What Did Cabinetmakers Do in Colonial Times?

Cabinetmakers in Colonial America made much more than just cabinets, despite the job title. Furniture became a major status symbol throughout the colonies as families established wealth and prominence. The highly skilled craftsmen became more important and busy as the colonists began to shun English-made goods as the fledgling nation moved toward the Revolutionary period.

Colonial Cabinetmakers

Cabinetmakers in Colonial America built high-quality furniture of many types, but people did not have the resources to keep them in business full time until after 1650. As more colonists grew wealthy, craftsmen began to produce more wooden furniture, and by the time of the Revolution, local craftsmen made at least two-thirds of the furniture used in Virginia. As boycotts of English imports increased, even more of the furniture bought in the colonies came from America, keeping the cabinetmakers in demand, according to Colonial Williamsburg historians.

Furniture Needs

People living in the colonies required furniture of all types, including chairs, tables, and special cabinets and cupboards for display of china, tea sets and serving of tea. Middle- or upper-class citizens preferred modern French, Chinese and Gothic styles that today fall in the Chippendale category. Practical colonists wanted furniture in the simple style that typifies the times, with understated elegance and clean construction. In North Carolina, as well as other colonies, customers wanted functional furniture, rather than decorative pieces, although ornamentation did show the status of the owner.

Cabinetmakers' Work

Cabinetmakers worked everywhere, but in the cities they could find the correct tools for the trade, as well as learn the ins and outs from skilled craftsmen, often by starting as apprentices and working through journeyman level on their way to becoming master craftsmen. Most turned to local wood supplies, which varied by region and type of tree, so the tradesmen had to learn the subtleties and characteristics of each variety.

Quality of Construction

Furniture from the Colonial period withstood the test of time, with the craftsmen showing their skills in the durability and solid construction of the pieces. To the extent people desired ornamental pieces, furniture makers also showed strong workmanship in the decorative touches, especially in regions where artisan tastes became popular, such as the coast of North Carolina.