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American Centennial Furniture

When it hit 100, America celebrated with party pieces


American Centennial Furniture

Centennial stand by Killian Bros., walnut, ca. 1876

-Southhampton Antiques (www.southamptonantiques.com)

What are the ingredients for a birthday celebration? Certainly a cake, perhaps a party, probably some presents. How about some Centennial furniture?

That's one of the ways the United States commemorated the 100-year anniversary of its birth in 1876 - with Centennial Furniture. A burst of patriotic motifs - eagles, images of Columbia, George Washington - were slapped onto prevailing furniture styles, whether those styles hearkened back to the early days of the republic or not.

Although a bit of an aesthetic mishmash, it was true to tradition in one sense: during the Federal period, around the turn of the 19th century, imagery of eagles, stars and flags was often added to contemporary furniture, to make the essentially English designs of designers such as Sheraton and Hepplewhite seem more "American."

The U.S.'s year-long birthday bash, spearheaded by the 1876 International Centennial Exhibition (or Exposition) in Philadelphia, also inspired a resurrection of 18th-century furniture designs, which eventually blossomed into the Colonial Revival movement. But in the short run, it was all about the decoration.

An eagle's wingspan becomes the arm of Renaissance Revival récamier. A crest featuring the head of George Washington, crowned with American flags and flanked by the dates "1776" and "1876" (lest anyone miss the point) tops an elaborate side table.

Proud commemoratives back then, precious collectibles today: the birthday reference adds a unique touch to these pieces, whose short lifespan - they date from 1875-77 - means they can fetch five figures when in good, original condition.

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