In a busy world full of buzzing technology and mass-produced goods, many people long for reminders of a simpler, slower past.
Amish furniture satisfies that longing with its clean lines, expressive wood and sense of history—which is why it has remained popular since it first gained mainstream attention in the 1920s.
Even back then, Americans were already rebelling against the industrialization that permeated their lives. As mass production took off, a revival of traditional arts and crafts emerged in protest. Magazines encouraged readers to create and use simple, well-made handicrafts. Modern artists began mining history for inspiration to help restore the “economic individualism, political democracy and national identity they felt had been lost to modern-era industrialization,” said Virginia Tuttle Clayton, author of Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art and the Index of American Design.
Already a fixture in American history, Amish furniture played a central role in this arts and crafts revival. The simple, unadorned lines of Shaker tables and Mission-style chairs became the cornerstones of many famous folk art collections. It wasn’t just about aesthetics, either. Amish furniture offered—and still offers—a connection to a rich cultural tradition that serves as the perfect antidote to the modern world.
A Culture of Self-Sufficiency
Amish roots stretch back to 1693, when a group of traditionalist Christians in Switzerland split off from their church fellowship to follow a man named Jakob Ammann. During the early 18th century, many of these Amish immigrated to Pennsylvania, where they formed tightly-knit communities committed to living simply without the conveniences of modern technology.
As the Amish settled their new country, their determination to remain independent from outside help led them to immediately begin making their own furniture and other goods. Through farming, cooking, crafting and carpentry, they established a culture of self-sufficiency that has remained a hallmark of Amish settlements even today.
A Tradition of Woodworking
Amish families often relied on trades such as farming and carpentry, which could be carried out using old-fashioned methods. Using woodworking techniques brought over from Switzerland, they crafted their own furniture without nails or screws.
With their emphasis on rural life and manual labor, the Amish considered an eighth-grade education sufficient for functioning within their community. Children were educated in one-room schools until the age of 13 or 14, after which they often helped their parents with the family trade. As more children grew up and joined their parents in the workshop, the Amish began handing down their woodworking tradition from generation to generation.
Amish Furniture Styles
Although Amish woodworkers retained their traditional techniques, they began developing their own distinctive styles.
In the late 18th century, the Jonestown School in Pennsylvania began crafting blanket chests decorated with flowers, some of which are now on display at both the Smithsonian Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Another well-known style came out of the Soap Hollow School, also in Pennsylvania, featuring bright red, gold and black painted finishes. Today, Amish furniture is available in a variety of styles, including Mission and Shaker, which share a plain yet elegant design aimed at functionality and durability.
An important characteristic of Amish furniture is the close attention paid to the grain of the wood. Each piece is hand-selected to achieve the desired look of the finished product, resulting in quality, one-of-a-kind furnishings. Amish woodworkers primarily use hardwoods such as:
- Northern red oak
- Quarter-sawn white oak
Since the arts and crafts revival of the 1920s popularized Amish furniture, woodworking has become increasingly important to the livelihood of many Amish communities. Because each piece reflects a rich cultural heritage, Amish furniture continues to appeal to consumers who want to connect to a simpler way of life.
[Photo by: waxhawian, via CC License]