Sideboards, Bureaus, Tables, Etc.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE present interest in antiques has brought into prominence the old-time furnishings, and as a result ancient hiding places have been forced to give up their treasures, and hitherto little appreciated relics are now reinstated with all their original dignity. The architect of the twentieth century is responsible in a great measure for this, for in his zest to give to modern homes the best that could be afforded, he has seen fit to revert to early types for inspiration; and with the revival in favor of these specimens, genuine antiques have come to be appreciated, and their value has correspondingly increased.
Included among these old-time pieces are chests, which in early days did service for numerous purposes. In America they were first fashioned by workmen who came to this country from foreign lands, through the efforts of the first governor, John Endicott, many of them being employed on plantations, where much of their work was done. These chests were made of the wood of forest trees, which then grew so plentifully, and are rude and simple in construction, in striking contrast to the rich, hand-carved, mahogany chests, which many of the colonists brought from the motherland, packed with their clothing, and which, later on, were shipped here in large numbers. Old' inventories frequently mention both these types of chests, those manufactured here generally being spoken of as "owld pine chests." They were principally used in the chamber and at one side of the fireplace in the general room, the larger ones to hold family necessities, such as the homespun clothing and anything else that needed to be covered, while the smaller ones served as receptacles for the skeins of wool from which the handy housewife fashioned the family wearing apparel.
Such chests were an intimate part of the home life in those early times, and viewing their quaintness it is not hard to picture the scenes of which they were a part, when the house mother, in her homespun gown, busily spun at her old clock wheel, drawing the skeins from the chest at her side, while the little ones, seated on rude benches before the open fire, carefully filled the quills for the next day's supply. Mayhap the eldest daughter fashioned on the big wheel, under her mother's guidance, her wedding garments, weaving into them loving thoughts of the groom-to-be, while the song in her heart kept time to the merry whirr of the wheel.
Of the larger type of the "owld pine chest" is the treasured specimen at Georgetown, known for many generations as the magic chest, and so called from the feats it is said to have performed in the early days of its history, such as walking up and down stairs, and dancing a merry jig when a deacon sat upon its lid. It stands to-day quiet and demure, giving no hint of its former hilarious tendencies, though it is no longer used for its original purpose, — the storing of meal for the family use.
With the betterment of financial conditions, the rude pine chests went out of fashion, and in their stead beautiful hand-carved specimens were brought from foreign countries. Many of these show exquisite coloring, any number of examples being still preserved; sometimes they were placed in the chamber, but more frequently on the landing at the head of the stairs.
Chests with drawers were in fashion as early as 1650, according to the old records, many of them handsomely carved, and all showing little egg-shaped pieces upon the drawers. Some of the finest of these old chests are shown in the Waters collection at Salem. Generally they were fashioned of oak, and a frequent characteristic was a lid on top which lifted off, allowing for the packing of large articles, while the drawers at the front were used for storing smaller things. Sometimes chests are found constructed on frames, but not often. This type was probably fashioned to hold linen, being the forerunner of the high chest of drawers which came into vogue in the later days of the seventeenth century. Up to some time after 1700, chests continued in general use, though it is doubtful if they were made in any great quantity after 1720. The number of legs found on these chests varies with the time of making, some showing six, while others have but four.
With the advent of the high chest of drawers, other woods than oak, such as walnut and cherry, and later mahogany, became popular; the use of these woods produced a marked change in chest designs, notably in the massiveness of build. Many specimens of both types are found through-out New England, one very fine example of the early type showing the drop handle, which is a characteristic of the early chest, being included in the Nathaniel B. Mansfield collection. Another of the later type, now in the Pickering house, carefully stored away that no harm may befall it, shows on one side the initials of Colonel Timothy Pickering, who used it during his army days.
Dressing tables were made to go with these chests, following the same lines of design, though constructed with four rather than six legs. These came to be designated as "lowboys" in distinction from the chests mounted upon high legs, which were known as "highboys." Examples of both were found in the old General Abbot house at Salem, until a few years ago; while a highboy, showing bandy legs, a characteristic of the earliest high chest, is a prized possession in the Benson home, also at Salem.
Many highboys and lowboys show inlay work, one of the former, of English manufacture, being found in the Warner house at Portsmouth, while another, of different style, is shown in the Osgood house at Salem.
Lowboys were made to correspond with every style of the high chest, and frequently they were constructed of maple, beautifully marked, after the fashion of the chests made of walnut and cherry. Highboys sometimes took the form of a double chest, showing drawers extending almost to the floor, and mounted on varied-style feet, frequently of the claw-and-ball type. These, as well as lowboys, continued to be regularly used until well into the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Hepplewhite's book of designs, published in 1789, shows models for chests of drawers extending almost to the floor, but it is not probable that they were made in any number after this date.
The desk occupied a prominent place in New England homes in the early days of the colonies, though not to the extent of the other and more necessary articles of furniture. It varied in size and design according to the period of its manufacture, the earliest type being little more than a box that locked, with flat or sloping top, and placed on the table when used. This type was often ornamented with rich carving, and sometimes it was arranged upon legs, with a shelf beneath.
The form in common use about 1700 was known as the "scrutoir," being in reality a desk resting on a chest of drawers ; the sloping front opened on hinges, and afforded a writing desk. One example of this type, fitted with ball feet, and showing secret drawers and many cupboards, is found in the Ropes house in Salem, being an inheritance from the original owner, General Israel Putnam. Another of equal interest is in the home of Mrs. Guerdon Howe at Haverhill. This originally belonged to Daniel Webster, who was at one time a law partner of Mr. Howe's grandfather. This desk, which was brought to the house after the death of Webster, is filled with old and interesting letters.
The earliest "scrutoirs" were of foreign manufacture, chiefly English, but by 1710 they were being made in this country. These early American "scrutoirs" are very plain in form, generally made of cherry, though occasionally one is found constructed of walnut. After the first quarter of the eighteenth century, American manufacturers improved their output, and made some very handsome specimens of the type known as bureau desks. One excellent example of the very early bureau desk of foreign make is found in the possession of the Alden family, having been brought to this country in the Mayflower by John Alden himself.
By 1750 the desk in its various forms had come to be considered an important part of the household equipment, and in their manufacture many woods were employed, such as mahogany, cherry, apple, and black walnut, sometimes solid, and sometimes veneered. The following thirty years saw the advent of many new styles, two of which were more dominant than the rest; one of these was the development of the early "scrutoir," and the other the forerunner of the bookcase desk or secretary.
During this period Chippendale designed several desk models, the most notable of which was probably his secretary, characterized by Chinese fret designs in the glass doors, and an ingenious arrangement of secret drawers. In 1790 Hepplewhite followed with his designs, many of which were severe in contour, being wholly straight in front and arranged with two glass doors above, sometimes fancifully framed. Then Sheraton's desks and secretaries came into favor ; many of his models showed practical features and beautiful finish, and after 1793 were generally characterized by inlay work, with the lower portion consisting of a cupboard instead of the usual drawers.
During these latter days of the eighteenth century, beautiful secretaries were manufactured in this country, ranging in form from the very plain to the very elaborate, but after 1800, when some few French Empire desks found their way here, serving as models for American manufacturers, the domestic output became less graceful, depending for beauty on the grain of the veneering used.
Many of all these types of desks are found throughout New England, one particularly good specimen being shown in the Noyes house at Newburyport. This belongs to a period antedating the Revolutionary War, and shows the oval which is characteristic of its type. Among its features are paneled doors one and one half inches thick.
Though the date of their introduction was not until well along in the eighteenth century, side-boards are prominent among the old-time furnishings, and in the highest state of their development they were articles of beauty and utility. In reality they are a development of the serving table, which came into vogue in the first half of the eighteenth century, and in form are a combination of the serving table and its accompanying pieces. At first they were little more than unwieldy, unattractive chests of drawers, gradually developing to their best form, with carved front, slender legs, and other details.. In their construction, mahogany was chiefly used, inlaid with satinwood, holly, tulip, and maple, and veneered occasionally with walnut ; and they showed in their finished lines the best work of the skilled craftsman. The last type of the old sideboard showed Empire characteristics, being more massive than graceful, but yet containing features of marked beauty.
While Chippendale is often credited with having made sideboards, no record of this fact is found among his designs, though he makes frequent mention of several large tables, which he calls sideboard tables. No doubt, many of the side-boards credited to him were made by Shearer, a designer to whom belongs the credit of originating the sideboard, and who included in his designs pieces with curved and serpentine fronts, a style which was later perfected by Hepplewhite. There is no doubt that Hepplewhite made sideboards, for in his book of designs he shows a sideboard model, with a deep drawer at each end and a shallow one in the center, as well as four different designs in the table form, without the drawers, which are similar to Chippendale's work. Hepplewhite's sideboards are characterized by square legs, often ending in the spadefoot, the ends sometimes square and sometimes round, the front swelled, straight, or curved, affording a great variety to his work. Generally his sideboards are made of mahogany, and almost invariably they are inlaid, though occasionally they show carving.
Sheraton also designed sideboards, and while in general appearance they somewhat resemble Hepplewhite's designs, in many respects they are superior. They were equipped with any number of devices, such as cellarets, closets for wine bottles, slides for the serving tray, and racks for plates and glasses, and many of them are lavishly ornamented with inlay work, though few show carving.
Examples of all these types are found in the colonies, one of Hepplewhite design showing the fine inlay work and graceful proportions typical of his pieces and originally owned by Governor Wentworth, being in the possession of a Salem family. Another, of Sheraton make, is preserved in the Stark home, having been brought here from the Governor Pierce house at Hillsboro. Another of like make is found in the Howe house, having originally belonged to an ancestor of the present owner, Governor John Leverett, governor of Massachusetts during the time of King Philip's War.
Shortly after 'Soo, the style of sideboard greatly changed, becoming more massive, with the body placed nearer the floor, and the legs shorter. French Empire styles influenced the manufacture in this country to a great extent, though carving and the grain of the wood were still depended upon for ornament,. rather than the French features. The best examples of this type are to-day found in the South; 1820—1830 saw the advent of a plainer model, being in reality an adaptation of one of Sheraton's types ; in the following years other variations were made, all showing the heaviness of the Empire style in a more or less degree, until about 1850, when the architectural merits of the sideboard disappeared.
Intimately associated with the sideboard is the table which probably shows more variety in design than any of the other old-time furnishings. From the table board or top used in 1624, square, oval, or round in contour, evolved the butterfly table popular about 1700, many examples of which are found throughout Connecticut. These followed in form the outline of a butterfly, and were supported by pieces of wood shaped much like the rudder of a ship. Other types popular here were the Dutch table, the hundred-legged table, the dish-top table, and the tea table.
The first table used in this country was the table top, which was literally a board made separate from its supports, which was taken off and placed at one side of the room after meals. This showed different forms, and was known by different names, one called the chair table, and so constructed that when not in use it served as a seat, being probably the most unique. It was invariably fashioned with drawers.
Included in the later designs were writing tables fashioned by Sheraton, showing elegant carving at the back, the most decorative of these, known as the "Kidney" based table, being used either for writing or as a lady's worktable. Another model of Sheraton's was a worktable known as the Pouch Table, arranged with a bag of drawn silk. These were often fitted with drawers and a sliding desk, which drew forward from beneath the table top.
The dining table of this period showed the pillar and claw style with central leg fixed to a block, on which the table hinged. This principle received the support of the English people for many years, and Sheraton tables of this make had four claws to each pillar, and castors of brass. So much did Sheraton designs resemble those of French artisans that only close inspection will decide as to which cabinet-maker a certain piece belongs.
Following this type came the telescopic table, showing extensions fitted through slides moving in grooved channels.
Other later tables were card tables, which closed and could be stood against the wall when not in use, the pie-crust table of the Dutch style of make, and the table with scalloped moldings carved from solid pieces of wood, with legs terminating in claw-and-ball feet. Tables of Empire design often have brass feet and lyre supports, while others show the rope carving and acanthus leaf.
Popular types of the later days of the eighteenth century were Pembroke tables, small and of ornamental design, with inlaid tops and brackets to supply the two side flaps, as well as Pier tables, circular or serpentine in shape.