Early Tables Had Many Names, Uses

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, January 2006 

Two part round chair table. Base with lift top compartment. Courtesy: James D. Julia Auctions. Fairfield, ME

Would you recognize a “butterfly” table or a “chair” table? These are just two types of tables made in the 18th century. In those days a table was more than a table or had a double function. A good example is the “chair” table that easily converted. Also known as the hutch table, it sometimes had a storage compartment under a hinged seat. Another form, the circular hutch table, was built on trestle ends. By the early 19th century the chair table was mounted on turned legs.  It and other styles of tables changed over the 18th and 19th centuries, as the structure of American society changed. New fashions and manners also influenced these changes.

In early Colonial America the trestle table, basically a long board, resting on trestles, was called “table board and frame”. It evolved into a variety of styles such as tea tables, serving tables and sewing tables.

Another popular Colonial style was the gateleg table. It took on a new form as the single-gate or tuck away table.

A style unique to America was the “butterfly” table. It had a swinging bracket instead of a gateleg. It got its name from the wing-shaped bracket. It came in many shapes and sizes. Some had a drawer in the frame.

By the end of the 18th century, the growing middle class began filling their homes with quality furniture. However, since their homes were modest and the rooms small, the tables were scaled down to meet their space needs. Even more important, they didn’t want just smaller copies of old furniture fashions, but new and different styles. For instance, heavy old woods such as oak were outdated. The trendy woods were mahogany, fruitwoods, walnut, ebony and birch. Comfort also played an important role in innovations in dining table designs. By the early 19th century either tripod or quadrupled pedestals gave diners comfortable leg room.

Most of the styles were adapted from English pattern books such as Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite. However, when they became “Americanized” from 1788 to around 1825, they were lumped under the single name “Federal” style.

The English custom of tea drinking brought about the American version of the small te table that could be easily moved. One of the earliest styles was the mahogany tripod. Designed for practicality, it had a swiveled top. When no used it was folded up and placed against the wall.

Another small 18th century table was the wine table, with a pierced, metal gallery top. An 18th century version of TV tray tables, were nested tables. Originally designed by Thomas Sheraton, they are characterized by slender legs and tops often having inlays of contrasting woods. Usually they came with three or four tables, that decreased in size to fit “nest” under each other. By the 19th century they were made of black lacquer and exported from China.

CLUES: All of these popular table styles have been and continue to be reproduced. Late 19th century reproductions are being seriously bought as antiques, which they are.

However, since there is such a price variance between the original period pieces and those done later, careful examination is a must. Warping, period construction and signs of wear, as well as patina, should be taken into consideration. Of course the 19th century pieces will have signs of wear and patina. They will have circular saw marks, when visible, rather than the cross-hatched tool marks of period pieces.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at antshoppe@aol.com

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