To simplify matters, I like to think of there being two kinds of Colonial era American furniture. The pieces made by very skilled craftsmen, and pieces made by local village craftsmen or the homeowners themselves. In the 18th century, for example, the skilled craftsmen would be making pieces in the vein of the Chippendales, the Hepplewhites and Sheratons, reproductions of which are still being produced today.
One early prized piece of furniture would have been the Elizabethan court cupboard. This one is from the Plimouth Plantation museum.
Some early American court cupboards were brought over from England, and others were made here. Below is another example. I’ve seen pictures of quite a few cupboards similar to these.
Here’s a miniature version I sell on New England Miniatures. For simplicity we call it a Tudor cabinet, but it’s really a court cupboard.
A piece like this would have been kept in the main room of the house, or, as it was known at the time, the hall. Whether we’re talking about a large, stately home, or a one room dwelling with gaps between the boards that let the wind through, it was still called the hall.
A furniture mainstay of the early colonists was the chest. They were used throughout Europe for storage. Eventually some of them began to be made with drawers like the one below, which is from the 1600’s.
Sometimes the chests were put on taller legs, and eventually they began to be transformed into what we know as the highboy, sometimes called a chest on chest. They began by changing the original style chest by giving it a drawer instead of a hinged lid. Then they’d make another chest, full of drawers and stack it on top.
The one pictured below is probably from the late 17th c. If you cover the top of the picture, you can see how the bottom would have looked when it was used alone. Instead of the drawer, it would have had a hinged lid.
Below is an English chest made in the mid 1700’s. It has two drawers, and the top hinges open.
Keep in mind that at the time, it was still the custom to fold your clothes and put them away in chests. Closets weren’t going to be invented for a long time, and hooks were just for hanging up your hat or cloak because they might be too wet to put away. Well into the Victorian era even winter coats were kept in chests, drawers, or on shelves.
Another handy piece of furniture from the period is the gate leg table. These were in use in England since the 16th c. They were wonderful for small rooms, as they didn’t take up much space, yet yielded a good sized table when open. The one below is shown in a New England house built in 1686. The photo was probably taken in the 1930’s.
Below is a well made miniature example from New England Miniatures showing the details.
In the 17th & 18th centuries, even when houses got bigger, rooms were multitask. Even well into the 1800’s it was common for beds to be in the room that was considered a parlor. In early days, when houses and rooms within them were small, you’d want to get as much use out of a room as you could. Below are several old photos of colonial era folding beds. The top one was from Massachusetts.
This next one in a tavern ballroom in Virginia. An old tavern rule card was found that read “No more than six can sleep in a bed”
This was a reproduction of a 1700’s cabin in New York state. All of the furniture are original pieces from that era. Note the folded up bed against the wall.
While on the subject of beds, here’s an example of a Dutch boxed bed from New Amsterdam. You can find the same kind of bed over and over in old Dutch paintings.
Many early settlers didn’t even have beds, they used bedrolls that they put away each morning. If they did have a bed, they might have a trundle bed tucked underneath it that small children might sleep in. Other children could sleep on the floor on thin mattresses filled with rags, corn shucks, or whatever was handy.
The most common pieces of furniture in early America were stools and tables, of which there were many styles. The trestle table was the simplest form of table. The table top was a large board that simply rested on two trestles, like a board on two sawhorses. When it was time to eat, you’d put the trestles in the middle of the room, and bring over the board that was usually resting against the wall. It was often called a board table, and if the family covered it with a cloth when they sat to eat, they called it a board cloth. If someone told you to “come sit at the board”, they were inviting you to eat with them.
Another common sort was the hutch table, a combination table and chair. When not in use it would be folded up and serve as a chair. When needed, it would be pulled out into the middle of the room and the table top would be laid down.
If you go back and check the picture of the cabin illustrating the fold up bed, you’ll see the piece of furniture below in use as a table.
The seat lifted up to reveal more storage space. I’ve found quite a few pictures of these sort of combination tables.
Here’s one I found in a kitchen at the Sturbridge Village museum.
Stools would have been the first things the colonists made to sit upon. Benches probably came next. Benches could be sat upon, or you could use them to set things on. A bench could be backless, just a long plank that sat on a couple of supports, or it could have a back to lean against, and maybe side panels to shelter you from drafts.
Chairs were a bit more complicated to make. This is a very typical 17th c chair from England. It has a leather seat and back support. Many chairs from the late 1500’s and 1600’s looked a lot like this one, some simpler, some more ornate.
Of the Chesapeake bay area settlers of the 1600's, 1/3 had chairs or benches but only 1 in 7 had both.
Generally, when people dined, they’d pull up stools, benches and chests up to the table to sit on. If the family owned a chair, it went to the head of the household, thus the word “chairman”.
Colonial era houses, whether large or small, just didn’t have a lot of furniture.
If you'd like to read a book about everyday life in early America, read Everyday Life in Early America, by David Freeman Hawke. It's an excellent and highly regarded book, available in many libraries and from booksellers like Amazon or ABE.