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In all ages in the tracing of the origins of the style known as Early American Colonial Furniture, eating and drinking utensils have been the subject of the utmost skill of the craftsman. Wealthy people have always used the splendour of their table appointments to indicate their riches. In the noblemen's halls of the Middle Ages tall " dressoirs," or dressers, were built for the display of the owner's plate. (We still "dress" windows). The dressers were sometimes temporary erections of shelves taken down after the occasion for their use was over, or when the lord went on his travels. Gradually they became very splendid pieces of permanent furniture with cupboards below, shelves above and crowned with a canopy. The whole was enriched with carving, painting or gilding and sometimes with coloured cloths.
The hutch also continued to develop. The top was lengthened and used as a side table for serving purposes. These proved to be so useful that they gave rise to two types of furniture. In the first, the hutch was omitted and the true TABLE was born (xiii). In the second the drawer took the place of the cupboard or hutch, and the kind of " dresser," which was really a long side-table or sideboard furnished with a line of drawers, was made. The skilled furniture-makers of later days took the three units, the (i) broad table for display, (2) drawers for storing table napery, (3) cupboards for storing food or drink, and from them made an infinite variety of sideboards, etc.
Returning for a moment to the manor house. With an advance in the comfort of living the family withdrew from the hall and lived and drank in more private apartments. Two new forms of furniture were evolved to suit the new mode of living. One was the "court cupboard" that is always associated with Tudor times (xiv and xxxi). It probably received its name from the French word "court" meaning "short", in comparison with the lordly dresser in the hall. The other was the "buffet". The court cupboard was used for storing food, drink, and utensils. The buffet was used for display and possibly service. The latter is interesting as some people regard the picturesquely dressed Tudor servitor or "buffetier" who tended the buffet as supplying the name to the "beef-eater", as the Royal Yeomen of the Guard are vulgarly called, who retain the livery of the time of their formation, the accession of Henry VII in 1485.
Last scene of all, that ends this strange, eventful history, the dresser reappeared again in its original form, not in the baronial hall or regal palace, but in the yeoman's farm, in parsonages, and finally in the artisan's and labourer's cottages. It had the cupboard at the base and the shelves above, and sometimes a drawer or so midway. Its shelves did not display the gold and silverware of the noble but gleamed with pewter and was bright with "willow pattern" china. One refinement it did borrow sometimes from the houses of the well-to-do was glass doors as a protection against dust.
A second use of cupboards and cupboard-like furniture is for storing clothes. The first question to ask in looking at an old piece of furniture in the tracing of the origins of the style known has Early American Colonial Furniture is, " What purpose did it serve ?" Only when we see how perfectly that purpose is served, how the wood was chosen, how the construction was adapted to the wear and tear of daily use, how well it fitted the place for which it was designed, can we consider the means by which it was made pleasant to the eye, that is, its decoration.
Clothes are continually changing. They differ according to country and region, according to rank, position or occupation, and according to time. Furniture reflects the nature of clothes worm. If every one took to wearing shirts and shorts nine-tenths of our wardrobes would become unnecessary.
In early and mediaeval days clothes were simple and few. The worker needed no store, he possessed but one suit, mainly the one-piece garment he stood in. The shopkeeper and parson and such people added a washable under-garment, a " shift", so called because it could be changed and washed. The gentry were easily able to store their spare wear in chests, and these tended to get longer as time went on so that cloaks need not to be folded. Large chests called "standards" were made for spare clothes and for retainers' liveries when travelling. The continual travelling of well-to-do people to-day gives much employment to makers of dressing-cases, travelling trunks, etc. We have seen how clothes chests were made for church vestments, altar clothes. It is likely that the earliest clothes cupboards or wardrobes are to be found in churches. There is a very famous one in Chester Cathedral, of which parts are perhaps as old as 1295, the year in which Edward I summoned the " first complete and model parliament".
The word "press" was used from very early times with reference to aumbries, but came to mean two quite separate kinds of furniture. There are (r) cider and cheese presses, trouser and book printers' presses, etc., and (2) large cupboards used for storing purposes. We should call clothes presses wardrobes today. These usually have a large upper portion in which clothes can be hung, together with drawers, trays or cupboard compartments for storing smaller articles. The large doors gave a splendid scope for the marquetry worker and for the display of beautifully figured veneers. The panels of these large pieces of furniture are always well worth study as they show so well the difference of treatment that is possible with different woods.
The third use for cupboards and such-like pieces of furniture in the tracing of the origins of the style known has Early American Colonial Furniture is for storing books, documents and writing materials. Very early illuminated manuscripts show three ways of storing books, (1) the chest, (2) the aumbry, (3) sloping shelves with a curtain in front. In places where books were constantly in use the shelf was by far the best arrangement (in monasteries, churches and schools). As books were rare and valuable they were chained, and this made it necessary for a sloping writing shelf to be provided for students below the book-shelves. Some of these combination book- and writing-shelves are to be seen in cathedrals and the older colleges of universities.
In the tracing of the origins of the style known has Early American Colonial Furniture it was not until long after the introduction of printing that private people began to have sufficient books to require more than a shelf or a chest for their accommodation. One of the first references we have of bookcases being made to order were those for Samuel Pepys in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, who said that at one time he had so many books that he had to give some away. At the same time Sir Christopher Wren gave much thought to the fitting of libraries. Their master, Charles II, was interested in science and founded the Royal Society. It became fashionable for every great house to have its library. This was a fine opportunity for the cabinet-makers. Larger and larger bookcases were made.