Recognising a particular style of furniture is a craft, one learnt through research and trial and error. Each style of antique furniture has its characteristics that lend themselves to identification. Bear in mind, though, that antique furniture styles are continually copied and updated. Just because that highboy in your mother’s attic was crafted in the William and Mary style does not mean it was made in the early 18th century. Recognising a style is not the same as recognising an antique. Identifying antique styles is a skill unto itself, and should be the first step you take in learning about antique furniture. Whether or not that highboy was made in the 18th century or the 20th, recognising the style puts you that much closer to identifying its age.
To identify the William and Mary style of furniture, look for fat round balls. The William and Mary style will have ball feet, and the table apron decoration will include a fat round ball. This style is also prone to multiple legs on its highboy chests and tables. Spindles and legs are ornately turned and the tops of the chair backs are curved. The William and Mary style of furniture was produced from approximately 1688 through the early 1700s.
Know that the Queen Anne style of furniture is more delicate than the William and Mary. Look for cabriole legs with a padfoot or a ball and claw foot. A cabriole leg is wider at the top, and tapers inward toward the foot. Popular in England to around the middle of the 18th century, this style is less ornate than the William and Mary. Step back from the piece. Look for curves and carvings that are long and graceful, and minimal ornamentation.
Be aware that Thomas Chippendale is probably one of the most recognised names in furniture, even today. Chippendale was a cabinetmaker that published the book, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.” This pattern book became what could be called the carpenters’ bible. A Chippendale chair is likely to have the ball and claw foot, like the Queen Anne. Look at the shape of the legs of the chair. They may be curved or straight, but will not have the cabriole shape. The back of the chair will be lower than earlier styles. Measure from the top of the chair back to the floor. If it measures 3 feet 1 inch to 3 feet 2 1/2 inches, it may be a Chippendale style. Look for the stretcher, the length of wood that stretches across and connects the legs of chairs. A Chippendale chair will not have a stretcher. The piecrust table is one of the easiest pieces to recognise of the Chippendale style. The top is round and the edge scalloped, just like a pie.
know that the late 18th century of Chippendale style blends into Hepplewhite; the designs are seen into the early 19th century. To distinguish a Hepplewhite style chair from a Chippendale, look at the legs and back. The legs will be straight, tapering down to the feet. The back is a shield style, that is, the back includes a solid piece between the rails instead of slats.
Consider that the Federal style furniture technically refers to a multitude of styles, including the Chippendale and Hepplewhite. But for most people, federal style refers to the Greek and Roman revival styles, primarily seen in architecture in the early 19th century. To identify Federal style furniture, look for chairs with curved backs and thin curved legs. Table legs resemble columns and much of the hardware on cabinetry is gold.
Know that Victorian style furniture is perhaps one of the more easily recognised styles. It was essentially the first style to be produced in the Industrial age. With access to such tools as the jigsaw, craftsmen delighted in creating the ornate. Look for intricate ornamentation. Every bit of wood is curved, carved, scrolled or bowed. Look at the “puff” of an upholstered piece. The piece will appear overstuffed. It will be tightly tufted, and ornately trimmed in jewel-toned braiding. Gold was a favoured colour for trim.
Be aware that little of the furniture made after the Victorian era is considered to be truly antique. This is not to say antique furniture styles end with the Victorian. Subsequent styles developed into the early 20th century are becoming today’s antique styles.
To learn about "modern" antiques, visit thrift shops and consignment furniture stores. Observe the differences between furnishings made in the 1940s and those made in the 1960s.