The Many Origins of the Ubiquitous Coffee Table
The real antique coffee table? True, this table is from the late 19th century in Renaissance Revival style, but it is a shorter version of its original, cut down to meet 20th-century tastes. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Slawinski Auction)
I know you have one. You probably have two or more. And you’re pretty sure at least one of them is an antique. You likely think, “It belonged to Grandma, and she got it used a long time ago so it has to be an antique.”
What am I talking about? That ubiquitous low-level surface located almost in the middle of the room we call a coffee table.
Is Grandma’s old coffee table an antique? Let’s take a look.
A coffee table’s age partly depends on what you call an antique, but by most measures the term “antique” means it’s at least 100 years old. To the hardcore, it means much older that that. There are many verifiable antique items in many homes ranging from dining tables to chairs, chests, beds, armoires, china cabinets, tea tables, desks and all manner of other items made in prior centuries. But a coffee table? That is a definite maybe.
A quick look back in time doesn’t show many similar tables in our Western history. Old photos of late Victorian-period room settings show taller tables, often placed behind a sofa to receive cups and glasses when not in use. Some of the photos depicting the “Moorish/Turkish taste” of the period, illustrated and explained in Eileen and Richard Dubrow’s book “American Furniture of the 19th Century 1840-1880,” do show low tables, but they are more suited for participants sitting on the floor or on a carpet to partake in a water pipe or are placed as end tables next to individual seating. These are much taller than the generally accepted height of 17 to 18 inches for modern coffee tables.
In Helen Comstock’s excellent survey “American Furniture,” there is no indication of any type of low table at all, and Judith and Martin Miller’s “The Antiques Directory—Furniture” likewise reveals no low tables.
Other books devoted to antique furniture show no examples of Federal low tables or Empire coffee tables. The “Encyclopedia of Furniture” by Joseph Aronson in 1938 states “there is no historical precedent.”
Surely this Empire style coffee table is the real thing. Nope. It is a turn-of-the-century oak dining table cut down to coffee-table height. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Royka’s)
So where did that form come from? There are lots of ideas but not much solid evidence. One school of thought is based on Oriental design. America was so taken with the Japanese exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 that elements of Oriental design worked their way into many areas of American furniture. The most notable was the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s that blended Eastlake and Renaissance Revival concepts with Oriental designs. Less noticeable was the use of oriental motifs in chair design, especially in platform rockers of the period and in folding chairs. It would have been a natural progression to adopt the standard of a low Oriental table to a parlor setting.
In their somewhat lighthearted approach to the history of the subject, authors Alexander Payne and James Zemaitis in “The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book” come to the conclusion that the coffee table is a 20th-century invention. They use the French “table bas” as the basis; a low table that was placed around the perimeter of a room rather than in the center. They state that, in 1915, fashion magazines started showing the tables in the middle of the room, and the concept literally flew across continents and borders to become routine in American households.
On the other hand, there is a more local source. In 1903, F. Stuart Foote founded the Imperial Furniture Company in Grand Rapids. He learned the furniture business from his father E. H. Foote, who had founded the Grand Rapids Chair Company in 1872. Early in the history of the company, according to “Grand Rapids Furniture—The Story of America’s Furniture City” by Christian Carron, Foote claimed to have invented the coffee table himself while helping his wife prepare for a party. He simply lowered the legs on an existing table, and the new form was born fully developed. So there you have it. Maybe.
This variation of the coffee table, the cocktail table, with the relief-carved top and removable glass serving tray, was the perfect way to entertain guests with the newly legal alcoholic beverage in 1933. (Photo: Professional Appraisers & Liquidators)
There is one other important element in the development of the coffee table: that failed social experiment fondly referred to as “Prohibition.” From 1920 to 1933, America was legally “dry.” That probably led to all sorts of things, but one it definitely led to was a shortage of well-blended, smooth-tasting spirits. To supplement the short supply came “bathtub gin” and “white lightning,” both full of kick with a raw edge. That led to the invention of the cocktail; a mixture of ragged spirits with something that tasted good to disguise the raw rotgut liquor.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the table previously known as the coffee table suddenly became the “cocktail table,” as people openly celebrated at home with friends over the new freedom. Sales of the low table skyrocketed, even in the depths of the Depression.
Another thing that was popular in the depths of the Depression was the Colonial Revival style—more fallout from the 1876 Exposition. All kinds of furniture was suddenly being made in supposedly “colonial” styles, and many of the designers took great liberties in mixing and matching styles and periods to come up with new ideas. The same thing happened to coffee tables. All of a sudden there were Queen Anne coffee tables, Chippendale coffee tables, Jacobean coffee tables, Federal coffee tables and even Rococo Revival marble-top coffee tables.
Of course none of them were period pieces and everybody knew that—then. But today, three or more generations later, some of those Depression-era tables look pretty old and exotic to new buyers. So they must be “antique,” right?
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email@example.com.
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Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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