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Tables And Sideboards

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE table must of necessity have been one of the earliest objects of household furniture, following closely, if not contemporary with, the primitive chair. At what time man learned to sit or recline at meat with the table in front of him we know not, but as soon as he had left the savage state and made himself chairs, he would feel the need of a table, although merely a board or plank of wood raised from the ground might serve as the initial step in the march of civilisation.

Egyptian tables were very simple, their plain forms being relieved by painting and occasionally by inlays. The tables used by the Romans and Greeks who reclined when eating were exceptionally low. Their couches were arranged round three sides of such tables, the fourth being left open for the servers to wait upon them. The Romans used a variety of material when fashioning their tables, the handsomer and more decorative ones having metal frames with marble tops, some of them being richly inlaid mosaics. The Byzantine tables- of bronze were supported by columns, often terminating in lions' feet. Other tables of that period were quite small, used probably as stands for Etruscan vases and other purposes, their supports being a single stem with a tripod foot. Several examples of these early tables have been discovered amongst the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.


The tables on which meats were first served in England were merely boards laid on trestles. They were easily put up in the great hall of feasting, and as quickly removed. Trestle tables continued to be used until the fifteenth and even early sixteenth centuries, and were usually designated " the board." Great oaken planks placed upon strong trestles groaned beneath the weight of the meats and heavy dishes in the hall of feasting ; not infrequently boards hinged against a wall, supported by trestles placed under them, supplemented the dining board.

In mediaeval days the dining-table was arranged down one side or across one end of the banqueting hall ; the chief guests sitting with their hosts with their backs to the wall, the serving being done in front, consequently they were narrow and of conveniently portable lengths, the boards taking up little space when not in actual use, the trestles being readily removed from the hall after the feast.

When times became more settled, and the Renaissance in art was being applied to furniture, the oaken tables were beautifully carved, but even when they became stationary they were modelled after the fashion of trestles with boards securely fastened upon them. Such models served in this country until the days of the Tudor kings. In France they were used during the reign of Louis XIV.


The fixed table became a lasting institution. The dining hall was no longer furnished fully without a central table, and in the castles and mansions of the aristocracy before the Commonwealth there was a, lavish expenditure of carving upon the solid table or board, which retained its shape throughout the changes going on in society. Even today the rectangular dining-table is an essential feature, although during the last few years we have gone back to the gate - legged tables of an intermediate period.

As it has become customary to look for a lead on the Continent of Europe for all early styles in furniture development, we may turn for early examples of splendid dining-tables to the feasting days of Germans and Scandinavians. Their tables were strong, massive, and substantial like those of English Tudor days. As early as the tenth century there were well-made tables, both rectangular and semicircular, the legs being either up-right or X-shaped. Round and oval tables were used as early as 1150, but by the time the thirteenth century had been reached the rectangular table was firmly established, and it remained the type of the English dining-table for many years.

The model mostly favoured was a table on four feet joined by stretchers. The tables of the Renaissance were extremely decorative, and the frame and the band or stretcher joining the legs together were carved. At that early period stone tables were sometimes used in castle banqueting halls.

French tables in the seventeenth century were supported by spirally-turned legs, but as the century advanced the tables were made lighter but more decorative. The supports were carved as well as turned ; the legs with heavy bulbous feet being coupled up with straining rails buite near the floor. Some of the legs were swollen out into the form of acorns.. At that time draw-out tables were made for the insertion of leaves which fell into place, and could just as easily be removed and closed up again. Plain spirals were then adopted, giving the table a light appearance, although remarkably strong proportionally to its size.

Some of the tables with legs in the form of acorns were ornamented with picked - out black threads. The many-legged table became fashionable, and some of the smaller gate - legs terminated in curious hoof - like feet, although otherwise quite plain. A very interesting specimen of such a table.

Reference has been made in another chapter to folding benches or bench tables which were very convenient, and served the double purpose. Among early examples of old tables is one in the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, dated 1606, an exceedingly pleasing table and handsomely carved. Until Cromwellian days the tables remained narrow, generally about 2 ft. 4 in., after that they were made wider, and stood away from the walls.

The dining-table does not appear to have been viewed favourably by decorative cabinet-makers as suitable for ornamentation, but as times advanced, and the dining-table served other purposes when not actually used for its original purpose, the " shining mahogany " was carefully preserved. The days of rough usage were past, and the dining-table, the decorative loo table, and the rectangular table supported by four legs were alternately preserved by the use of a cloth, or displayed with pride, because of ornamental inlays and other decorations introduced when marqueterie came into vogue, and at a later date when Hepplewhite and Sheraton produced ornamental parlour tables, which on occasion served in the dining hall. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, and throughout that period, the dining-table was extendable, centre pieces and wide flaps at either end, and semicircular ends being coupled together when a large table was required, such tables answering the purpose of side-tables when not in use. Indeed dining tables may then be said to have been made in sets, and as such they were described by Hepplewhite, a set consisting of a central square table, and two semicircular tables. The semicircular tables served as pier-tables and side tables, and were well suited to the requirements of the latter end of the eighteenth century.

Sheraton favoured the round and oval dining-tables supported on a central pillar with claw feet. These mahogany tables were used along with mahogany chairs, and were in vogue when the side - table had become a sideboard.

Many schemes have been devised by which dining-tables could be lengthened or lessened at will ; the modern dining-table opens out with a screw, leaving a space for the insertion of leaves. One of the earliest inventions, resulting in the perfecting of the dining-table, was made by Richard Gillow in 1800, when he patented a telescopic arrangement described as " an improvement in the method of constructing dining and other tables calculated to reduce the number of legs, pillars, and claws, and to facilitate and render easy their enlargement and reduction " a truly valuable invention. Perhaps another invention should be mentioned, one described by Hepplewhite. It was a horseshoe table, the length being given as 7 ft., extending to 10 ft. when opened by means of flaps which folded back over the top of the table. The width of this dining-table was 2 ft. 6 in. Sheraton hinged his table-tops, the hinged or folding-up round and oval tables being very commonly used in England in the eighteenth century. They had been used on the Continent at an earlier date, although comparatively few early examples are met with.

The side-table proved a very useful innovation made by all the furniture makers in the eighteenth century. Such side - tables followed the then prevailing style of decoration, and were made either to stand against a wall or for use in a more open space, the former being decorative and even shaped on the front and ends, but left quite plain on one side or back, whereas the latter were ornamented equally all round. Among the very early side - tables is the carver's table, a, plain, useful, and substantial table. Then there were the tables for recesses, made to fit the full length of such recesses. Some of the side - tables or dressers were strictly utilitarian and fitted with useful drawers, some made during the Jacobean period, indicating the source from which dressers of the Welsh dresser type sprang. It was from the useful side - table that the sideboard eventually evolved. At one time the table was quite plain, occasionally having one drawer. Upon it stood the knife urns and boxes, and under it the wine cooler.

It has been suggested that the furniture builder, of which the Brothers Adam are such splendid types, looking at the table and admiring the sundry dining-room furniture used in association with it, conceived the idea of putting urn cases, wine coolers, and then a useful cupboard then arranged them in a group into one piece of furniture, the outcome of the sideboard, which from the flat-fronted table became serpentine, broken-fronted, and in other ways ornamental in form. The ends were conveniently fitted up as cellarets, cup-boards, and knife-boxes. The rail was added, and in due course the full sideboard evolved. Fig. 96 represents a characteristic mahogany sideboard of the period 1780-1790, before the rail had been added. It has delightful lion-head ring handles, and the richly marked mahogany is relieved by the dainty shell ornament and string band inlays of tulip wood. Several minor developments in the dining-table and dining-room appointments were made by eighteenth - century furniture makers, notably the table servante, which became popular in France during the reign of Louis XVI. It is a combination side-table and dumb waiter with drawers and shelves, intended to contain all necessary table appointments, and proves a very useful piece.


It is necessary to go back a little in order to point out another development of the table, and to refer briefly to several pieces of "old oak " which are described in their respective places in the review of the periods during which certain articles of furniture were used. The fully-developed sideboard of Georgian days, which was directly evolved from the side-table, had a counterpart in much earlier times, but those earlier pieces had been evolved on different lines, and are more closely allied to the chest than to the table, although their after use makes them more suitable for mention here

The dresser (French, dressoir) dates from quite early times. It then stood in the baronial hall, and was a stage with tiers of degree on which plate could be shown. Such dressers were in reality stands, with small drawers in which could be placed linen cloths and other table appointments. The height or number of shelves and divisions denoted the position claimed by the owner, for in France and in England there were well-defined lines or stages, thus, two shelves were the allotment of the baron ; an earl claimed three ; a princess was allowed four ; and a queen five tiers. The dresser had in fact become a court cupboard of magnificent proportions. It is difficult to draw the line between what should be correctly termed a court cupboard or a buffet, as the earlier piece dresser or table had become a more imposing piece of furniture. It is sometimes said that although the armoire had other uses, the lower part of the dresser or buffet of the sixteenth century was in fact an armoire.

The court cupboard was at an earlier stage in its evolution a low cupboard deriving its name from court, short. The livery cupboard was primarily a food receptacle for servants' rations or for broken food, in which latter use it nearly approached the dole cupboard or hutch, the latter usually ventilated by holes or open fronts with pillars to protect the contents. The livery cupboard was afterwards installed in bedrooms where food for light refreshment was taken. In old houses such cup-boards became known as "bread and cheese" cupboards.

In Jacobean days side-tables or dressers, such as the one shown in Fig. 97, were common. The dresser, however, quite disappeared towards the close of the seventeenth century, its place being taken by the handsomer court cupboards or buffets. The splendid massive carving of the Tudor days was absent in those pieces made during Jacobean reigns, but the quality of finish and better - made stiles and supports were noticeable. Little drop handles of iron began to be used, and later the half-turned baluster ornament.

Fig. 98 is an oak buffet of the reign of Charles I., circa 1730, the panels with sparse inlay being a special feature. This fine buffet is 5 ft. high; 6 ft. 1i in. long, and has a depth of 1 ft. 8 1/2 in. ; it is now in the galleries of Messrs Mallett & Son, of Bath. Fig. 99 is another fine piece of old oak, a Jacobean buffet in the possession of Messrs Waring & Gillow, Ltd.


The tea-table, as distinct from any other table then in use, became an institution between 1760 and 1765, when the fashion for drinking tea came in. Tea had been drunk at an earlier period, but only as a novelty, and no special provision had been made for tables for accommodating the beautiful china that was then being made for the new beverage. But from 1760 onwards many small tables were made, some being known as tea-tables, others as coffee-tables. They were mostly of the tripod form, a decorative stem, supported by three cabriole legs ; so excellent was this device that long after the cabriole leg had been superseded for chairs and other furniture, it remained in vogue as the chief support of the tea-table. Some of these little tables made during Chippendale's career have beautifully carved tripod legs or feet terminating with the claw-and-ball. Such tables, it should be noted, were made at a slightly earlier date, and were useful as candle-stands. They became very decorative, a special feature being a frequent change in the form of the rim or edge. Some had quite a plain mould, some show the edge shaped and moulded, others have shell ornament introduced ; some have the well-known pie crust edge, and when the Chinese influence was in the ascendent a rather deep Chinese or Gothic rail was carried round the edge, forming quite a gallery. The fret - galleried top came into vogue about 1760, after which some very extravagant edges were cut. The round tops were varied with square or broken corners, and some were spaced out in circular compartments for the tea-cups, the centre of the table being ornately carved. Some of the little tripods were no doubt intended as stands for ornaments, and served to add tone to the drawing-rooms in which they were used.


Some very curious writing - tables were made in the middle of the eighteenth century. They have movable tops, and can be raised or lowered in a convenient position for writing purposes. The library was deemed an important room from quite early times. It was there the master of the house transacted his business, and in the library table stored papers of importance. Such tables were frequently fitted with cupboards for books, and the tops were lined with leather or cloth. Some beautiful tables were made in the eighteenth century, and are regarded with much favour by connoisseurs. Now and then we come across writing-desks which have belonged to historic personages, and occasionally presentations are made of writing - tables as souvenirs of great events.

When King Edward VII. signed the South African Act of Union he used a handsome table of Empire style which was then in his library, and as a graceful act shortly afterwards presented the table, the inkstand, and the pen with which he signed that historic document to the Union, these interesting souvenirs being sent over to South Africa along with the Commission conveying the Royal Assent to the Act.


The French word console means a bracket, and thus indicates a table standing or leaning against a wall in bracket fashion. Console tables were greatly used in France in the reign of Louis XV. The frames were usually gilded, and pier-glasses rested on marble tops. Some during the Empire period were very elaborately decorated in white and gold. In many instances the glass was almost a part of the table, resting and attached to the framework. By an ingenious arrangement the table frequently appears double when viewed from a little distance, the reflection through the pier-glass giving it a most delusive yet pleasing effect. Sheraton insisted that pier-tables were indispensable in the drawing-room, and he offered his patrons an ample selection in his pattern books. Console tables became very popular in this country, and under the inspiration of the Brothers Adam, Chippendale, and Sheraton became very varied, the pier-glasses (see chapter xxvi.) adding much to the appearance of the rooms or hall in which they were used.


It is a moot point as to which are the most decorative materials employed in making tables. In quite early days bronze and gilded metals were considered the most effective. Carved oak tables were massive and impressive, but they can scarcely be called pleasingly decorative. The Florentine mosaics were used upon tables of wood and marble, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries intarsia work was the chief ornament of decorative tables. One of the most magnificent specimens of such mosaic work is a table of the chateau de Richelieu in the Louvre Museum, said to have cost 900,000 francs. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there are some magnificent specimens of decorative tables, especially in the Jones bequest. Such decorative tables were made in France during the reign of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., and served as models for English makers. Most of the cabinet-makers in the latter half of the eighteenth century gave special attention to the making of tables. In Hepplewhite's pattern-book considerable space is allotted to library tables, card-tables, pier-tables, and ornamental tables as candle-stands, and for vases and other ornaments. The little Pembroke tables were specially described by Sheraton, who advocated their use as breakfast- or writing-tables. Fig. 100 represents a useful Georgian side-table, but one which must be regarded as ornamental, for its enrichments in the centre, and on the legs, which are gilded, are very ornate. Its date is about 1735.


Tables for games, especially for chess and back-gammon, were made as early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but specially-made tables suitable for card playing were seldom made before the beginning of the eighteenth century. These were made with spaces for the counters, the commoner form being the folding top table, which when not used for cards served so well as a side-table. Two examples are shown in Figs. 101 and 102, Fig. 102 representing a table with beautifully shaped legs and ornamental carvings ; the other, Fig. 101, being a Hepplewhite design with Adam influence. Chippendale made a card-table with an extending frame, using both fretwork and carving as ornament.


The drawing - room table which prevailed in France during the Empire period, was either oval or round, standing on four legs, the ornament being either lions' heads or sphinxes. Similar styles were adopted by English makers, but most of the drawing-room tables, other than those which were purely decorative, were of the pillar-and-claw type, already referred to. Early in the nineteenth century drawing-room centre tables were made larger, frequently inconveniently so. They occupied prominent positions in the room, and were covered over with various knickknacks, a somewhat imposing ornament often occupying the centre position on the table.


Dressing - tables only came into vogue late in the eighteenth century, although some very charming tables or stands had been brought over to this country from abroad. Fig. 103 is a toilet-table with looking-glass and a drawer in which a number of little boxes form convenient receptacles for toilet requisites, the folding flap of the table providing a table top. These quaint little tables were lacquered and ornamented in different styles, the ornamental style being frequently copied by English makers. The lady's dressing - table, as designed by Chippendale, took the form of a small commode. Hepplewhite's dressing-tables are chiefly noted for the ingenious arrangements of little drawers and convenient glasses. Hepplewhite had a speciality he called "Rudd's dressing-table," which he describes as the most complete dressing-table ever made (it took its name from a once popular character by whom it was said to have been invented). Chippendale had some very interesting sundry toilet appliances, such, for instance, as a shaving-table with folding top, the glass rising out of the table when moved by a spring catch. Describing a lady's dressing-table Chippendale refers to " the large drawer which is full of conveniences for dressing, and to the dressing-glass which comes forward with folding hinges. On either side of the glass there is a small cupboard with either silver or transparent glass ; inside the cupboard quite a number of small pigeon holes." As Chippendale says, " this design has been made in rosewood and gave entire satisfaction."

He illustrates another dressing - table made during the period when Chippendale design had run riot. The description reads : " On the top is a large looking glass which comes to the front with joint hinges, and over it a compartment ; and on each side-end parts with doors that represent drawers." The ornaments were gilt, and the drapery silk damask with gold fringes and tassels.

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