Block Front – The American Form

The block front is a form of American decoration that has always caught the fancy of collectors, students, and museums. In part, the complete shaping of the fronts divided into three vertical panels, the middle concave with a convex panel on each side, make this undulating façade have an aesthetic quality that few pieces can achieve. The variety of styles and forms with the blocked decoration indicates the wide range of cabinetmakers producing such pieces in the Queen Anne, Chippendale, and rarely in the Federal periods.

It is not known if block front form was first used on pieces in the American Colonies or in England or Europe, but it is most likely it was originated in England or France. There are European, English, and South American block front pieces made in the early eighteenth century, but the style did not become as popular there as it did in the North American Colonies. The earliest dated block front American piece is the Job Coit and Job Coit, Jr. Boston Queen Anne Secretary, dated 1738, in the collection of the Winterthur Museum.

Block front pieces were among the most expensive case pieces that Colonial craftsmen made. Not only was more labor required to design and execute the decoration, but a great deal of the primary material, or show wood, was wasted in carving out the blocking. Remember, a cabinetmaker needed a three to six inch board of wood from which he carved the block shape. All of the negative space of the blocking became no more that scrap wood, unusable for any structural purpose. This was an extremely costly practice when the wood was a tropical hard wood such as Mahogany, which had to be imported from the Caribbean or South America to the cabinetmaker in Boston, Newport, Philadelphia or New York.

Because of the expense involved in their production, it is somewhat surprising that so many examples of the form exist. In part, this is because the form was popular among many regions in the Colonies. Although best known in the Boston area and Newport, Rhode Island, where a majority of surviving pieces were made, many examples are extant from Connecticut, both New London County and the Hartford area, New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and rarely, Philadelphia.

Pieces made in the block front form include desks, secretaries, card tables, tea tables, chests, chest on chests, highboys, lowboys, kneehole desks or bureau tables as they were know in the period, and tall case clocks.

Each region produced pieces in their own manner. Certainly the blocking on a on a Boston piece differs from that on a New York example, indicating a regional preference. Moreover, the construction techniques of these pieces, differs in regard to region. Through the apprenticeship system, where cabinetmakers would learn their trade from experienced masters by working in their shop for a period of years, traditions proliferated. When urban areas became more saturated with cabinetmakers, these apprentices moved to rural outlying areas, and produced the forms in the manner they had learned in the city. However, because of the potential lack of resources, such as tropical hardwoods or a knowledgeable of wealthy clientele, these non urban pieces are often noticeably different from their urban counterparts.

Regional differences in decoration, construction and materials are clearly displayed by the pieces themselves. By placing a Boston example next to a New York one, the variations are unmistakable.

On our web site are a number of examples of block front pieces. To view them, please enter “block-front” as a search term.