What Is Hepplewhite And Sheraton Furniture?
Hepplewhite and Sheraton were popular American furniture styles in the late 1700s. Learn the background of major craftsmen of this era, how to identify these styles, and how to spot reproductions.
Hepplewhite 1785 to 1805
In the late 1700s there was a dramatic shift in American furniture caused by changes that were occurring in England and France. The styles of George Hepplewhite, a London cabinetmaker, became popular in America. After his death in 1786 his widow published a book of his light and graceful furniture designs. This style is characterized by straight leg forms and refined curves. Painting and excellent inlay work was used instead of elaborate carving. The upholstery was carried down over all of the frame and finished with ornamental upholstery tacks. Popular upholstery patterns included small scale birds and flowers.
Sideboards for dining rooms came in to vogue at this time and are associated with Hepplewhite furniture. Mahogany was the most used wood, with rosewood, satinwood, and tulipwood appearing on the inlays.
Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles are so similar that it is often difficult to tell them apart. Since there were no copyrights or patents in America at that time, craftsmen often "borrowed" designs from each other. Thomas Sheraton (1750-1806) was an English cabinetmaker, publisher, and preacher. All of these activities kept him very busy but he was barely able to earn a living and died destitute. His furniture designs were widely accepted and greatly influenced American furniture.
Sheraton style is square, straight lined, solidly constructed furniture. Slender legs were either round or square and tapered toward the foot. Chair backs were square and often had a central panel above the top rail and high S shaped arms.
Mahogany was the preferred wood of this style. Sheraton enjoyed details and decorated his furniture wherever possible, leaving few plain surfaces. He used carving, inlay, and painting. Designs included urns, fan shapes, leaves, and stars. Brass hardware and round glass knobs were used. Toward the end of Sheraton's career the French Empire style was popular in Europe and he made some furniture in this style.
The name Duncan Phyfe (1795-1856) has become indelible with this time period in American furniture making. A Scotsman, Phyfe arrived in Albany, NY about 1783. When Phyfe opened his first shop in New York City about 1795, fashionable furniture was in the Sheraton style. The New York furniture scene was revolutionized by some of his new designs, including the scroll back chair. This type of chair, which was a revival of an ancient Greek side chair, had a concave back and splayed (turned out) legs. Phyfe and the hundred craftsmen in his shop turned out countless numbers of these chairs that appealed to those who liked carving.
Phyfe made a lot of furniture, but it would have been physically impossible for him to have made all the pieces attributed to him. His fine interpretation of popular styles of his day have led many people to refer to everything from this period as Duncan Phyfe. There is no "Duncan Phyfe" style; more accurately his work is defined as Late Sheraton.
When buying Hepplewhite or Sheraton furniture, look for quality inlaid work and pieces that closely follow the original pattern books of these masters. Check carefully for replaced and repaired inlay and veneers. Require documentation that pieces were actually made by Duncan Phyfe, John and Thomas Seymour, and other fine craftsman whose work commands the highest prices. Reproductions made from reprints of original pattern books are available and should be purchased at greatly reduced prices from original pieces. There was so much similarity in styles during this time period, as well as regional variations, that many times Hepplewhite and Sheraton are lumped together as Early Empire.