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- Inside Antiques,
by Robert Reed
- Inside Antiques:
- Delightful Mysteries of the Dressing Table
- By Robert Reed
Like Shakespeares rose, a classic dressing table would
likely appear as beautiful by any other name.
- In fact, it did indeed appear by many other names. From time
to time, in place to place, it was a dress box, chamber table,
lowboy, a low chest of drawers, pedestal-and-cupboard, vanity
table, or a kneehole table.
- In France, it was a poudreuse. In England it was sometimes
called a Beau Brummel for British dandy George Bryan Brummell
said to be the prince of fashion who regularly took five hours
- Generally speaking, the early dressing table was defined
more by usage than by design. Typically, if the piece had some
sort of accompanying mirror and a place for cosmetics it qualified
for the term.
- Historians usually date dressing tables as beginning in the
1690s. However, American documents show Captain James Archer
was using some type of looking glass attached to a case or chest
much earlier. An inventory of his possessions in 1607 listed
one chest of drawers, one dress box, three looking-glasses
and one glass case.
- From the 1690s forward, throughout the William and Mary period,
dressing tables were found in considerable profusion. Many were
made of solid walnut, while others were simply veneered.
- Some were provided with the deep side drawers and a shallow
drawer in the center usually with brass key plates and handles.
Some were even more elaborate with an inlaid band around the
top of the table and the faces of the drawers enhanced with special
of the dressing table, espcially in the early days, could vary.
Some makers were satisfied with plain legs, while others favoured
the cabriole shape and web feet of Dutch influence. Moreover,
some had four legs while others had six legs - four in the front
and two in the back.
- The one essential thing however for most every dressing table
was the mirror or looking glass. Just how the looking glass
was incorporated in the design of a particular dressing table
was another mystery.
- In the case of the aforementioned Captain Archer, the looking
glasses were described as having been fitted to both the chest
and the so-called box.
- Meanwhile, John Bowman writes in the volume American Furniture
of an easel mirror, together with jewel boxes, a hair receiver,
and candle sticks which ornamented the surface of the dressing
- There is more.
- Other accounts describe a separate swing-frame mirror used
with a rectangular dressing table. Still others speak of mirrored
lids in the center of such tables which lifted up to reveal compartments
- Perhaps it was summed up best by Joseph Aronson in The Encyclopedia
of Furniture who explained, Men made much of dressing tables
in England and France, and for over a century much ingenuity
was expended on arrangements of mirrors, lighting and so forth.
- And what about this business of self-adornment anyway? Often
overlooked in the study of classic dressing tables is their moral
- Basically, the dressing table was developed during the17th
and 18th centuries to accommodate affluent men and women who
wanted to look their best. However, in their study Southern Furniture
authors Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown have pointed out not
everyone agreed at the time.
- Certain conservative sets or groups deeply believed that
to enhance or alter the work of the Almighty was harmful. Thus
they - and others - concluded the dressing table could then be
a very controversial piece of furniture.
- Where they were in use, Hurst and Prown point out individuals
sat in front of small mirrors and dolled up. Women dressed their
hair and applied lotions or perfumes. Men
shaved and tied back their hair or donned wigs over clean shaved
early 1700, a walnut dressing table might have included a bevelled
swinging glass inside a carved and gilt frame. Further beading
molding ornamentation might have been added to the taste of the
- Ironically, although the dressing table of the 18th century
would later be referred to by some as a lowboy, during that particular
century it was not.
- Scholars point out that while 18th century records mention
low chests and dressing tables, the lowboy reference
is absent. It didnt come into use until the 19th century.
- During the flow of the Queen Anne era, dressing tables became
even more elegant. One feature was a central recess for the knees
along with the addition of more drawers. At that time, the lifting
lid became more typical. The lifting lid basically provided a
hinged mirror plus more room for powder boxes and additional
- Examples from that era offered at modern auction gallery
auctions have included a 1740s piece with three long and three
short drawers; or a 1750s piece with a central drawer above two
- The (North American) dressing table of the early 18th
century, like that in France, became an important furnishing
because of the custom of women receiving visitors in the bedroom,
notes Rita Rief, author of The Antique Collectors Guide
to Styles and
Prices. More often than not, it appeared without the desk
portion in the back.
- By the 1750s, the lifting ledge of the dressing table was
being replaced by a top drawer made to pull out on runners. Separate
swinging glass mirrors were also mounted on side pillars in some
- Additionally, around the middle of the 18th century top drawers
were cloth lined, and at times adjustable racks of mirrors were
Period dressing tables, seen in the latter part of the 18th century,
were often squaretopped and frequently included small handkerchief
drawers as well.
- As North America entered the 19th century, the kneehole dressing
table was a common sight in the homes of the well-to-do. Numerous
mirrors enabled the lady of the house to apply an increasing
variety of cosmetic at her leisure.
- Sometimes the tables were referenced as lowboys to correspond
with the bedrooms taller chest or highboy. Later the term
might simply be vanity table.
- Today, classic dressing tables of the past appear in leading
antique venues and often command princely sums from serious collectors
of fine furniture.
- Photo 1 - Queen Anne carved walnut dressing table or lowboy
- Photo 2 - Chippendale shell-carved walnut dressing table
ca 1750s (Skinner Inc.)
- Photo 3 - Chippendale shell-carved walnut dressing table
ca 1750s (Skinner Inc.)
- Photo 4 - Federal paint-decorated dressing table, early 19th
century (Skinner Inc.)
- Robert Reed has written on antiques and collectibles for
more than two decades. He has also authored 15 books, including
his recently released Antiques and Collectible Dictionary, available
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