“It’s pretty, but what is it for?”

This semester I’m doing in independent study with one of my fellow classmates, Katie, and Winterthur’s furniture curator Josh Lane. To me, this is an opportunity to think about one material in a more complex way that I’ve been able to before; a chance to look at a magnificent mid-eighteenth-century chair and ask not only “who made this and where were they trained?” but also “who sat in this chair? Was it comfortable? What did it allow them to do, or not do?” (You might recognize a theme there with another blog post of mine from a few years ago.)

As it turns out, while there is a ton of literature on individual furniture makers who worked in early America, there’s not a whole lot of scholarship on this type of object after it leaves the workshop. “Why not?” you ask. Well, in part because the study of old things is driven by the market for old things. Antique dealers can add zeros to auction estimates for pieces attributed to certain well-known craftspeople. The signs of use (scratches, dents, stains) which mark an object as the favorite seat of a long-dead stranger are a harder sell for most customers, even though they embody unique stories about our past.

Similarly, the functionality of many furniture forms has little meaning to most modern people. The drawers of a high chest in a museum collection are almost certainly empty. In a private home, those drawers hold twenty-first century belongings. Articles documenting their contents in the first decades of their use are, for some reason, shockingly rare.

For me, however, it is the questions of function, rather than form, which hold my interest. Luckily, at Wintherthur I’m not alone in this. At a recent meeting of my independent study, Katie, Josh, and I spent half an hour debating the functionality of an early eighteenth-century dressing table. This form consists of a small table, with a few drawers in the front. It is designed to hold a looking glass on top, so that an individual might sit at it while completing their toilette.

We tried out one like this – yes, there is room for one knee under there, but neither Katie nor I thought we could reliably get our legs under this table while wearing a dress and not run the risk of breaking off one of the turned acorn drops.  Dressing Table, 1730-1750. Winterthur Museum. 1955.0096.002. 

This is all well and good except that it’s almost impossible to actually sit at most dressing tables of this era. The drawers beneath the table top take up the room where your knees might have gone. We confirmed this by positioning a modern stool in front of one such dressing table and taking turns sitting down in front of it, experimenting with where our legs could and could not go. So how does one use one’s expensive dressing table? Seated sideways? Perched on a stool? Or is it less a table and more of vessel for cosmetics and ribbons, not meant to be sat at at all? Surely not every owner of a dressing table was posing for Francois Boucher!

Francois Boucher,  La Marchande de modes, 1746.  

This post is a call-out, or a suggestion, or maybe a call-to-arms: lets think more about what goes into the drawers, and less about how those drawers we assembled. Let the comfort of a chair be part of the conversation, and the utility of a table be part of its interpretation. Sure, these things are pretty, but lets also talk about what they are for!



2 thoughts on ““It’s pretty, but what is it for?”

  1. I wonder about a person who came from a family that could afford such an elaborate piece of furniture as this dressing table. Would she actually sit at the table while dressing? Wouln’t such a person be more likely to be dressed by a maid, rather than dressing herself? In which case, the person who is being dressed would sit at a slight distance from the table, a little back from it, so that the person who is dressing them can have access to the table and its contents. The dresser, of course, would be standing throughout the process. So, nobody’s legs would be expected to fit under the table. Anyway, that’s my theory.


    1. That’s a possibility… and wouldn’t it be glorious to actually KNOW! We’d need paintings, diaries, or maybe a couple of good period novels to get good accounts of something like this in use.


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