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Dressers were developed in England during the Jacobean century and were then made of oak. In America it was an early piece of pioneer furniture, and persisted for a long time in the kitchens of both humble and prosperous families. Made of pine in the early days, the dresser did not change its wood when walnut and mahogany came into fashion. New England, New York and Pennsylvania supply three markedly different types of dresser, each following closely certain local traditions in construction and decoration.
The Dutch in New York and the Hudson River Valley made quaintly designed dressers that were patterned, no doubt, after pieces in Holland. These had often only two shelves and were without the overhanging top seen on the other Colonial styles. In the dressers of Dutch influence the edges of the side supports of the shelves were often cut in large swelling curves, which were also used on both the front edges of the shelves and the top edge of the back. A single cupboard in the bottom with two doors gives the piece an air of greater primitiveness than possessed by most of the English and other Colonial types.
According to Wallace Nutting in his book, "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century," a distinguishing mark of the Pennsylvania varieties of the kitchen dresser was the decorated overhanging top, which in the New England types was straight and plain. Another point of difference was that in the Pennsylvania dressers the sides were made in two pieces, giving the effect of the shelf part being set upon the lower cupboard portion. In the New England dressers the sides were made of one long board reaching from the floor to the top of the shelves. There are authentic types which belie these distinctions as old pieces have a habit of doing to the discomfiture of both the amateur and the professional expert.
The picturesque lines of both American and European examples of the dresser have allured furniture makers into developing modern designs in this useful form of furni ture. In these later pieces a much more sophisticated type of design and color has resulted through the inspiration of country furniture from Tyrol, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. These modern dressers are things of highly, decorative beauty, painted or lacquered in solid colors or ornamented with floral decorations, far gayer than the simple Colonial forms. In this category are also the examples of unpainted furniture which permit the buyer to have any effect desired from old pine with its modulated hue of age to the latest fashion in pure color.
The original purpose of the dresser was to give shelf space for table platters and other dishes. In the drawers and cupboards below the open shelves, knives and forks and kitchen ware were kept. Today, if one takes a dresser into the bosom of one's family living room, for example, one must at once find something to place on the shelves. There is pewter or old china or one's collection of candlesticks or old brass. But whatever the things are, they must possess the charm of the past or else your dresser will wear a confused look, and the discordant note will spoil the effect of the room.
Old types of dressers seem more at ease with a roomful of the simple furniture of Colonial and early nineteenthcentury days, although even a Windsor chair or a gateleg table will sometimes be enough to make it seem at home. The modern decorated examples are more easily harmonized with a much wider diversity of furniture forms.