As far as design elements go, in this country, ball and claw feet are one of the most popular ever. In America the earliest known example is from the 1720s and it still proves a popular element today. Probably one of the most common questions I get about ball & claw feet is how to know from what area a specific foot comes. Sure, lots of people can tell you the ones with pierced talons come from Newport, Rhode Island, but what about the ones that aren’t so easily distinguished?
There were lots of common furniture forms in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century and there were regional variations throughout the country. Some of those differences were based on cultural influences in a particular area, while others tended to be a matter of local taste. Variations in ball and claw feet are no different. I’ll break the characteristics down by city center (and its surrounding area) and let’s see if there’s a correlation between the region and the general personality of each region.
Philadelphia was the center of everything in the colonies and for some time after the Revolution. The weight of the budding nation came to bear on the city of brotherly love, and naturally that pressure was reflected in the design of their ball and claw feet. Generally speaking, the ball of the foot has a more compressed look. It was also the largest city on the continent for some time, which means the population was fairly diverse. This too was reflected in their foot design, with Philly having lots of variation in the amount of ball compression and the shape of the toes.
New York State of Mind
New York feet tended to have more squarish ball design. The feet were more stiff and upright, which blended well with the rest of their furniture designs. The formality and stiffness certainly isn’t shocking coming from a place that would eventually become the financial center of the country, if not the world.
Ball and claw feet in Connecticut (sorry, no city center for this one) were influenced by the maritime nature of the region. The feet created from the coast up through the Connecticut river valley tended to vary from the realistic to whimsical – much like the rest of the furniture. Not a stretch for an area populated by tall-tale telling sailors.
Rhode Island Realism
Although Newport is also a nautical area, their ball and claw feet (and the furniture on which they reside) tended to be a little more reserved. Like Philadelphia, Newport had Quaker settlers that influenced everyday life – realistic looking ball and claw feet tended to be desired. And much like their sailing ship, their feet were sleek and looked like they were ready to take on the wind.
Boston, and its surrounds, was the birthplace of the revolution so it stands to reason that their ball and claw feet would reflect that attitude. In general, feet from this area are characterized by the back-swept talons on the sides of the balls – this gives the feet the appearance of being under tension. You’ll also find that the balls are rounder in shape and taller than the Philly versions. They are sometimes so tall they look egg shaped.
New Hampshire Oddities
And speaking of egg-shaped feet, the Dunlaps worked in the greater Manchester, New Hampshire area. They created a great many pieces of which some had ball and claw feet (or should I say large rat feet?). The balls tended to be large and oval in shape and the talons were slender.
The funny part of Dunlap ball and claw feet to me are the ankles. In many cases they look thin enough that they won’t support the case to which they are attached.
If we head back south, Charleston feet tended to closely resemble feet made in England. But that’s also the case for their furniture and architecture. Charleston was probably one of the most British cities in the colonies.
Although it’s not the focus of this post, the legs themselves appear to be a bit heavier too. The photo on the left is from a bed, while the right is a wing chair leg. Surprisingly, there isn’t as much difference in size as you might think.
A little further north in Virginia, the feet tended to be a little more abstract. Round balls and heavy talons anchored their pieces to the floor.
When it comes to regional variations, ball and claw feet are a fairly easy way to categorize pieces, but there’s always more to learn and the examples I’ve provided are not absolute. This post should serve as the foundation for further research. Get out there and dig through your favorite museum or website and discover the varieties.