was interested in it all, so when I came to see what I imagined would be (like you said) boomerang coffee tables and sputnik lamps I almost burst into tears to find it almost all American Colonial. 5 years later I have just accepted the fact it is all tied to family memories and incorporated it into my more atomic style stuff. Someone recently gave me interior design books filled with the early American style from this time so I felt satisfied to have made the in-laws happy while staying true to my favorite decade.

    1. What a shock that must've been! My grandmother pulled a similar stunt on me; she knew that Mary and I liked vintage clothing so she told us she was cleaning out a closet and we could come and have whatever we wanted (to take, sell, giveaway, etc.). Based on her photographs from the 40's & 50's, we were prepared for serious treasures; when we arrived we were treated to Holly Hobby/Laura Ashley-style frocks with lace, bib collars...not exactly what we'd had in mind. WAH WAH!!! As far as interiors go, I've always valued eclecticism and it's cool to be able to work a few of those heirloom pieces into your decor.

  5. OMG, I grew up with complete colonial (more the casual type) from Ethan Allen -- in a post-war Bronx apartment! My Dad loved the stuff and after he died my Mom kept it for another forty years even though she wasn't fond of it herself. She finally decided to redecorate and went full Design Within Reach: Eames recliner, Nelson bubble lamps, Knoll side tables -- the works!

    1. How great that she got the best of both worlds! I'm glad that she finally got to execute her dream decor!

  6. I know this is last year's blog post but I just want to say I enjoyed your article. I love the "mid-century early American" look. I am slowly working my home into that style of décor. It is fun. I also like your comment, "1950's does 1780's". I guess we could say today, 2014 does 1950's doing 1780's but that is okay, I love it. Thanks.

  7. Love this post - I call the style "pirate ship chic" for some reason. In the movie Auntie Mame there is a FABULOUS house, Upson Downs, that is really TOP DRAWER and worth the viewing.