American Empire Furniture

by Sarah E. Mitchell

The American Empire style of furniture was loosely based on France's Empire style of furniture, popular during Napoleon's reign. However, the American version was often much plainer than the French style.

American Empire furniture became popular in the early 1800's. It seemed particularly well-suited to the South's Greek Revival mansions, but was featured in many other styles of homes all across the United States. Examples were still appearing in interior design books in 1903, but the style would also be criticized in 1903 by writers Desmond and Croly as being "heavier and clumsier than . . . [C]olonial furniture . . . more chunky, solid, and bourgeois."

Despite Desmond and Croly's poor opinion of the style, American Empire furniture is characterized by simple, often massive, yet graceful curves and dark woods and veneers (mahogany was a common wood used in the style). Some pieces featured a lyre motif, and occasionally a bird's-wing shape, pineapple, or dolphin's head also appear.


Empire Furniture in the Tenney House

Photograph of American Empire Furniture in the Tenney House from Deering Davis, Stephen P. Dorsey, and Ralph Cole Hall, Georgetown Houses of The Federal Period: Washington D. C. 1780-1830, Architectural Book Publishing Co., Inc., 1944, p. 71, photograph attributed to Harris & Ewing.

Rocker at York Hall

Photograph of Empire Style Rocker in Guest Room at York Hall, circa 1926, from Ernest Ray Denmark, Architecture of the Old South, The Southern Architect and Building News, Atlanta, GA, 1926, Plate 14, on right.


Photograph of Empire Settee.

This was one of two eleven-foot settees built for the yacht Cleopatra's Barge in 1816. The settee originally featured crimson velvet upholestry on the seat, edged with wide gold lace. The carpenters and upholsterers of the time had this process down to a science. A much higher level of quality and attention to detail was expected during this period than it is today, making pieces such as this all the more desirable. In the early 1900's this piece belonged to Frederic B. Crowinshield.

Picture and information from Frances Clary Morse, Furniture of the Olden Time, The MacMillan Company, 1902, 1917, p. 233.

Empire Style bed at Melrose in Natchez

The small bed above was photographed at Melrose in Natchez, Mississippi circa 1940.

Photograph from Nola Nance Oliver, Natchez: Symbol of the Old South, copyright 1940, Nola Nance Oliver, distributed by Hastings House, New York; digital editing by Sarah E. Mitchell.

Web edition copyright © 2004, 2014 Sarah E. Mitchell