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Refectory Tables

With its hospitable length and air of solidity, the refectory table, gradually transmitted westward from the beginnings of the Christian era, is not only a modern American dining room accessory, but it serves a useful and decorative purpose in living room and library. Made of oak, walnut, pine or maple, it provides a contrast of wood for many settings-for in the Early and Middle Ages the refectory table swept through all Europe.

Contemporary designs derive from the Italian, Spanish, French, English; a favorite one gives the top of the table a generous overhang, especially on the ends, and places the heavy stretchers low. The Tudor type of these tables had bulbous legs, enriched with carvings which today, in a rare English antique or in a modern reproduction, are found in Elizabethan rooms with oak paneled walls and decorated plaster ceilings. Later, in Jacobean times, the legs of the tables became less heavy, and the baluster and other turned legs came into fashion. These English types of refectory tables are always of oak, the wood used in England for furniture at that time.

Refectory tables take their name, of course, from their use in the long refectory of monasteries or castles. Before the dining room was developed in England, when the great hall of a castle was living room and dining room combined, long trestle tables were in use. One referred to by Jourdain, in her book, "English Decoration and Furniture," was fiftyfour feet in length, this allowing ample room for the noble lord and all his retainers to sit down in a patriarchal manner that has since been lost. When the collapsible trestle table was superseded by the solidly built table, the new type was known as a "joined" table, because it was put together by a skilled carpenter, or "joiner."

Antique examples of these collapsible types of refectory tables are, indeed, rare today. Yet, in early America, they were much more often found than the four-legged, solidly joined table. Made of oak or of pine and maple, the trestle table was so constructed that it could be taken apart and placed out of the way when not in use. Its supports consisted of a pedestal at each end, and sometimes one in the middle, connected by a single stretcher, held in place by stout pegs or tendons. The trestle table apparently remained in use in the Colonies much later than in England; as did, in its turn, the four-legged stretcher type, with all its parts solidly joined.

Comparatively few of the "joined" type of refectory table were used hereexcept in the Southwest, where they had a mission type for Colonial joiners in these latitudes were making pine and maple tables more suitable for the habitations of the less opulent Colonial pioneers.

A useful form of modern refectory table has an extension top. This style, known generally as a draw table, is constructed with extension leaves placed under the top, which can be pulled out on occasion, and which, by an ingenious arrangement of supports, provides additional table surface at either end. This is a convenient arrangement where the table is to be used in the living room.

Furniture makers of today, keeping up with the increasing demand for authentic copies of the old forms, have made excellent reproductions of both the draw table and the solid-top table. In the best of these copies the craftsmen, while taking advantage of some modern methods of construction, retain all the old methods that helped to achieve durability and decorative effect.

Refectory tables, except, perhaps, the highly individual Tudor style with the large bulbous legs, fit into many kinds of interiors. They make useful side tables in a library or living room which may have chairs and couches and hangings of a period much later than the early American. The low-placed stretcher and wide overhanging tops give them picturesqueness; and, even in the simple ones made by country carpenters of Colonial days, there is a grace that can be made use of by the judicious even among more sophisticated furniture.

With the growing custom of combining dining room and living room an adapted aspect of the great castle hall is coming back-English or Spanish. Perhaps that is one reason why these long and hospitable looking tables fit in well at one end of a large living room that has a capacious fireplace and a gallery-both characteristic of European periods and architecture when refectory tables were used. Reproductions in pine and maple can be made of a pattern to fit in with room ensembles in the simple early New England style. Especially appropriate for a room paneled with straight pine boards, or for a renovated farmhouse kitchen, with its plastered walls and ceiling of open beams, is a primitive trestle table made a little broader than, the single wide board of pioneer days, so as to accommodate our present-day dining table arrangements.

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