The vernacular furniture of Newfoundland and Labrador is related to the broad group of furniture that is perhaps best known as country furniture. The design and embellishment of country furniture was influenced in varying degrees by its fashionable, formal cousin, high style furniture.
However, country furniture is not simply a rural, less sophisticated version of high style furniture, but a diverse body of design and craftsmanship in its own right. Country furniture had its beginnings in Europe towards the end of the seventeenth century when furniture making branched o" in three separate directions: the making of elaborately carved furniture; the crafting of veneered pieces; and the construction of joined furniture.
As carved and veneered furniture required expensive materials, it was made mostly for wealthy individuals. Joined furniture, however, was relatively easy and less costly to make and so became the available product of rural areas.
A more appropriate name for country furniture, however, is regional furniture, as each European and North American region developed its own distinct forms. Regional factors, such as the availability of materials, social and economic issues, and ergonomics influenced furniture design more than trends in high style furniture. In North America, initial models were also patterned on items of European regional furniture, varying according to the source regions from which the early settlers came.
The entire island of Newfoundland can be considered a single furniture-making region. During the early years of settlement on the island, with a small European population sparsely scattered along the rugged coastline, the culture and economy in the region focused almost entirely on the fishery. There were relatively few native trees in Newfoundland suitable for constructing houses and outbuildings and for making furniture. White pine, balsam fir, spruce, tamarack, and white birch were virtually the only native trees available for such purposes.
By 1836, settlers numbered 75,000 and almost half were Irish — mostly from the Southeast region — and half were West Country English. Less significant source regions were other areas of England, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands. These different groups were not spread uniformly throughout the province. A few large bays were settled almost exclusively by people from only one of these British regions; others, by various combinations of people from two or more of them. As a result, some minor sub-regional differences in the design of Newfoundland’s vernacular furniture developed. Overall, however, there are numerous commonalities.
In Newfoundland, the most commonly found vernacular furniture design features are a synthesis of West Country English and Southern Irish. This synthesis came about through adaptations necessary to address the differences between the furniture’s European regional contexts and their new North American ones. Therefore, when European regional models were referenced in North America, they were not always faithfully reproduced. The nature and extent of adjustments varied considerably, depending upon the region into which the models were introduced.
Vernacular furniture design evolved under the influence of several intersecting factors. Against the backdrop of an economy and culture based almost entirely on the fishery, a dearth of locally grown timber, and a small population, furniture-making became a self-reliant, creative practice of adapting models and recycling materials, responding to evolving conditions and personal needs. Like boat-building and other specialized crafts, skills were passed on from older to younger members of the community; being relatively unorganized, however, furniture-making encouraged invention. Examples of mass-produced factory-furniture were often used as models for handmade versions, and designers combined elements from different designs to make unique pieces.
These factors led to the creation of one of the most distinctive bodies of regional furniture in North America. One of this furniture’s greatest values is its ability to document the remarkable qualities of the people who made it and the evolution of their exceptional culture. Each piece is evidence of its maker’s ability to eke out a living within an environment that required great resourcefulness, stamina, courage, and resilience. Moreover, the furniture expresses the region’s famous sense of good humor and undiminished capacity for sensitivity and warmth.
From the time of settlement, until the middle of the twentieth century, relatively few changes occurred in the way Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of European roots lived. Since then, however, the epochal change to which they have had to adapt has been considerable. First, and most significant, was Newfoundland and Labrador’s entry into the Canadian federation in 1949. At that time, the barter or truck system2 was abolished virtually overnight in favour of a cash economy. The changes that followed were, for the most part, of a positive nature. However, the imposition of the cod moratorium in 1991 was devastating for the region. The collapse of
the cod stocks resulted in hardships for numerous Atlantic Canadian communities, but its effects were particularly destructive in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the economy and culture were almost exclusively fishery-based.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy has recently improved, mainly as the result of the harvesting of its off shore oil reserves. Nevertheless, there is clearly a need to develop an economy diversified beyond the oil extraction industry. Moreover, large numbers of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still find it necessary to travel to other parts of North America — especially the province of Alberta — to work on a seasonal basis, and families continue to move away to areas that offer more opportunities for full-time employment. There is no question that Newfoundland and Labrador continue to face daunting challenges.
The people of the province, however, as evidenced by their crafts, are naturally innovative. They are clever designers, practiced recyclers and, most importantly, masters of adaptation. The unique regional furniture of Newfoundland’s outport communities bears evidence of this spirit. A wider awareness of it will not only bring economic benefit to the region but also influence a contemporary culture threatened with environmental decline. The values of resilience and creativity espoused in outport furniture couldn’t be more timely.