The Farmhouse Dresser
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE various types of dresser associated with the farmhouse are interesting as being, apart from the side-board, a later fashion belonging to furniture of a higher type. It was not until the late days of Chippendale, and after, that the Side Table began to be designated a Side-board, which later became a receptacle for wine, with a cellaret, and had a drawer for table-linen.
"Sideboard" is not a modern term, for the word is found in Dryden and in Milton. In the late eighteenth-century days the sideboard had a brass rail at the back and was ornamented by two mahogany urns of massive proportions. Usually these were used for iced water and for hot water, the latter for washing the knives and forks.
The Adam sideboard with its severely classical lines, and Sheraton's elegant bow fronts and satinwood panels decorated with painting, belong to the later developments of the sideboard as now known.
The dresser is something more homely. It is inseparably connected with homeliness and with the farmhouse and the countryside. In its various forms it has appealed to lovers of simple furniture, and farmhouse examples have found their way into surroundings more or less incongruous. The dresser in its more primitive form requires the necessary environment. It loses its charm when placed in proximity to pieces of more pretentious character. The cupboard dresser, or the type with open shelves, is less decorative than some of the forms without the back. That is to say, it requires the exactly suitable accompaniment to prevent its simple lines from being eclipsed by furniture of a higher grade. The dresser is, therefore, especially desirable to the collector furnishing a country cottage in harmonious character; but its inclusion in the modern drawing-room is an incongruity, and its presence in the dining-room is more often than not an unwarrantable intrusion.
It will be seen that the early types have fronts finely decorated with geometric designs panelled in the same fashion as the Jacobean chests of drawers, such as that illustrated on page 45. The split baluster ornament is a noticeable but not invariable feature in this style, and the fine graceful balance of the panels with the drawers with drop brass handles is an attractive feature beloved by connoisseurs of the late Stuart period. The decoration in the fronts of these early dressers, or to give them their more appropriate name, Carving tables, is as diverse in character as the fronts of the contemporary chests of drawers. This variety is indicative of the personal character imparted to the work by the old designers. It is rare to find two examples exactly alike. They differ in details, much as the brass candlesticks of the same period, which possess a similar charm of individuality.
Of this particular type of oak Dresser the example illustrated (p. 79) has characteristics which are common to the class. The geometric front panels, the laid-on moulding, and the Jacobean leg—in most cases the back legs of these side dressers are square—should be intently noticed. In regard to the number of the legs, this is governed by the length of the dresser. In some examples there are six legs and a stretcher is continued round three sides. In such examples the legs begin to show indications of the late Jacobean style in their more delicate turning.
Walnut varieties of similar design offer more sumptuous decoration and belong to a class of furniture more suitable for the manor house than for the farm or cottage.
Before passing to later examples it should be observed that this particular form of dresser is most frequently found without shelves. Examples there are which, as we shall show, have the original top, but as a rule it is advisable to note this feature in examining these Jacobean dressers, for there are a great number in the market to which later tops have been added, to suit more modern requirements, or as likely to prove more attractive to those collectors not familiar with the dresser in its earlier form. Originally in early dressers with shelves there is no backboard, that is to say, the shelves showed the wall behind them. This deficiency has often been obligingly supplied by later hands.
The dresser, as it is found after certain transitional stages had been passed through, is a set piece of furniture possessing attributes instantly marking it as having been carefully designed with a due observance as to the purpose to which it was to be put.
The back with shelves was a useful addition, which not infrequently included small cupboards on either side.
On page 81 we illustrate a typical dresser of an early type with four legs and stretchers. It has three drawers, each of two "Jacobean" panels, and the upper part with three graded shelves is ornamented by a primitive scalloped design suggestive of the provincial hand. About this time nests of boxes and drawers in lacquer work from the East began to be imported into this country in the better houses, first as articles of great luxury and beauty, on account of their colour and fine gold work, and later as being something new and essentially utilitarian in regard to the accommodation they afforded for the treasures the housewife wished to put away from the prying eyes of her curious neighbours. As time went on, the art of the cabinet-maker became more intricate. It is not the place here to enter into the minutiae of the development of drawers and bureaux and cabinets, but the late eighteenth century brought to such furniture, apart from points in relation to beauty of design, great constructive skill. The age was one given to hidden contrivances and intricately cunning mechanism concealing secret drawers or receptacles. Such pieces were never made for farmhouse use; but the germ of the idea is ever present in all furniture with indications of locked drawers and cupboards. This is the note of complex civilization as against the simpler modes of primitive folk who have no bolt to their door and no lock to guard their possessions.
The examples with double cupboards are interesting as giving a date to the dressers in which they are found. It is usually safe to place such pieces in the William and Mary period, that is to say, from the year 1689 to the end of the seventeenth century. The tendency in this class of furniture is to cling tenaciously to older forms, especially in certain portions of the cabinet-work which presented difficulties to the local cabinet-maker. The legs retained their early Jacobean character even when associated with much later styles.
That the dresser could be made an ornamental piece of furniture and found its place as an important possession in the farmhouse, bright with an array of china, or pewter, or even silver, is amply shown by the examples illustrated. Some features which give distinction to its lines include broken or serpentine ends to the shelves. Such curves and simple touches of ornament all contribute to make such dressers pleasing in character and representative of rural work attempting with strong endeavour to produce artistic results suitable to their environment.
It is not to be expected that the long-continued triumph of the cabriole leg of the eighteenth century would by-pass the dresser without making its mark thereon. The exact curve of the cabriole leg is dangerous in the hands of a novice, who rarely if ever gets the correct balance in con-junction with the rest of the construction. Accordingly, in farmhouse pieces, this tells its own story. It is as though the cabriole leg were a sudden afterthought.
In the Lancashire Dresser illustrated (p. 85) the top is reminiscent of early types. The cupboard has removed its position to the middle, a departure from all earlier forms. This is a very characteristic example, and the ample drawer accommodation shows the speedy transition from the old form of dresser through its varied stages to the later modern variety of the kitchen dresser, devoid of poetry and lacking interest to the collector, and yet to the student having traces of its ancient lineage.
The eighteenth-century farmhouse varieties offer no great departure. They aim at being capacious and massive. They make no pretentions to approach the niceties of the sideboard in use in the better houses. They supply an undoubted want in the farmhouse for storage. There were cordials and home-made wines and much prized linen and a bright array of silver and Sheffield plate and pewter, and no doubt tea services or porcelain from the new English factories of Worcester, Derby, Bow, or maybe Plymouth or Bristol, to be shielded from breakage. The farmer's wife and the farmer's daughters would have been less than human if they had not followed the new fashions in some degree, more or less, in tea-drinking and in be-coming the proud possessors of tea services and dinner services somewhat more delicate than the old delft and coarse Staffordshire ware. The cupboards had ample accommodation for these more valuable accessories of the farmhouse parlour. The cabinetmaker therefore developed on lines exactly suitable for the country clients whom he served.
The late forms show this marked tendency to provide innumerable drawers and cupboards, in the farmhouse dressers contemporary with Chippendale. Many examples are found which are practically elongated chests of drawers; the old characteristics of the dresser are absent, the back has disappeared altogether. There is no top with shelves. Large drawers and capacious cupboards give great storage room in a piece often 9 feet in length. There is nothing finicky in this type of furniture. It stands for homely comfort and love of domestic order. We may be sure that the good dame who used such a piece, with its solid drawers with sound locks, was a person of frugal habits and love of the old farmstead. We may safely assume that she had a well-filled stocking hidden away somewhere in this old-fashioned repository, put by for the rainy day.
In conclusion it may be said that a good deal has been written about Welsh dressers, as though they were a type absolutely apart from any other. The differences are not great, as the carving, in which the Welsh craftsman offers characteristics of his own, is absent in pieces of furniture such as the dresser. Then there is the Normandy dresser, a much-abused term : a considerable number of these, and others, too, from Brittany, have been imported and the terms have become trade descriptions. But in the main the English dresser has passed through the phases we have described, and the outlines herein suggested may be filled in by the painstaking collector.