A Brief History of Amish Furniture

Posted by James Baldwin on

A Brief History of Amish Furniture

Origin of the Amish

Jakob Ammann portrait - Modern Bungalow In the late 1690's, a split between Christian Anabaptists in Switzerland resulted in one group, led by Jakob Ammann, to leave the country and accept the offer of religious freedom touted by William Penn in America. This group, known as the Amish, defined themselves by their adherence to a simpler way of life - valuing tradition, self-sufficiency, and community. This manifested itself not only in their simple dress but also in their resistance to modern technologies.

 

  

 

Not long after arriving in America, the Amish began establishing their quintessential self-sufficient way of life through farming and woodworking. The principles of simplicity extended to all aspects of Amish life, and these pursuits were no different. The Amish shunned the use of mechanical tools and instead opted for working by hand. The insistence on constructing by hand would later serve to propel the popularity of Amish made furniture as society experienced several different phases of backlash to ornate, complex furnishings punctuated by the Arts and Crafts push of the 1920's and another in the late 20th century. 

Amish Furniture: The Craft

The Amish felt strongly about cultivating a sense of community and really engaging its youth in the group's emphasis on rural life and manual labor. It's for this reason that in many Amish communities an eighth grade education is considered sufficient and many children are brought into the fold of farming and carpentry early in their adolescence as a way to begin learning the trade and contribute to the family's income.

The techniques utilized by the Amish - which have become staples of quality in furniture making - stem from their traditional values and lifestyles. The use of dovetail joints and mortise and tenon joinery was a natural consequence of the early Amish tendency to avoid using nails and screws. This traditional and unique method was passed down from generation to generation, becoming the symbol of quality in woodwork along the way, and you can still see this beautiful craftsmanship in Amish pieces today. 

Another important aspect to the quality of Amish furniture is the attention paid to the grain of the wood. When planning a piece of woodwork, Amish craftsman will handpick their lumber and use the naturally unique aspects of a particular grain to compliment the structure of - and provide a distinct look for - each piece they build. The most common woods used in Amish woodworking are hardwoods - mainly quarter sawn oakmaple, beech, elm, pine, cedar, hickory, walnut, and mahogany.

"Can the Amish use electricity?"

Aspen Short Back Wood Side Chair - Modern Bungalow Simply Amish collectionThe Amish continue to this day to maintain a distance from modern technology as a core tenant of their lifestyle. While there are some exceptions to this rule, in general the Amish go through life without tapping into the electric grid the rest of us are so familiar with. When it comes to woodworking and producing enough quality furniture to meet the growing demand, Simply Amish utilize hydraulic and pneumatic powered tools which plug into diesel powered generators. All aspects of woodworking which do not require powered tools are done completely by hand by a specialist who primarily only works on one type of piece (chairs, dressers, cabinets, etc).

Amish Furniture Styles:

Two traditional styles have evolved from Amish woodworking over the centuries: Shaker style furniture and Mission style furniture.

Shaker style furniture, which originated from the small group of English Quakers who made their way to America in the 18th century, is identifiable by its traditional simplicity as well as its delicate curves along with its focus on function and durability. In general, maple is the wood of choice for Shaker style furniture - though other American hardwoods are not uncommon.

Simplicity Maple Chest - 6 Drawer - Modern Bungalow

Mission style furniture developed later on, towards the end of the 19th century, and drew inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement and the aesthetic of the Spanish missions found throughout California at the time. Adopted and proliferated by Gustav Stickley as well as Amish craftsman, the simple, clean lines of Mission style furniture - with their straight lines and flat planes - have become the very picture of quality and craftsmanship in American furniture design.

 

Amish Furniture Today

Today Amish furniture enjoys wide popularity and praise for its continued dedication to hand-crafting some of the finest furniture available. In recent years a similar trend towards higher quality and less decoration, seen in the early and late 20th century, has been growing among homeowners and collectors of fine furniture. Companies like Simply Amish are seeing an increased interest in their custom-built, hand-finished products that last for lifetimes as consumers learn to identify quality and appreciate craftsmanship. The rise of the internet and the spread of information will likely only accelerate this trend, and Amish furniture is likely to be a standard of the highest quality for many years to come. 


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