This late Classicism mahogany pier table, circa 1840, is the style usually referred to incorrectly as a “petticoat” table. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Garth’s Auction)
One of America’s most favorite pieces of furniture in the first half of the 19th century was that odd size table that usually sat in the hall and had a mirror in the lower section. What the thing was called is often and confused, as is what its original use.
Old timers in the trade will call it a “petticoat” table following the quaint notion that it was used by Southern ladies to check the exposure of their petticoat before they left the house. But there are a couple of things wrong with that notion. First, the table did not appear primarily in the South. It first appeared in England around the middle of the previous century, circa 1750. But it didn’t take long for the concept to make it to the American Colonies.
When it did come ashore, it was usually produced in the Chippendale style around Philadelphia, inspired by plates CLXX and CLXXV of The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director (London, 1762) by Thomas Chippendale. The American version was made using Chippendale’s English design and traditional English construction techniques employed by an English trained Colonial cabinetmaker.
The table became an American staple during the Neo-Classical period of the Federal era in the early 19th century, primarily in the Northern states, not in the South. But there is still a problem with the petticoat idea. Any lady with enough wealth to own a table such as this or to visit a home so equipped would already have checked to make sure her underwear wasn’t showing. And petticoats of the 19th century were not like the modern undergarment called the slip, which is lightweight and secured by an elastic band. In the 19th century, the petticoat was a formidable piece of clothing made of many layers of fabric that were sewn to fit and would not slide down due to faulty elastic. No lady of the period would think of checking her personal apparel in an open hall or foyer. Besides that, the architecture of the table, with the top projecting forward, well out over the mirror, prevents anyone, male or female from actually seeing around the area of their feet.
The Late Classicism pier table is shown in Rosalie Mansion in Natchez, Miss. Rosalie is famed as the showcase for J.H. Belter furniture in the South. He even named one of his most famous designs, “Rosalie without Grapes,” in honor of the mansion.
This Empire style pier table, seen on display at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Fla., is very much in the French Empire manner of Lannuier. It was made by Antoine Gabriel Quervelle of Philadelphia around 1830.
So much for the “petticoat” myth. So, what is the real name of this style table and how was it used? In architectural terms, the wall space between two windows is called a “pier.” A piece of furniture designed to fit between the windows is a called a “pier whatever,” which leads us to the term “pier mirror” and, in this case, “pier table.” Note that it is “pier,” not “peer,” which means one’s equal. Eventually, the terms came full circle. Here is how an eBay seller in 2006 described his table: “For those who don’t know what a pier table is, it was a table used in the foyer of a home for ladies to be able to check the length of their petticoat slips to make sure that they were not showing.” Right name. Wrong use.
So what was the mirror for? It was for the light. The low mirror reflected any available light and helped to illuminate a dark foyer or hallway. The mirrors also reflected the pattern in the tile or carpet and helped make the room feel larger. In some cases, such tables were set opposite each other or at an angle to create the illusion of a longer hallway. They also could be used to keep an eye on who is moving around the house. A mirrored table placed at the top of a stairway gives advance notice of who is coming up the stairs.
This is the broadside published in 1833 by J. & J.W. Meeks to promote their new designs of Grecian- and English Regency-style furniture. A mirrored pier table is seen as number 25 on the fifth row down, fifth item from the left
The most commonly seen example of the table is in the Classical style of the early 1800s, usually with a marble top and columns of some sort—often also marble—at each corner supporting the heavy top. But why a marble top on a hall table? These tables are almost always 30-inches high, the exact height of a dining room table. As such, they could be used in the dining room as an extra serving space without fear of damage from hot plates on the marble top.
The pier table reached it decorative zenith in the Empire period of the 1820s at the hands of such designers as Charles Honoré Lannuier, Thomas Hope and Joseph Meeks. The use of gilded caryatids (winged, female figures from Greek architecture) was frequently used as columns and Meeks used a set of lyres at each end to support the top, as shown in his 1833 broadside.
After the Empire period, the Late Classicism style prevailed in the 1840s and 1850s with it large cyma curves, scrolled supports and undecorated expanses of crotch-cut mahogany veneer. This is the table that was frequently associated with the Southern plantation and the petticoat myth.
After the Civil War, pier tables became more associated with tall mirrors in hallways and became known as console table under console mirrors. The designs of both table and mirror were relatively unchanged except for the names.
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