The Finest in American Antiques & Art Since 1901
The Finest in American Antiques & Art Since 1901

The Use of Inlay in Federal Furniture

In the late 18th century, carved and painted decoration of American furniture was largely replaced by inlay, also known as marquetry in Europe. The use of robust carving as decoration prevalent in the Chippendale period started to decline. Delicate and simpler ornamentation became fashionable in the New Republic.

Neoclassical motifs such as urns, eagles and swags were used as pictoral inlay. Presentations of flowers, fans, drapery, shells, and paterae (ovals) were popular during the Federal period. Geometric shapes and straight lines also became important to the new style. Cabinetmakers started to use veneer, stringing and banding as decoration. Satinwood, birch, holly, and yew are a few examples of the woods used.

Cabinetmakers had used specialists such as carvers and japanners for making parts of their furniture for a long time. During the Federal period, a trade of inlay makers developed in urban areas to supply them. As a result, there are often similarities within a region. For example, bellflowers on New York furniture differ from those on Baltimore furniture. Pictoral inlays were also traded between different parts of the country, though, so they are not always indicative of a region. Rural cabinetmakers usually made their own inlays. They frequently copied ones from urban areas, but their designs tended to be cruder and larger.

Melanie Smith