The American Victorian Period 1820-1900

This article is written so that the collectors may better understand the fashions of the Victorian Era, its many variations of styles, and how to put it all together to produce authenticity in the final product.

Styles in art and fashion do not change overnight. No period in history has been uniform in appearance. Often the old and the new are freely mixed which produces a transitional style that can trouble those who want to combine art in neat categories. This was clearly demonstrated in the later decades of the 19th century when the terminology used to categorize them had become thoroughly confused.



For more than 50 years after the end of the American Revolution, neoclassical design in many variations led American fashion in architecture and decorative arts. No other basic style had endured for so long. It was time for a change and it came with the advent of the Greek Revival. The more delicate forms and geometric shapes inspired by Hepplewhite and Sheraton gave way to bolder contours and richly carved decoration, reflecting French Empire and English Regency taste. A reliance upon ancient Greek and Roman patterns became prevalent, most of which were inspired by French and English publications which were available to Americans.

By 1840, a high point in the development of the Greek Revival or American Empire period became very noticeable. Larger and heavier furniture, bolder in outline, using columns to build mass, retained their delicacy by incorporating stenciling, gilding, and fine carvings to accentuate the best details of the piece. A general feeling of unsurpassed opulence and elegance was the desired effect.

After 1840, the rich carvings and gilded decoration gave way to flat, often veneered, mahogany or rosewood surfaces. Broad plain features, scrolls, and pillars were the earmarks of the later stages of the period. New technology lowered costs, making them available to the vast majority of middle income Americans. The demand for something more exclusive led into the Rococo Revival Style.


As the middle of the 19th century approached, America was in an experimental stage with a passion for novelty.  The commonplace man was able to enjoy a greater degree of variety of material comfort and satisfaction than he had ever known in any other society.  He also enjoyed a reasonable expectation of joining the ranks of the wealthy.  This faith was constantly renewed by the numbers of self made men who achieved great fortunes at every level and confidently looked for more, better, and different things to enrich their lives.  The booming democracy led to great expectations.

A new fashion which looked back at the rococo forms of Louis XIV and Louis XV periods was gaining favor.  The 19th century version featured cabriole legs, curving contours, intricate carvings in arrangements of rich, deeply carved clusters of fruit, flowers, or other natural forms in a variety of combinations unlike anything ever produced in the 18th century. The pieces were not limited to seating, rather the whole range of furniture from bed suites to hall pieces incorporated the new designs.  Many European craftsmen, lured to America with the promise of a better life, added impetus to the mounting popularity of the new style.

Although most of the inspiration was of French origin, the name of John Henry Belter, a German immigrant, is most commonly associated with the American Rococo Revival style.  His innovative methods earned him several patents between 1847-1858.  These techniques incorporated layers of laminated rosewood, forming a lightweight piece of wood, which could be curved and carved much easier than solid wood.  The ability to produce incredible detail was made easier.

Despite Belter’s patents, furniture of a similar nature was quickly turned out by others who eventually undermined his hold on the market by simplified, inexpensive, and popular versions of his creations.  Belter died poor in 1864.  Today Belter is the most expensive and sought after manufacturer of the Rococo Revival period.  Joseph Meeks (1771-1868) was an industrious competitor who used the laminated process to create equally high style pieces of parlour and entry pieces.  Meeks passed his skill to his sons who ran the business until the end of the 19th century when it finally closed.  Today pieces by J. & J. W. Meeks and Sons are highly sought after and considered an equal to Belter in quality and style.

All rococo pieces were not laminated and heavily carved.  Some makers produced a form of suave simplicity which was an extreme contrast to the heavily carved laminated pieces by Belter and Meeks.  Alexandre Roux, a French immigrant, made plain and artistic furniture with simple rounded edges and brass beading trim that gracefully curved the outlines of pieces that he created.

With the advent of Civil War, the rococo period ended abruptly.  The years surrounding the war witnessed enormous changes in the political, social, cultural, and industrial aspects of the American landscape.


The task of designing furniture in the Gothic Revival style was complicated by the fact that secretaries, bookcases, dressers, clocks, whatnots, upholstered furniture and the like, conveniences and shapes that had not been dreamed of in the Middle Ages, were now being manufactured and offered to the American market.  This was a romantic phase of American history which allowed for a vast array of new concepts. The formal order that had given the Greek Classical Revival its essential character was gradually replaced by The Gothic Revival which rejected the smooth curved classical lines in favor of picturesque arrangements of pointed arches, towers and turrets, and other church-like features.

Chairs were the most commonly produced item in the Gothic Revival period. They were lined up in large Victorian entrance halls and imposing libraries. Tables followed current shapes and achieved a Gothic look through ornament. Almost every household had some reminder of Gothic inspiration. Clocks were particularly popular and adapted well to cathedral steeples and spires.


The war effort had produced an enormous vitality and spirit of enterprise, particularly in the North. That energy carried over into peacetime pursuits. Huge fortunes were made from the war, but Americans were given mixed messages on how to tastefully spend it. Magazines were not consistent in their advice because a medley of styles were available and identified by names that often had no specific meaning. The past was continually pillaged for models to accommodate the changing fashions of the day and the result was a state of hopeless confusion. Homes were being furnished in styles variously labeled Gothic, Renaissance, Elizabethan, Moorish, Louis XVI, Grecian, terms which often were interchangeable according to the makers.

One of the most favored labels was the Renaissance style, a term which covered almost everything. Massive pieces were very typical and because of their size and ornamentation were very expensive. Much of the furniture was done by European craftsman, now fully Americanized, yet still retained a French influence. Ormolu moldings, painted porcelain plaques, and marquetry of contrasting woods, all improvisations on themes in the Louis XVI style, applied to the name Renaissance Revival.


The romantic nostalgia that had bred and sustained the Gothic Revival went much further during the Renaissance Revival as the century progressed. No style was too bizarre or exotic to find its place in the market. Americans were beginning to face the unsettling realities of the Industrial Revolution which had rapidly accelerated during and after the Civil War. These realities brought into sharp focus the contrast between romanticism and industrialization. The two faces of the new civilization, one clinging to the past, the other glorifying the future, forced great contrast and changes in style.

This period of American furniture making was the most varied and prolific in American history. In 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial, the largest of the international fairs yet to be held, marked the peak of the Renaissance Revival style. The workmanship by immigrant craftsmen, now called

Americans, was unsurpassed and rivaled the best French cabinetmakers. Superior examples were able to win gold medals at European exhibitions. Some exhibition pieces were priced at $10,000, more than it cost to build a comfortable country home. Of paramount importance, the Renaissance Revival period produced a uniquely American look which was immediately identifiable from its European counterparts.


Concurrent with the Renaissance Revival came the Egyptian Revival. It was influenced by discoveries in Egypt which led to exhibitions of Egyptian art, the first major collection displayed in New York in 1852. Towns along the Mississippi River, the American Nile, were named Cairo, Karnak, Thebes, and Memphis. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 inspired Verdi’s “Aida” and in 1881 an obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, was erected in Central Park in New York City. The combination of these events encouraged a revival of interest in Egyptian decoration. Pieces displayed sphinxes, gilded bronze heads, carved animal paws, birdlike wings, geometric motifs, and lotus designs. This ornamentation was superimposed upon an otherwise Renaissance Revival form, yet it remained distinctly Egyptian Revival.

Manufacturer such as Herter Brothers, Pottier and Stymus, and Marcotte were prominent during this period and were able to make both Renaissance and Egyptian styles. As a result, their business boomed while the makers who could not adapt, failed. Both periods inspired new cabinetmakers to join the parade with names such as Thomas Brooks, Kimbel and Cabus, and Allen Brothers making an impression in the market. Again, the Egyptian Revival style remained distinctly American and was never really copied in Europe.

By the 1870’s the day of the professional interior designer had dawned. Often times, the decorators were given “carte blanche” for everything-style, design, quality, and price. These designers went to the best makers and often commissioned them to do the entire interior including all the woodwork and furniture. Good examples can be found in the various Vanderbilt homes around the country. One of them built in the upper 50’s on 5th Avenue in New York City, constructed about 1880 for William H. Vanderbilt, included a limited edition of 500 folio sized books, illustrating the interior and exterior detail of the house. They were distributed as gifts to his friends.


It was an inventive age, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution. Those with mechanical abilities took advantage of newly developed techniques and materials to create unprecedented forms and contraptions which added diversity and fresh interest to the decorative arts of their time.

Cast iron was used extensively because the material was cheap and it did not have to be hammered by hand. Advances in iron founding and milling techniques stimulated an increasing number and variety of different designs. Chairs, settees and urns were used in the garden. An ingenious device allowed a reclining seat in railroad cars, office chairs could now be made to recline and swivel, and adjustable folding chairs became a reality. The use of new technology found its way to the wire chair which was found in every ice cream parlour. George Hunzinger was probably the most innovative with his assortment of patents of various chairs, some folding and other collapsible. Still, all of it bore the unmistakable mark of American Victorian design.

The Wooton Desk Company was likely the most innovative and popular design of this period. William S. Wooton took his first patent in 1869 where he won first prize of $5 at the Indiana State fair. He produced a simple school house desk that featured a rotary compartment on one side which allowed for concealed organized storage. He went on to produce the Wooton Patent Secretary in 1874 that eventually became the signature piece of the Victorian era. Almost every dignitary of the late 19th century used a Wooton desk. Names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Gould, Presidents Garfield, Grant, and Harrison, Pulitzer, Scrivner, and even Queen Victoria herself used these desks. Every Wells Fargo office had one. They were the first organized storage center for information, the earliest computer if you will.


The Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movement were essentially English transplants, having taken root about 1876 and ending with World War I. This period included the years of extravagant fashion called the “Gilded Age”. The Arts and Crafts movement stood for values exactly opposite to those that mirrored fancy European fashion or its American equivalent in the Renaissance or Egyptian periods. The mansions that lined 5th Avenue or dotted the landscape of Newport were filled with imported luxuries or American opulence.

The principles of Arts and Crafts were developed around 1850 as a revolt against the growing dehumanizing mechanization of life that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Reformers like William Morris, John Ruskin, and Charles Eastlake recited the menace to human values when the machine took command from the traditional individual artisan. A return to the handicrafts that are intimate accomplishments of daily life would restore sanity and satisfaction to the domestic scene.

However it was accomplished, such work was to be guided by sound, honest principles of construction. The suggestion that good design has a moral as well as utilitarian purpose sounds odd but it was repeated throughout the second half of the 19th century, despite the excesses of the Greek Revival in1820 through the Renaissance and Egyptian Revival periods ending in 1880. The principal apostle of the reform period was Charles Locke Eastlake who published eight editions of Hint on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details from 1872-1890. A large number of Americans regarded him as the prophet of the movement and his name was uttered with reverence. Eastlake did design furniture, but was more concerned with constructive principles and sincerity of purpose than with external forms. He emphasized the importance of simplicity and usefulness which unfortunately enabled the majority of manufacturers to produce shoddy and inexpensive merchandise upon which they freely capitalized using the Eastlake label. Only a few conscientious craftsmen interpreted his doctrines in good faith and artistry.


On the American side, the firm of Herter Brothers was the driving force which changed the styles of furniture from its previous exuberant opulence to the simplified lines of the Aesthetic Movement. Christian Herter became the leading influence when he applied Eastake’s ideas with sensitivity and skill. Their products were expensive and never mass produced. Rectilinear forms replaced curved lines and deep carvings. Colorful inlaid patterns reflected the pervasive influence of Japanese art. The detail was carried out down to the brass door pulls and hardware which adorned the furniture. Thin incised lines, low profile moldings, turned supports, the use of lighter looking woods, and geometric patterns all characterized the Eastlake style as it was interpreted in this country. Again, Herter managed to Americanize a European idea which set it apart from anything else that was being produced. It was so spectacular and new that it tolled the death march of the past periods and their chaotic confusion.


Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Henry Green, and Gustav Stickley were the major contributors of the Mission style. Wright and Green were more influential in architecture, although often times both designed and insisted that their furniture was integral and important to the overall design of the house. Stickley produced simplified straight line furniture out of oak, often without the need of upholstery. As uncomfortable as it seems now, it was very popular then and remains very collectible and expensive today. The previous periods, other than the Arts and Crafts movement, simply did not work in a Wright or Green designed structure.

Thus we come to an end of what has got to be the most confusing and difficult period of decorative arts in America. The various classifications and styles should be easier to recognize now as we are able to look at examples from each era and compare their progression to the next stage. Let’s hope that this article will keep the furnishings historically correct within their respective surroundings.