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Butterfly tables are popular in maple-one of the many woods in which it was found in the past. Pine as well as cherry, and, in rare instances, oak, were also employed in its early manufacture. To pick up an old butterfly table nowadays is good fortune, for antiquarians in recent years have cornered most of the fine examples. A table had to be both hardy and lucky to live through the years when furniture of humble woods and simple craftsmanship was not valued very highly.
Often in the old days the butterfly table was made low in height as well as wonderfully light. These characteristics fit its modern copies well for use as a coffee table or a convenient bit of furniture to place by a couch or the side of an easy chair to hold books, magazines or smoking paraphernalia.
Characteristic of the table are the legs that slant outward at the side, graceful and deeply turned. A generous over hanging of the top of each end is also a good point, as well as thinness of wood in top and in wing.
Many of the old pieces had a small drawer, always provided with a wooden knob, and in some cases made with slanting sides to conform to the lines of the slanting legs. The stretchers, placed near the bottom of the legs, were generally of unturned wood, although beautiful examples of turned stretchers have been discovered. On the old tables the many generations of feet that have rested on these conveniently placed stretchers have rounded the top edge, and this mark of the antique has now become a decorative touch on the modern reproductions.
The butterfly table in its smaller sizes finds a ready and constant usefulness in the modern home. One can hardly have too many small tables, and the, butterfly with its two side leaves may be made to contract or expand itself. As an end table for a couch it gives, in its simple and natural finishes of wood, just the proper contrast to the upholstered furniture, and in a room with other furnishings of a Colonial type it aids tremendously in recalling the old-time atmosphere.
Butterfly tables seem to have first appeared about 1700, although, from their similarity in line to Jacobean furniture, they may well have been made long before that. Tables with leaves came into use in England almost a century before our earliest known butterfly table, and the gate-leg table-a distant relative of the butterfly-was developed about the middle of the seventeenth century.
Most of the butterfly tables that have come down to us have been traced back to Connecticut, although other parts of New England have contributed a few examples. In the early days furniture was always made to order by local carpenters or cabinetmakers, a method of manufacture which accounts for the delightful variation in design among the antique specimens that have survived 200 years of use. One finds many styles of round-topped tables, oval and square-sided ones with the wings showing great diversity in form. Some of the wings are cut in a simple, graceful curve, while in others the outer line is made up of double curves, suggesting the outline of classic molding used so much in later Colonial furniture.