This article focuses on the history of the sideboard table, noting its functions, varying designs, notable craftsmen, and the man who developed the first sideboard table, Thomas Shearer. It originally appeared in the July 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
The early sideboard was more than a decorative piece of dining-room furniture. Functionally, it was the 18th-Century version of the modern serving pantry. In an era when course dinners were unheard of, this piece was literally a sideboard where the various fish dishes, roasts of beef, veal, mutton, pork, and poultry, which it was the custom to serve all at the same time, were carved and kept hot during the meal.
In the homes of the wealthy, the sideboard was the post of the butler at dinner. Here he presided, doing some of the carving and supervising the footmen who did the actual serving. After the meal was over — the gentlemen, having indulged themselves in several rounds of Madeira, port, sherry, brandy, and whiskey, retired to join the ladies in the drawing room — the scene changed and the sideboard became, in fact, a butler’s pantry.
The deep, lead-lined drawers were filled with hot water and there the fine glass and silver was washed. In other narrow deep drawers the partially consumed bottles of wines and stronger beverages were stored under lock and key, and into the knife boxes, that were adjuncts of every well-equipped sideboard, went the silver knives, forks and spoons that never left the dining room. Then with a few choice pieces of plate, china, and glass placed to advantage on its flat top, the sideboard was now ready to perform its between-meals display function.
Improved kitchen equipment and changing social customs eventually removed all dishwashing from the dining room and, as a result, many antique sideboards were denuded of their utilitarian features. Rarely will you find one today with the lead lining of the sink drawers still intact. The same holds true for the tall closets at either end that once were equipped with wirework shelves and a charcoal brazier for keeping food hot. Rarer still will be an example where one of the two classical urns was designed as a water cistern instead of a knife box.
Such examples as do exist, however, show it to have been a most ingenious and useful furniture form during next to the last decade of the 18th Century, when it was first made as a separate and distinct piece. It had its predecessors, though, as early as the Stuart period, in the dresser and the court cupboard. These were often elaborately carved pieces of display furniture made of oak and further enhanced by the use of red and black paint. Then came the court cupboard of the Jacobean period which was more expertly made and fashioned with a more conscious style sense.
In the William and Mary years the dresser came into real favor, and was made either with legs or an enclosed base that formed one or more closets. Above the serving top rose a series of shelves, generally narrower as they ascended, for the display of plates and platters. The Queen Anne period produced a modified form of this piece. Here the legs were cabriole in form and there were drawers beneath the serving or table top. The shelves above were also given more elaborate and decorative shaping.
With the early Georgian period, the dresser was replaced by the side table; and, during the Chippendale era that followed, this became an elaborate and decorative piece of furniture. It was a long and relatively narrow table, designed to stand at the side of the dining room. There were no drawers and the top was either of handsomely polished fine wood or of mottled marble. In fact, in his book of furniture designs, Chippendale included seven for this particular piece which he called a “sideboard table.”
Under the structural restraint and classic ornamentation of the Brothers Adam, the sideboard table became a most imposing piece. In fact, it became five pieces designed to stand together and serve one purpose. In the center was the sideboard table itself, frequently with six legs, but no drawers in the bed beneath the top. At either side was a separate closet piece — built square, or nearly so, and a little taller than the central table. On each of these pedestal-like forms stood handsomely wrought urns. These were for the storage of knives, forks and spoons, or, as already stated, sometimes only one was designed for that purpose; the other might be lined with metal and provided with a small faucet to serve as a water cistern. This latter was intended for rinsing the silver and glass, water not then being considered a desirable beverage.
With this background, it is easy to see how the sideboard was evolved. Also, as we know it today, it bears the name, not of its originator, but of Hepplewhite. His furniture designs, as published by his widow Anne, were so popular in both England and America that any piece of furniture which in line, proportion and ornamental detail resembles those in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide is immediately associated in the collector’s mind with the name Hepplewhite.
This is one of those misnomers that have gained such universal use over the years that little can be done about it now. But if belated justice could be done, the man who evolved the sideboard which was made by English and American cabinetmakers in the furniture styles of Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the Regency, we should by rights refer to these useful dining-room pieces as Shearer sideboards.
Thomas Shearer, a London cabinetmaker of enough prominence to have his own shop and be a member of the London Society of Cabinet-Makers, was the man who actually took the various elements of its predecessors and evolved a piece of furniture that was different and distinct and which we know today as the sideboard.
We have very little biographical information about him. Where he came from, how long he worked in London, or whether he enjoyed royal patronage is missing information. We do know that as a member of the London Society of Cabinet-Makers he undertook the work of compiling The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices which was published by the society, first in 1788, with a second edition in 1793, a third in 1804, and others as late as 1820.
Of course, Shearer probably had little to do with anything after the first three editions and may not have been concerned with any but the first two. This Book of Prices was totally different from Chippendale’s Director. The latter was a fashion style book, to be used by gentlemen about to order new furniture made for them.
Shearer’s book was designed to serve quite a different purpose. It contained the price schedules that London cabinetmakers would pay the journeymen working in their shops for over a hundred different pieces of furniture, with minute additional payments where the piece was larger or more elaborate, than the one taken for the basis of payment.
This was very important, for all work in the London cabinetmakers’ shops at that time was on a piecework basis. Therefore, this book might almost be called the “union scale” of the time. Its purpose was to establish uniform rates of pay for like work in all of the shops operated by members of the London Society of Cabinet-Makers. As such, it must have been of great service both to master cabinetmakers and to their journeymen workmen. It settled disputes with authority and finality. Also, workmen who “knew their book” could, if sufficiently persuasive with the foremen under whom they worked, get assigned to the making of furniture for which the book quoted the most advantageous wage rates.
Such were some of the contemporary advantages of the Book of Prices, but its significance today for collectors and students of antique-furniture design lies in the twenty-nine plates of design that are also included. Of these, plates numbered one through fourteen and seventeen and twenty are signed in the lower left-hand corner in fine script engraving “Shearer delin.” Seven others bear a Hepplewhite surname. But as this was nearly three years after George Hepplewhite’s death, it is reasonable to suppose that they were by some designer working for the widow Anne, head of the firm of A. Hepplewhite and Co. Two other plates were signed by a designer named Casement, of whom we know nothing.
The most important plates are the five by Shearer, numbers two, four, five, and six, since they delineate the new sideboard of which he was the originator. The Book of Prices and Hepplewhite’s Guide appeared the same year, 1788. The latter has long been better known and in addition, it contains two unnumbered plates of sideboards in the Shearer manner. This undoubtedly explains why collectors have so long classed all of these pieces as Hepplewhite.
However, recent research has unearthed strong evidence that the sideboards shown in the Guide were actually designed by Shearer, who was hired to do them by widow Anne. It is also to be noted that they do not bear anybody’s name as the designer but simply the publication line, “London, Published by I. & J. Taylor, No. 56 High Holborn.” As one bears the date July 2, 1787, and the other that of September 1, 1787, it is equally possible that they were Shearer plates brought out individually.
I. & J. Taylor were the publishers of the Guide for Hepplewhite’s widow. As owners of the copperplate engravings, as well as any possible copyright, it is not beyond belief that they might have included these two sideboard plates to make the book larger. Certainly their design is very unlike the three side tables that are also shown in the Guide.
So much for the probable reasons why Hepplewhite has long been credited with a piece of furniture design obviously evolved by his contemporary Shearer. It is interesting to note that Thomas Sheraton, who had so little of a complimentary nature to say regarding the books of furniture design that preceded his own initial effort, does not belittle Shearer’s Book of Prices.
On the contrary, his comment in the preface to his book, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, was:
“I shall now conclude this account of books of design with observing that in the same year” (as the Guide) “was given a quarto book of different pieces of furniture, as The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices; and considering that it did not make its appearance under the title of a book of designs, but only to illustrate prices, it certainly lay claim to merit and does honour to the publishers.”
Undoubtedly, Sheraton knew Shearer’s work as a designer and also as the head of a cabinetmaking shop of standing. His comments in his preface indicate a higher regard for his work, also, than that of many other craftsmen then active in London. Certainly, in construction and ornamental decoration, the Sheraton designs show greater Shearer influence than those of other London cabinetmakers who had published books of design. This is especially true of Sheraton’s first volume where Shearer’s influence is most marked. In it are four sideboard designs. And while they differ, at least two bear strong resemblance to the plates in the Shearer’s Book of Prices.
With the publication of the latter, American cabinetmakers rapidly adapted this new piece of furniture, the sideboard, to the needs of their customers on this side of the Atlantic. Within two years cabinetmakers from Boston to Baltimore were making sideboards closely akin to those which Thomas Shearer signed as designer in the Book of Prices and to the two that appear with no name in the Hepplewhite Guide. Thus the era of the American sideboard began in 1790 and continued through the American Empire years.
There were changes, of course, in structure and ornamental detail; and, from the beginning, few American versions included dishwashing and water-storage features. These were appointments designed for the large mansions of England. American life was simpler, even with our wealthy families. But if one studies a hundred representative American sideboards as made by the best of our cabinetmakers, one will find the Shearer influence impressive and undeniable.
From the time when sideboards following the designs by Thomas Shearer began to be made by American cabinetmakers, several craftsmen produced unusually fine pieces of this furniture form. Among them was Mills and Deming of New York. This partnership seems to have specialized in this piece of furniture and several examples have survived that are labeled or for which there are documents to prove their origin.
In Boston, John Seymour and Son made sideboards which were characterized by tambour slides instead of doors for the closet beneath the central door. Salem cabinetmakers, whose wares were largely marketed far from home by the Sanderson Brothers, included many fine examples of this piece with ornamental details peculiar to Salem workmanship.
In New Brunswick, New Jersey, Matthew Egerton made graceful sideboards. One bearing his label was exhibited in New York about four years ago. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, South Carolina, also had their craftsmen who made sideboards with distinctive local details. But north or south, the basic design was that of Shearer.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.