Small sideboards

 

Sideboards were made by American cabinetmakers from the latter part of the Queen Anne period until the close of the American Empire years. For the first half century they depended on the current English mode for both structure and design. Then in two sections of the eastern seaboard of the United States, our native craftsmen began to think for themselves.

We had no great noblemen whose banquet halls of classic Adam design required a sideboard nine feet long with serpentine front sufficiently bowed in at the centre so that the butler could take his station there and so not conflict with the footmen who were actually serving the dinner. There were a few houses of ample enough proportions so that a sideboard five to seven feet long would not be out of scale in the dining room, but the majority of American homes were on a much more modest plan.

In the South hunt boards, those smaller and more practical pieces with Hepplewhite feeling, came into being and in New England the small sideboard made its appearance.

The hunt board, possibly because of its implied connection with riding to the hounds, has already claimed liberal attention from collectors. The New England reduced-size boards, on the other hand, have been much ignored. Although all collectors and dealers know about them in a general way, nothing has been recorded as to their time and provenance. Yet they are not only practical and usable pieces, but are frequently fine examples of both design and craftsmanship.

They reflect their period and section just as strongly as do the hunt boards of the South. One has only to look at one of these small New England sideboards to know it for a product of comfortable, prosperous village or farm life, where the people lived in substantial, if not large, houses and possessed household furnishings on which true craftsmanship was expended. Dating from the Sheraton period in American cabinet making and continuing through the Empire vogue, the little sideboards were essentially a product of the smaller centres in that part of our country lying north and east of New York. In general design they were either Sheraton or Empire in feeling, but turn to the English books of furniture fashion plates and you will search in vain for anything that can properly be considered their direct inspiration. They were distinctly an American variation.

Beginning about the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century and continuing possibly as late as 1835 or 1840, these pieces not only had characteristics of their own but by some odd coincidence were made so infrequently outside of New England that they may be considered as essentially of it as the Quincy and Adams families. Likewise, while some may have originated in Connecticut, far more of them came from the shops of cabinetmakers located in the other states of New England. Many have a distinct Massachusetts flavour ; others, by traces of varying workmanship or known place of origin, can be credited to Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. I have seen two or three that were made in Rhode Island.

In size and general proportions, these small New England sideboards are very close to the chests of drawers made in the section during this part of the nineteenth century. It is perfectly logical, for they were framed on practically the same lines but of slightly larger dimensions. Usually such boards were from forty-four to forty-eight inches long and from thirty-eight to forty-two inches high. The chests of drawers were, as a rule, slightly less in each dimension. Here the close similarity ceased. Instead of drawers that generally increased in depth as they descended, the divisions of space in the small sideboards conformed to that which rules with the larger pieces of this type of furniture. Nearly always there was a central closet with a pair of oblong drawers. This might be above or below the large drawers. Study of many examples of this New England variant of the sideboard has shown that there was no standard practice as to the location of the cupboard feature.

There was distinct latitude with the drawers themselves, too. In addition to two wide shallow ones, some of these pieces had another pair that were narrow but deep. These, plainly fashioned to contain bottles of the more potent drinkables and now known as bottle drawers, seem invariably to have flanked the cupboard on either side. On the other hand, it is possible that one of these small sideboards may sometime be found with cupboard extending the full width of the piece and bottle drawers located on either side of the broad flat drawers. There was so much individuality of design that it is not wise to be didactic about cupboard and drawer arrangement. I know of several small sideboards of Vermont origin that lack both cupboard and bottle drawers. They have simply two half-width drawers at the top and three shallow full-width ones beneath. Nevertheless, their dimensions show that they were intended to serve as sideboards rather than as chests of drawers.

So much for the divisions of the interior space and the arrangements of the salient features of these little New England pieces. The way they were handled and decorated by the cabinetmakers who fashioned them is also Of interest. With those of Sheraton design, the front legs are reeded and form uprights that are disengaged from the carcass for three-quarters of their circumference. With those of the Empire style, this feature, of course, disappears as does the use of fancy-grained woods of lighter colour than the cherry or mahogany of which the case and legs were made. In those of the Sheraton years, the craftsmen were lavish in their use of inlay and veneers of such light woods as curly or bird's-eye maple, satinwood, and kindred materials. Again, while the drawer pulls and doorknobs were generally of brass, those of clear or opalescent glass were also used. Still other variations were knobs of turned' ivory or wood, the latter usually of the mushroom type.

But the small New England sideboard did not exist without influencing and being influenced by other pieces. The Sheraton secretary with a pair of bottle drawers in its base is not uncommon. In place of the cupboard section, some of the little sideboards have a writing compartment where the front hinges downward when pulled out and discloses as complete an interior as ever graced one of the so-called butler's sideboards.

Why are these little pieces only of New England craftsmanship ? One can only say that they are not found bearing the evidences of workmanship of other parts of the country. Nor was it because small boards were not made in other sections. Even the English craftsmen made this piece of furniture on a reduced scale to meet certain requirements of space; but with them, and with the American workmen of other sections, what they produced was the usual piece made shorter and shallower, not according to a different plan. For example, I once inspected a Sheraton butler's sideboard of Philadelphia provenance that was only forty-one inches long and forty-three inches high, and a Baltimore piece forty-eight inches long with bottle drawers concealed behind the door of the cupboard located to the left of the broad flat central drawer. In design both were simply larger pieces, reduced.

As to how the New England small sideboard originated, the simplest and most logical deduction is that it evolved out of the existing types when there was need for such a piece of furniture that would not require at least six feet of unbroken wall space. At an auction in New York a few years ago a Duncan Phyfe sideboard of Sheraton lines with six reeded legs was exhibited. At both ends were sections given over to drawers and large cupboards. Take away these outer sections and the piece would approximate the small New England sideboard in all its essentials. So one can infer that Phyfe might have made pieces of this sort but forbore because his clientele did not want them. Therefore, he left the making of these smaller boards to the cabinetmakers of New England whose customers were interested in furniture that was both compact and ornamental.

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