Flashback: Antique Furniture with Double Uses

April 16th, 2010

This article describes furniture with a functional design – that is, furniture with multiple uses, such as a settee that doubles as a table or a library chair that unfolds, revealing a step-ladder to be used to reach a book on a high shelf. It originally appeared in the February 1943 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.

“Functional design.” For better than a decade this phrase has been worked and over-worked. Architects, production executives and writers of advertising have used it consistently to arrest attention and have done this with such impact that many have come to consider it as one of the marvels of the l9th Century. But functional design is nothing new.

A Knee Hole Dressing Table: Made by John Goddard the famous cabinetmaker of Newport, Rhode Island, this block-front mahogany piece was adapted from Chippendale designs. The cupboard at the rear of the knee hole was used as storage of the owner's wig block. Many of these pieces had the top drawer hinged and the lower side fitted for writing. Then it was also used as a desk.

A Knee Hole Dressing Table: Made by John Goddard the famous cabinetmaker of Newport, Rhode Island, this block-front mahogany piece was adapted from Chippendale designs. The cupboard at the rear of the knee hole was used as storage of the owner's wig block. Many of these pieces had the top drawer hinged and the lower side fitted for writing. Then it was also used as a desk.

Take furniture. The craftsmen in both America and Europe who made the pieces we now prize as collectible antiques were aware of functional use. With them it came before style and ornamentation. Being practical men who had mastered their trade of fashioning wood into furniture, they knew that what they made must stand the grueling test of daily use for many years. Moreover, any cabinetmaker worthy of journeyman standing was expected to be able to make a creditable chair, table, chest of drawers and so forth, but one who could combine two or more uses in a single piece proved himself to be capable of good workmanship and ingenuity. That such men were no rarity is indicated by the surprising number of pieces made for multiple uses.

Structurally, of course, all furniture falls into one of two classes: case pieces and frame pieces. The simplest of the case pieces is the chest. Here we have a bottom, two ends, two sides and a top or lid. By the addition of legs, drawers, cupboard space and the like, this basic form could be developed into a number of different pieces, ranging from a chest of drawers to a break front secretary.

Frame pieces, on the other hand, consist of uprights held together by lighter, horizontal members called stretchers or rails and from them evolve, by structural variations, tables, chairs and beds and related furniture forms. Also as the art of furniture making progressed, craftsmen frequently combined both the case and frame principle and so accomplished such pieces as the highboy which in its initial form was a chest resting on a frame.

A 17th Century Dower Chest: An outstanding piece typical of those of Hartford origin this was an early example of the blanket chest that continued to be made in America through the first quarter of the 19th Century. Beneath the chest part it has two parallel drawers. Made of paneled oak, decoration of the front was achieved by shallow carving and half-round applied turnings painted black.

A 17th Century Hutch Chair: With the top up it is an armchair and with it down a table. Pieces of the same design were made for settles. Hutch chairs continued to be made in America until well into the 19th Century, particularly by country cabinetmakers. Pine was wood most frequently used.

With these two structural types of furniture in mind we can now, in the manner of a crossword puzzle, make a brief survey of those pieces of antique furniture that were built for more than one use. One of the earliest, dating back at least to the Tudor period, was the settee with paneled back, enclosed base, and hinged wooden seat. Raise it and beneath was a capacious chest for storage purposes.

Of the same period and made for a long time in both England and America was the hutch chair. Here a frame and cross members gave support to a seat of wood and to the arms above the seat level a square, oblong, or round table top was attached with round, wooden pegs or pins. In upright position it became the back of a primitive armchair; folded over on the arms a table resulted. Obviously this piece of furniture that could be either a table or a chair was most practical, especially in homes that did not have too many rooms or too much furniture.

Some examples have survived of larger proportions, where with top tilted up it was a settee and with top down it became a table of larger size. The finest of these hutch settees have an enclosed base and a hinged seat or lid. Thus, it served three purposes: storage chest, settle, and dining table large enough for six or eight people.

As early as the hutch pieces were two cupboards, court and press, which were not only ornamental pieces for the main living room but served also as storage places for table wares and foods. For their time they took the place of the sideboard of later date though neither had the flat top suitable for the display of silver or for serving space during a meal.

17centdowerchest

A 17th Century Dower Chest: An outstanding piece typical of those of Hartford origin this was an early example of the blanket chest that continued to be made in America through the first quarter of the 19th Century. Beneath the chest part it has two parallel drawers. Made of paneled oak, decoration of the front was achieved by shallow carving and half-round applied turnings painted black.

Closely linked with these two cupboards which were not made after the end of the 17th Century, was the blanket chest. This in its various forms continued to be made in America for over two hundred years. It had a hinged top that gave access to a deep chest for storage of sheets and blankets. Beneath were one or two drawers. Some, notably those made at Hadley, Massachusetts and at Hartford, farther south on the Connecticut River, were beautifully ornamented and served as dower chests.

With the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods several new pieces of furniture appeared and persisted until the Chippendale era had run its course. First there was the highboy, which got its start as a chest mounted on frame, and its companion, frequently made with matching decoration, the lowboy. Although the latter lent itself to a variety of uses, there is every indication that its original purpose was that of dressing table. With a mirror hung on the wall above, its size and arrangement of drawers made it a practical piece for this purpose.

Another piece that combined the function of the dressing table with other uses was the knee hole bureau table. Here there was a cupboard space at the rear of the knee hole for the owner’s wig block, while the top drawer extending the entire width of the piece was fitted for writing.

An Early Chippendale Lowboy: While often made to match a highboy, lowboys were largely used as dressing tables. The size and number of drawers made such pieces most convenient for this use.

An Early Chippendale Lowboy: While often made to match a highboy, lowboys were largely used as dressing tables. The size and number of drawers made such pieces most convenient for this use.

The card table was a piece of many uses from the Queen Anne period through the American Empire years. With its double or even triple top unopened, it could be pushed against the wall and serve as a pier or console table. With the top opened to its full extent, it became either a card or tea table. Some examples, notably of the Chippendale period, were equipped with places for candlesticks and carved out depressions for coins or gambling chips.

Its contemporary, the tripod table with hinged top, was another dual use piece. With top horizontal, it was a convenient small table; with top in vertical position, the large block joining pedestal and top became a serviceable candle-stand. Proof of this little regarded secondary use is to be found in the number of examples where the under surface of the top has been charred by candle flames.

Functional design is readily apparent in the three-part dining table which came with the Hepplewhite style. Its uses ranged from a cozy board for two or four people with the ends doubling as serving tables, to a dining table of banquet proportions.

Library Armchair and Steps: This chair of Chippendale design was originally owned by Benjamin Franklin, for whom it was made by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker, probably after his plan of construction. The seat tips up and the steps on the under side become a practical step-ladder.

Library Armchair and Steps: This chair of Chippendale design was originally owned by Benjamin Franklin, for whom it was made by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker, probably after his plan of construction. The seat tips up and the steps on the under side become a practical step-ladder.

Although fine needlework was always considered a feminine accomplishment, Sheraton in his designs showed what could he achieve in a table especially for women. It took several forms and lent itself to more than one use. In reality a combination of a sewing basket and a light stand with writing facilities sometimes added, such tables were in distinct demand. Some of the foremost American cabinetmakers, such as Duncan Phyfe, made them with beautiful ornamentation and complete provisions for their primary and secondary purposes.

Just a little earlier was the dressing table known as a Beau Brummell, in honor of the London man of fashion and intimate of the Prince of Wales, who achieved fame as a dandy. It had an enclosed two-part top hinged at the sides. When opened there was a folding shaving mirror and all of the appointments of a masculine toilet. Such tables followed the designs of Hepplewhite and Sheraton and though ingenious in equipment were made over a comparatively short period, especially in America. This was probably due to the abrupt change in masculine dress when the powdered wig and its accompaniments were displaced by simpler and more republican styles.

Among the case pieces, the sideboard as designed by Thomas Shearer was practically a serving pantry. Many were provided with a pewter lined compartment where the butler could wash silver and glass after a meal was finished. With others, the tall cupboards at either end were equipped with metal braziers for keeping platters of food hot. Still other sideboards had a hinged front for the central horizontal drawer that became a desk when drawn out. Pieces so equipped were known as butler’s desks since the chief servant or the mistress of the house wrote and kept the household accounts in this compartment.

Bull's Eye Mirror Sconce: A handsomely carved and gilded piece made in New York about 1800, the circular convex mirror reflected the light of the four candles placed in the sconce arm at either side.

Bull's Eye Mirror Sconce: A handsomely carved and gilded piece made in New York about 1800, the circular convex mirror reflected the light of the four candles placed in the sconce arm at either side.

Similar case pieces where functional design played its part was the secretary which was really a combination of a desk and a book case. This saw its ultimate development in the break front secretary in which the central desk section was flanked on either side by additional book case units.

Chairs were frequently made to serve other purposes. The most often found is the writing Windsor with broad extension arm for taking pen in hand. Many of them also had small drawers beneath the seat or writing arm or both, for the safe keeping of paper, quill pens, and even ink pots and sand shakers, the blotting paper of the day.

Much rarer was the library armchair where the seat tilted up to disclose a set of steps for use when the owner wanted to reach a book on one of the upper shelves of his library. One of these belonged to Benjamin Franklin and is now in the collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Made in the style of Chippendale it is considered that. Dr. Franklin commissioned one of the ablest of the Philadelphia cabinetmakers to make it after his own ideas for double duty.

A Hepplewhite Butler's Side Board: An example of Salem, Massachusetts, cabinetmaking. It was made about 1800-1810. The top drawer is fitted as a desk. When pulled out, the front folds down to make it practical for writing. It was made of crotch grain mahogany veneer with decorative inlays of wood of contrasting colors.

A Hepplewhite Butler's Side Board: An example of Salem, Massachusetts, cabinetmaking. It was made about 1800-1810. The top drawer is fitted as a desk. When pulled out, the front folds down to make it practical for writing. It was made of crotch grain mahogany veneer with decorative inlays of wood of contrasting colors.

Although mirrors and clocks are not strictly pieces of furniture, both were sometimes made to serve two purposes. For example, there were mirrors with frames equipped with candle sconces and when the candles were lighted, the glass naturally reflected the illumination. Distinctly made for this double purpose was the carved and gilded frame with candle arms that held a circular convex mirror. Known today as bull’s eye sconces, these were made in England and America from the latter part of the 18th Century until lamps replaced candles.

Making a clock that was both a timepiece and a mirror was done exclusively with the shelf type, made after the beginning of the 19th Century. Simon Willard was among the first to occasionally place a sheet of mirror glass in the front of his shelf clocks beneath the time-telling dial. This practice became quite common later with the inexpensive timepieces of Chauncey Jerome and his contemporaries in Connecticut.

It should not be thought or inferred that American cabinetmakers were more prone to make pieces that combined two or more uses than their English brethren. On the contrary, the latter probably made an even greater variety of double purpose furniture. There is sound ground for believing that, in many instances, such pieces were first made in England and later copied and adapted by American furniture makers to comply with the household needs of their customers.

Sewing and Writing Table by Phyfe: Made of satin wood and decorated by pleated silk, this piece was designed for feminine use. The raised lid discloses the writing space, and half round storage space for sewing materials. There is also a small mirror that raises at the rear of the writing tablet.

Sewing and Writing Table by Phyfe: Made of satin wood and decorated by pleated silk, this piece was designed for feminine use. The raised lid discloses the writing space, and half round storage space for sewing materials. There is also a small mirror that raises at the rear of the writing tablet.

English books of furniture design, including those published even earlier than Thomas Chippendale’s Director, contain numerous plates showing multiple use pieces. To the designers they were practical novelties and the explanatory text was explicit regarding the varying uses of “mechanical furniture” as such places were called.

For a brief survey of furniture of this kind which was of English origin, a study of Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, and Sheraton’s series of books gives a comprehensive contemporary record of the “mechanical” pieces made by cabinetmakers from about 1754 to 1812, the period during which the books of these three master designers were published. It also shows that demand for furniture that could serve a double purpose increased steadily through these years.

Fire Screen and Desk: For the latter use the front drops forward. Of mahogany with decorative inlay it follows the Hepplewhite design but was made in New York about 1790 for Anne Stevenson who married General Pierre ran Cortlandt.

Fire Screen and Desk: For the latter use the front drops forward. Of mahogany with decorative inlay it follows the Hepplewhite design but was made in New York about 1790 for Anne Stevenson who married General Pierre ran Cortlandt.

Chippendale’s designs include three such pieces. They are a commode clothes press, a blanket chest with drawers below, and the bureau table which has already been cited and which was the original design source of the American knee hole dressing tables and desks.

In Hepplewhite’s book the number of designs for mechanical furniture increased sharply. Among them are to be found the duchess, in which larger and smaller armchairs and matching stool grouped together form a sophisticated variation on the bed; his Rudd’s table, a complicated but practical piece of many uses; reading stands that could be used by musicians to hold the score when singing or when playing string or wind instruments; and a wide variety of night tables that included toilet uses.

Sheraton’s books show more than the other two combined. Here we find such things as two library tables that could be converted into ladders with as many as seven steps; combined bedside and toilet tables, dressing tables, and wash stands; fire screens that were also desks; a chair that could be extended into a bed; a folding field bed that was probably most useful for an officer going off to the Napoleonic wars; library tables equipped for playing chess, checkers, and backgammon; a traveling box that was both desk and toilet case; and a cheval mirror that could serve as a fire screen when closed.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

4 comments so far

  1. chuck sorter Says:

    I saw a chair in an older home on a recent trip that folded over into a step ladder. They wouldn’t let me take photos or any measurements. The lady thought it was a “butlers chair” or “butlers ladder”. I would like to make one but have found nothing in four hours of searching. Hoping as it would have a double use – you might know of its proper name or a site I could get a better look.

    Thanks.

  2. Lyette Segerdahl Says:

    I found an antique chair that someone threw away at a dump site. I have refinished it and it’s beautiful. It is either an “over the toilet” or it requires a pot under neath. The solid seat lifts to reveal a toilet seat. It is a beautiful wood and the back, seat, front and sides are caned. I had the the bottom front panel redone and it had to be hand caned.
    I don’t even know how old it might be. I am assuming it may be circa late 1800s. I’m not even sure what they were called. This particular one has no arms. I once saw one like it at one of the Vanderbilt’s mansions. Do you have any info you could give me. Thanks

  3. Debby Smith Says:

    My mother has a small table, the top is rectangle and is hinged on back side and lifts revealing a deep pocket that is approx. 10″ x 8″ and 10″ deep. Looks like the pocket had a piece that concealed it but is missing. Outside is burel wood with beautiful inlaid work on top and around the square bottom. The bottom part narrows gradually downward and has four legs that are centered on very bottom and span out with ball feet. There are no drawers. At first we thought it was a sewing table but we were told it is a tea poy, where tea was hidden. Can you help with this?

  4. Hollie Parrott Says:

    I have a folding rocking chair with a brocade seat and insert in the back. It also has two small pictures on brocade inlaid near the top of the back. I would like to get the chair restored and find out some history on it. Can you help?


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