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Identity for a New Nation: Federal Era Architecture and Design

When the United States first broke away from Britain and established its independence as a nation we had no “national identity.” National identity is not an inborn trait, but rather a social construct created by the citizens of a nation. A country’s national identity results directly from the presence of "common points" in people's daily lives: national symbols, language, colors, nation's history, blood ties, culture, music, cuisine, etc. In the period immediately following the American Revolution, society in this country began to develop those symbols, traditions, and culture that would set Americans apart from the rest of the world and give our citizens something to rally around. This was not so much a conscious effort but more of a natural development that brought about, among other things, the development of Federal Period architecture and design.

What is the Federal Period?

Our nation’s early years, from 1790 to 1830, generally define the Federal period. During this time, a keen sense of nationalism arose, and government leaders such as Thomas Jefferson looked to the classical ages of Greece and Rome for inspiration in forging an identity for the new American Republic. Drawing its name from the Federalist Era, the name Federal style is used in the United states in association with both architecture/interior design and furniture design. The people of the United States were proud of the young republic and, as such, not only adopted these architectural and furniture styles, but enthusiastically displayed symbols of patriotism in their homes and on public buildings. Replicas of the nation’s official seal, images of the bald eagle, and images of famous Americans were popular decorating motifs.


Federal architecture refers to the buildings that went up during the construction boom that followed the American Revolution. Designers readily incorporated styling variants popular in Europe in these new buildings and homes. Robert Adam (1728–1792), was Great Britain’s most popular architect. Despite the long fight for independence, Adam’s work had a large influence on Americans. The Federal, or Adam, style dominated the American architectural landscape from ca. 1780 to 1840, having evolved from Georgian architecture, the principal design style of the colonial period.

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest Near Lynchburg, VA
Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest Near Lynchburg, VA

Typically, a Federal style house is a simple square or rectangular box, two or three stories high and two or three rooms deep. Some Federal styled homes have been made larger; modified with projecting wings, attached dependencies or even both. In some Federal homes and buildings, one can find an elaborate curved or polygonal floor plan such as with the Octagon House in Washington, D.C. or Thomas Jefferson’s Popular Forest near Lynchburg, VA.

Many Federal style design elements are notably understated. For example, in Federal styles and designs, exterior decoration is generally confined to a porch or entry element. Compared to a Georgian house, the columns and moldings in Federal architecture are narrow and simple and Federal style architecture often highlights geometrical concepts. Elliptical, circular, and fan-shaped motifs formed by fluted radiating lines are common decorations found in Federal style homes and office buildings.

Federal Style Clapboard Home
Federal Style Clapboard Home

Unsurprisingly, the building materials in Federal style architecture vary by location. The homes of the Northeast were typically clapboard, while Southern houses were often brick as are most of the Federal style homes in the urban north, where fireproofing was much desired. Hip roofs capped by a balustrade, simple gable shapes and even roofs with a center gable crowned by a front façade pediment, are among the most popular Federal roof styles.

In a Federal style house design, windows are never grouped but arranged individually in strict horizontal and vertical symmetry. Typically, the front windows in a federal style home are five-ranked, although there are examples of three and seven-ranked windows. Palladian-style windows are often used in gables as an architectural flourish. Windows are almost invariably composed of double-hung wood sashes with the top sash held in place by metal pins (counterbalancing weights had not been invented yet). Thin wooden muntins divide the window into small lights (panes). Before the Revolutionary War, the standard light was 6” x 8”, but as glazing technologies improved, the size increased to 8” x 13”.

Palladian-style Window
Palladian-style Window

Befitting its importance, especially when the center of a symmetrical façade, the front door of a Federal home is usually the most decorated part of the home’s exterior. A semicircular or elliptical fan light above the door with or without flanking sidelights is a favorite device used in Federal architecture. A doorway’s surround might also include ornate molding or a small entry porch. Some Federal style designers enhanced the drama of the front entrance with curvilinear lines, front stair rails, iron balconies and even curved fronts. Decorative moldings, such as tooth-like dentils, were often used to emphasize cornices in the Federal design.

In the more elaborate homes of the wealthy, the American Federal Period’s interior styles were typified by soaring ceilings and there was less emphasis placed on wall paneling, unlike what was highly prevalent in the preceding period of the Georgian era where wood paneling was a popularly used as an interior design feature. Generally speaking, wall paneling works were installed on fireplace walls while the other remaining walls were plastered, painted, wallpapered, or covered lavishly with imported silk textile materials. Dados and cornices continued in use along with elaborate trims for mantels, arches, windows, and doors.

Example of Federal Era Interior Decorations
Example of Federal Era Interior Decorations

Federal interiors featured muted wall colors, or wallpaper, with the trim work—often painted white, and delicately carved or inlaid decoration. The only exceptions to the understated approach were the bold patriotic symbols—fighting eagles, chair backs shaped like shields, trophylike urns, and other celebrations of military pride. Niches, alcoves, arches, reeded columns, and curved casings were common, thanks to carpenters pattern books in wide circulation by 1790.

Federal Period Wallpaper

The end of British colonial trading restrictions cleared the way for a dramatic increase in the import of French wallpapers to this country. Yet it was not until the 1790's that American advertisements began to feature the French paper hangings. Most distinctive of the French styles were the Arabesque patterns first popularized in Paris by Jean Reveillon, a French wallpaper manufacturer, and particularly admired in this country by Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries during the 1780's and 1790's.

Blocks for Printing Wallpaper Borders
Blocks for Printing Wallpaper Borders

A late 18th-century style that lasted far into the 19th century featured walls painted in a solid color or the use of a plain solid shade of coloring applied to wallpaper, usually in green or in blue but available in a wide range of other colors as well. These papers were called "plain papers." These walls were then embellished with “rich or “elaborate” wallpaper borders. The "plain papers" however, had one advantage over paint—they hid the cracks.

Federal Style Furniture

Federal Style furniture, like all Neoclassical design, is typically light, graceful, and simple, with clean edges and straight lines. Most Federalist era craftsmen, who designed and produced Post-Colonial furniture and furnishings before 1820, had been born and trained in England and when they migrated to America, they supplied items of the highest quality to those who could afford it. Their fine furniture designs and products (made by the likes of Hepplewhite, Chippendale, and Sheraton) are found in museums throughout the country today.

Hepplewhite Secretary ca. 1800
Hepplewhite Secretary ca. 1800

Regional styles ranged from hand-painted details in New England, to elaborately carved chair backs in Charleston. Decorative features included tapered legs, the use of contrasting veneers, and inlays of geometric designs. Brass feet and drawer pulls with round brass rings were popular on earlier and larger pieces of furniture.

Interior accessories, furniture, and objects of décor all had similar neoclassical European style. Some of the popular items you might find in the homes of the wealthy include:

  • Hepplewhite sideboards with their undulating curves and serpentine front.

  • Chests-on-chests and chests of drawers with serpentine, straight or segmented fronts.

  • Bookcases, desks, and cabinets with delicate ornaments and scroll pediments.

  • Secretaries, tambour desks, dressing tables, China cabinets and tables of every shape.

  • Framed beveled mirrors with architectural detailing.

  • Tall case clocks, Wall clocks and Mantel Clocks.

  • Glass paintings, Fine porcelain decorations, Cantonese chinaware.

  • Window treatments with swags, tails, and valances.

  • Jabots with ornate fringes and tiebacks.

Hepplewhite Chair with a Shield Motif
Hepplewhite Chair with a Shield Motif

Federal Period Art

Most painters of the 18th century, as well as the early part of the nineteenth century, were “travelling artists,” who went throughout the country, painting portraits or signboards, decorations for stagecoaches and fire-engines, or whatever else they could find to do for practice and to make a living. By the mid-18th and on into the early 19th centuries, American artists primarily painted portraits, and some landscapes in a style based on English painting. By the time the American Revolution began, many painters, such as Peale and Copley had gone abroad in pursuit of professional education and patronage. While some never returned, others, like Charles Wilson Peale who studied in London between 1767 and 1769, returned to Philadelphia and fought in the war. Charles’ brother James was a noted portrait miniaturist and still-life painter.

John Trumbull Painting of Alexander Hamilton
John Trumbull Painting of Alexander Hamilton

Many art experts consider John Trumbull as possibly the greatest painter of American history subjects during this period. Trumbull served briefly as General Washington’s aide-de-camp before resigning his commission and going to England where he studied under Benjamin West. After holding diplomatic postings in London from 1794 to 1804, Trumbull remained abroad for another 13 years. In 1817 he returned to America, and his portraits and exhibitions of his earlier canvases led to a commission for four large paintings for the Capitol Rotunda. Installed in 1826, they are: Declaration of Independence, Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress.

Another artist of note is John Lewis Krimmel, who was sometimes called “the American Hogarth.” He was one of the first artists in America to portray free blacks and painted mostly “slice of life type paintings showing street scenes and daily life of middle class and poor Americans. His first painting to excite public notice was Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market (1811). The oil depicted a black woman ladling out bowls of her uniquely Philadelphian spicy soup to white customers of various ages and social classes.

Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market
Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market

Profile portraits may have been the most common but least appreciated representatives of portraiture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These silhouettes, or "shades," cut out of white paper cemented over a background of black paper or cloth, were the simplest and least expensive to produce. The formal portraits we see in museums required several “sittings” with a talented artist and therefore were outside the price range of all but the wealthy in society. On the other hand, “profile portraits,” were quick and relatively simple to make, and because of this were priced such that almost every person in the “middlin” classes could afford to have these done and hang them in their homes.

Federal Era Silhouette
Federal Era Silhouette

In the early 19th century, the framework to train artists here in America began to develop and, around 1820, the Hudson River School of painting began to develop. Hudson River School paintings reflect three themes of America in the 19th century: discovery, exploration, and settlement. They also depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully. Hudson River School landscapes are characterized by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature, often juxtaposing peaceful agriculture and the remaining wilderness which was fast disappearing from the Hudson Valley.

A View Near Catskill - Thomas Cole

Art historians acknowledge Thomas Cole as the founder of the Hudson River School. He took a steamship up the Hudson in the autumn of 1825, stopping first at West Point then at Catskill landing. He hiked west high into the eastern Catskill Mountains of New York to paint the first landscapes of the area. Cole was from England and the brilliant autumn colors in the American landscape inspired him. A prominent element of the Hudson River School was its themes of nationalism, nature, and property. Adherents of the movement also tended to be suspicious of the economic and technological development of the age. The first mention of Cole’s work appeared in the New York Evening Post on November 22, 1825 as the following story:

About a month ago, Mr. Cole, a young man from the interior of Pennsylvania, placed three paintings in the hands of Mr. Colman, a picture dealer in the city, for sale, hoping to obtain twenty dollars apiece for them. There they remained unnoticed by the Macaenases (sic?) who purchased Guido’s, Raphael’s and Titian’s, of the manufacture of every manufacturing town in Europe: &there they might have remained, if an artist, who had himself placed some of his own productions in the hands of Mr. Colman, had not gone to inquire for the proceeds. On casting his eyes upon one of the pictures by Mr. Cole, he exclaimed, “where did these come from!” and continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer. When informed that what he saw was the work of a young man, untutored and unknown, he immediately purchased the painting for twenty five dollars, the price Mr. Colman had prevailed upon the painter to affix to his work, adding, “Mr. Colman, keep the money due to me, and take the balance. If I could sir, I would add to the balance. What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part for 25 guineas. I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years of practice.” This honorable testimony to the merits and genius of Mr. Cole was from Col. (John) Trumbull.

Col. Trumbull immediately mentioned his purchase to another artist, and in the highest terms of eulogium. That artist waited at the colonel’s rooms while the picture was sent for, and immediately exclaimed, “This is beyond the expectations you had raised.” After gazing with wonder and delight, he hastened to see the remaining two, purchased one, and left the other only for the lack of money. He carried this in his hand to the rooms of Col. Trumbull, where two other artists of first rank in the city were in waiting. The result was, that the four went immediately to the picture dealers; one of the last mentioned artists bought the remaining landscape; all four left their cards for Mr. Cole, whose modesty had not permitted himself to the artists of the city; and all have expressed but one sentiment of admiration and pleasure, at the talent which is thus brought to light.

These pictures will now be seen with delight by those that visit our Academy, and they will be astonished when they compare them with the works of the first European masters, in the Gallery, to find an American boy, comparatively speaking, for such a truly is a man of twenty two, has equaled those works which have been the boast of Europe and the admiration of the ages. ------ American

By the 1830s, the American national identity had been well developed; politically, socially, and in terms of architecture and design. Although popular tastes in architecture and design have come and gone throughout the decades since, Federal design has remained one of America’s most popular styles of architecture and interior design to this day. As a result, we can safely say that Federal design is truly an American institution that is well embedded into our nation’s identity.

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Hartmann, Sadakichi. A History of American Art. Vol. 1. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1901. 2 vols.

Hellpewhite, A. The Cabinet-Maker and Upholster's Guide. London: I. and J. Taylor, 1789.

Hopkins, George. Creating your Architectural Style. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2009.

Moore, N. Hudson. The Old Furniture Book. New York: Frederick A Stokes Company, 1903.

Sheraton, Thomas. The Cabinet-Maker and Upholster's Drawing-Book. London: T. Bensley, 1793.


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