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The Rare Butterfly Table
The butterfly table, as it has been called for the last fifty or seventy-five vears, takes its name from the two wing-like swinging brackets that support the leaves of the top. Whether the craftsman who originated it had a butterfly in mind when he designed these brackets is a question. Although simple in construction and restrained in ornamental details of leg turnings, shaping of top, and leaf supports, such tables have definite appeal. When one of them is offered for sale, its price can approach that of an ornate and richly carved pie-crust table of the American Chippendale period.
There are reasons for the scarcity of the butterfly table. It dates from about 1700to 1730 in the early years of American cabinetmaking. It was made only in southern New England-Connecticut, parts of Massachusetts, and possibly Rhode Island. Original demand for it seems not to have extended beyond the of its making. It was probably an occasional table designed for use in the best room of a simple home.
Surviving examples are small, being from two to four inches lower than gate-leg tables of the same period and with a top about thirty-six inches long and from forty to forty-four inches wide when the leaves are raised. Butterfly tops are usually oval, oblong, or square; rarely are they round. Woods were maple or cherry for the top and various native hard woods for legs, stretchers, and other parts of the base. In their original state, they were painted and so a variety of woods did not matter.
Structurally, this little table is related to the simple joined stool of the middle and late seventeenth century. Both have simple vase-turned legs with outward slant, a plain box stretcher connecting the legs close to the floor and below this simple knob feet. Obviously the unknown craftsman took the jointed stool as model and, in slightly larger form, put a table top on it with drop leaves and supporting brackets of curving, wing-like shape. The latter were socketed into the side of the stretcher and the upper cross members of the bed so that they swung out and in readily. The inner edge of each of these - brackets was straight and was given the same slant as the legs.
Nearly always, in the bed was a narrow oblong drawer, the bottom wider than the top, which slid in from one end. It was equipped with a simple wooden knob similar to the feet in turning. Made over two hundred years ago in a small area and for a limited clientele, it is proof that our early cabinetmakers ad originality and a good eye for restrained beauty. It was no memory piece either, since England made no table like it. Though rare, it is deservedly popular with anyone lucky enough to own or find an example.
These originals should not be confused with the coffee or occasional table adaptations produced by present-day furniture factories from about 1920. They are smaller, generally of mahogany and of much lighter construction.