Furniture from the Valley
by Jessica Kosinski
The Hudson Valley is also commonly called the Hudson River Valley because it surrounds the Hudson River. It is an area with a very rich history and historical significance. The history of European exploration in the Hudson River Valley dates back to an expedition by John Cabot in 1497. The river was named for Henry Hudson, who explored the region over 100 years later, in 1609. Throughout its history, the Hudson River Valley has been well known for its rustic and natural appeal. Nowhere is that more evident than in some of the furniture that has come from the region over the years. Let’s take a peek back through history at those rustic furniture pieces and other furniture trends that came from some of the earlier residents of the Hudson River Valley.
Henry Hudson and the Dutch
Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a faster trade route with China. That is what he was searching for when he first found himself in the Hudson River Valley. Although he didn’t find what he was looking for, he did find such an appealing area that many Dutch soon followed and settled in the region. They brought with them their furn-iture making skills.
In early 1600s North America, homes did not have closets. Therefore, there was a need for standing storage cabinets. Several Dutch settlers in the area were skilled at making those cabinets. Such a cabinet was called a “kast.” A Dutch kast often had an elaborate exterior with a simple interior. Later, the name was shortened to “kas,” and today they are more commonly called wardrobes.
Some Dutch immigrant furniture makers of the period clearly marked the furniture they made, but not all of them did. Even so, the style of such a piece still survives today is like a Dutch fingerprint. It clearly indicates its area of origin. That is because the North American Dutch kast was only produced in the Hudson River Valley at that time. That makes it one of the most iconic types of furniture to ever come out of the area.
The German Furniture of the 1700s
One hundred years after the Dutch immigration to the Hudson River Valley began, another major event changed the course of furniture making in the area. That event was the mass exodus of German Palatines from the Rhine Valley in Germany. Many of them came to North America and settled in the Hudson River Valley working under service to England until their travel debts were paid. Some stayed where they settled, which is now an area called Germantown. Others eventually moved to New York City or spread out to other parts of the Hudson River Valley.
The German immigrants consisted of many furniture makers, also called joiners. Some of the German joiners specialized in making Schränke, or cabinets. Chests were also popular pieces because the German immigrants needed practical storage options in their homes. Today, many such pieces exist, but few of the surviving pieces were made by the original immigrants of the early 1700s. Most were made by American-born first or second-generation descendants. That makes original pieces far more valuable and attractive to collectors.
One of the Area’s Most Famous Hudson River Valley Area Furniture Makers
The next major influence on furniture making techniques in the Hudson River Valley area was Duncan Fife, who later changed his name to Phyfe. He immigrated to New York City in 1784 from Scotland. Within a decade, he had established himself as one of the area’s leading and most distinctive furniture makers.
Phyfe’s unique pieces were known for their elegance, style, and functionality. They were also constructed of the best possible materials, which often included rosewood or mahogany. Today, original Duncan Phyfe furniture is still highly collectible and frequently sought after.
A Spooky Twist on Historic Hudson Valley Furniture
In 1820, author Washington Irving created one of the most enduring and iconic ghost stories of all time. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow described the encounter between school teacher Ichabod Crane and a headless horseman. Together, they have become almost synonymous with Halloween in the United States.
Washington Irving himself resided for a time in a cottage he called “Sunnyside” in the Hudson River Valley. It was located in Tarrytown, New York, which is now officially called Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving was enamored with the early Dutch architectural and furniture designs of the Hudson River Valley. He incorporated some of those sentiments into the Sleepy Hollow story and his other works. He also designed Sunnyside to reflect his personal vision of Dutch Revival.
The issue was Washington Irving’s vision of Dutch Revival furniture and the reality differed in several ways. That led to distinctive furniture pieces known as Sleepy Hollow furniture today. Mr. Irving also played a major role in the general Colonial Revival movement. However, he also believed in blending reverence for the past with future growth and change.