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First developed in England in the age of oak furniture (for the gate-leg table, contrary to general belief, is not an American invention), oak became the traditional timber for a gate-leg table. A few were constructed in maple and fruit woods, but even after the introduction of walnut in Queen Anne's time and the later use of mahogany these tables of many legs were generally built in oak. Now gateleg tables are being made of walnut because this wood harmonizes better than oak with other pieces of our modern furniture.
In the movement today toward smaller sizes in the gate-leg table, designers have developed very small tables which, when not in use, are stored in pairs beneath the oval top of a table of regular height. Coffee tables in this type of furniture are also made, the low height from the floor giving a piquant quaintness to this ancient pattern.
The folding up arrangement of the gate-leg table was a great achievement in the first part of the seventeenth century. The gate-leg table may have had a predecessor in the "wassail table," a piece of furniture used in the taverns of those days. It was a heavily built affair in the form of half an octagon with a flap hinged on the broad side. When not in use the wassail table was pushed against the wall with the flap folded over the top like a card table of a later time. When open the leaf was supported, as in the gate-leg table of today, by a leg with an upper and lower stretcher connecting with an inner leg. Other forms show the slow evolution of the gate-leg table before we discover the charmingly proportioned piece of furniture with the well-turned legs of Jacobean times.
The rise of the gate-leg table from its humble past as a piece of tavern furniture was greatly helped by the introduction of three beverages and a game of cards into Eng land in the middle of the seventeenth century. England's expanding sea trade had brought to the home country the new China drink of tea that Pepys speaks about in his diary. This new beverage sold for six to ten guineas a pound, but its use became fashionable and it was soon popular among the better classes in spite of the high price.
Coffee and chocolate were also introduced about this time and the afterwards famous coffee houses began to spring up all over London. And then cards, those "Devil's Books" banned by the Puritans, became popular after the Restoration in 1660 and thus another need was created for an occasional table that could be folded up and placed out of the way when not in use. The gate-leg table, lighter and less bulky than the other tables of the day, answered this purpose admirably and eventually became in Colonial America a part of the furnishings of every household.