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Furniture And Its Background - Part 2

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( Originally Published 1963 )

Secret drawers were built into desks and secretaries. They did not advertise themselves as drawers. The most likely places to discover them are behind the arched tops of pigeonholes, above the center area and concealed by an apron, in the panels or pilasters that flank the open area or behind a small removable cabinet there, or behind pigeonholes and small drawers. To find these hidden compartments, sometimes a sliding panel must be touched. Then again, if a small secret drawer is actually a pilaster flanking the open center area, it need only be pulled out gently.

Chests and cupboards were essential for storage. They were made in great variety, some of the cupboards small enough to hang on the wall. A cupboard is a cabinet, open or closed, for displaying or storing, cups and other articles for household use or ornament. In 1690 the small chests with lids that could be lifted were still important, but the early cupboard was beginning to be superseded by a chest of drawers. This was the forerunner of the bureau as we know it. Chests were made in one or two sections, the latter type often called a chest-on-chest. Some chests were on frames with legs that held them well above the floor. Both cupboards and chests often combined drawers and cupboards in one case piece.

The highboy and the lowboy were something new. Highboys and lowboys often resembled each other, but were not always made as matching pieces. Both were made originally for bedrooms. Lowboys originally were dressing tables, but nowadays are as often placed elsewhere in a house.

The highboy consisted of two parts -a chest of drawers and a stand of drawers on legs. The top section of a real highboy was slightly narrower and shallower than the lower part so that it fit inside the raised molding around the top of the base. If there is no molding on the lower section, the two parts were not made as one piece. The lowboy was similar to the base of a highboy, but there is a difference in construction. A real lowboy had a tabletop without the raised molding that was essential to the lower section of a highboy. A true lowboy was smaller, too, and as it was developed to a high art during the 1700's, it became a case piece with a flat surface under which were one to three drawers, the whole mounted on comparatively high legs.

The wing chair, the gateleg table, the highboy, and the lowboy are a few of the furnishings that can be traced back to seventeenth-century England. The eighteenth century made a great many more contributions. Starting shortly after 1702, furniture began to be made for comfort, and as the century grew older more kinds of furniture were made, more kinds of wood were used, and decoration became more varied. Many of the new styles of tablesthey included tea, Pembroke, tripod, card, sewing, serving, and bedside tables, and candlestands-continue to be popular to this day. Innovations appeared in cupboards and chests, and all case pieces - cupboards, chests, wardrobes, highboys, lowboys, desks, and secretaries - were important. Chairs were not only comfortable but also beautiful in a diversity of styles.

The early years from 1702 to 1720 are known as the Queen Anne period. In quick succession followed great furniture designers: Thomas Chippendale (1745-70), George Hepplewhite (1780-90), the Adam brothers (176595), and Thomas Sheraton (17901810). (The dates are those of their dominance in England.) Each brought distinctive changes in style. Their influence was felt a few years later in this country and continued longer, with American cabinetmakers putting their own individual stamp on the borrowed styles.

Queen Anne furniture was lighter in appearance and much more gracefullooking than the ponderous seventeenth-century pieces. Furniture remained functional, however, and also became comfortable. Lines were simple, with emphasis on the curvilinear. The single most important decoration of Queen Anne furniture was the carved cockle or scallop shell. Often, one large shell was carved on the slant top of a desk or on the front of a highboy, lowboy, or chest. A smaller shell sometimes was carved on the knee of a cabriole leg and-with or without carving on the legs-to top the splat of a chair or daybed. The shell motif emphasized the curvilinear element. On some pieces, this carved motif is more clearly recognizable as a fan or a sunburst.

Legs on chairs, tables, and case pieces, instead of being turned, were largely cabriole-that is, the leg had an outcurved knee and an incurved ankle. Feet were likely to be the simple pad or Dutch foot, occasionally the drake foot, which was carved with three toes, or the Spanish foot, which curved gracefully and showed rectangular lines of carving. Stretchers were omitted or else not particularly noticeable. The kettle or bombe base, which swelled outward at sides and front, appeared on cupboards and some other case pieces.

Oak was still widely used in England but walnut became the preferred wood in both England and America. After walnut, cherry and maple rather than oak were the choices in this country. Regardless of the wood, some small amount of Queen Anne furniture was painted white and gilded.

A radically different style of chair appeared that was called the corner or roundabout chair. (It is still being made.) This had a low back that encircled two sides of the seat, the latter placed diagonally so that it formed a right-angled corner. All chairs had a softly curving structure, for they were shaped to fit the body. Side chairs and wooden armchairs often had a high, shaped back with one wide, vase-shaped splat. Such stools as were made followed the styles of chairs.

The drop-leaf table, either oval, round, or rectangular, replaced the trestle table for dining. Dropping the leaves, of course, saved space when they were not in use. Rectangular tables with marble tops were made for dining rooms because, so far, no one had thought of making a sideboard.

Small tables really came into their own. As stools were made less and less, small tables for various purposes came into general use. Work table was a general classification and sewing table, bedside table, serving table, and candlestand were among the specific designations. The corner table was just that, for with the drop leaf lowered the surface was triangular. The half-round table did not have a drop leaf, but it was most convenient alongside a chair or close to a wall.

The new custom of drinking tea, brought from the Orient, made necessary a table to hold the equipment. Some Queen Anne tea tables were rectangular with cabriole legs only slightly swollen at the knees. Other tea tables were low and round with pad feet.

Card or gaming tables were another Queen Anne innovation that continued to be popular for more than a century-. By the mid-1700's in this country, it was not uncommon for a household to own a half-dozen or more fine examples of card tables. Each one was well made of selected hardwood and was handsome, for it was part of the furniture of the room at all times. No comparison is possible between this style of table, which has become a classic, and the collapsible bridge table so common today.

All of these card tables, now bonafide antiques, had tops consisting of two leaves that were hinged so that one could be folded on top of the other or be supported against a wall when the table was not in use. Of the four or occasionally five legs, one was movable to support the folding leaf when the table was opened to full size. The square table with a top 36 to 38 inches when opened flat usually had outrounded corners to hold candlesticks to light the gaming. Some tables also had four oval saucers, one at each player's left, for coins. Occasionally there was a drawer under the top.

The tripod or pedestal table became popular immediately and continued to be so in this country for many years. It had a comparatively small top, usually round or oval, rarely square, supported by a tall pedestal with three feet terminating curving legs. The smallest tripod tables became known as candlestands. Perhaps one reason why the tripod table became indispensable was that its top usually could be tilted so that the table could be pushed against the wall when it was not needed, and thus save space. Before long, some tripod tables were made with a device under the top that permitted them to be turned or rotated as well as tilted; these were known as "tip and turn" tables.

Chests and cupboards continued to be made in two sections, although singlesection ones were still in wide use. In addition to straight cupboards to line up parallel to a wall, the corner cupboard now made its debut. Most of the large cupboards had doors but some had open shelves at least in the top section. Highboys and lowboys were made in quantity, usually with cabriole legs and shell carving somewhere.

Desks and secretaries were graceful and often fairly small. Like chests and highboys, they often consisted of two parts. The bureau desk and the desk mounted on a frame with cabriole legs both were fashionable.

The variety of tables, chairs, desks, secretaries, and the like that ornamented the Queen Anne period increased with the emergence of the furniture designers. The most important innovations of the eighteenth century were so soundly and gracefully designed that they are still being copied and reproduced.

Thomas Chippendale's book The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, first published in 1754, was the most important collection of furniture designs that had been issued in England. His furniture enriched England from 1745 to 1770, and his influence was strong in this country from 1755 to 1790. Chippendale brought new and fresh ideas, but above all, his furniture was always carefully fitted and joined. Mahogany, which appeared about 1750, became his favorite wood. At first, it was often finished to resemble walnut, the fashionable wood after 1702.

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