Multitasking Furniture: Doing Double Duty in the Colonial Home

This variation of the hutch table displays a chair under the top with a lift seat for more storage. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Copake Auction)

Have you ever had one of those “multipurpose” tools or gadgets? You know, the kind that combines several useful ideas into one convenient package?

If your experience is like mine, you found that the convenience was overrated and the usefulness less than useful. Like most things designed to do more than one thing, they don’t do any of it really well. They just do a lot of it.

The Swiss Army knife is a good example. When you really need it, all the gadgets can be a real lifesaver, but you have to admit you would really rather have a good pair of scissors than that “faux” pair found in the combine of the Swiss Army knife. The same is true for the knife blade. While useful in a pinch it can’t compare to a good sheath knife.

The multipurpose approach became popular with American furniture makers in the late 19th century, but it was more of a modified multipurpose use than a true exercise in multitasking.

One example was the cabinet bed. It looked like a real cabinet from the late 19th century. Many had drawer pulls and even mirrors, but they didn’t really function as cabinets. They just cleverly disguised the bed and, of course, folding beds had been around for more than 100 years, so it wasn’t really a new topic. Even the vaunted Murphy bed concept was just a storage device rather than a true multiuse form.

Among the first true multipurpose items of furniture in the early 20th century was the lounge bed, patented by Peter Kroehler of the Naperville Lounge Co. It was truly a couch that opened to reveal a true bed with springs and a mattress.

But there was a much earlier example of multiple use furniture early in the Colonial period beginning in the late 17th century. That example was the chair table. It consisted of a straight chair with a wooden top attached to the frame with wooden pegs that allowed it to fold over the chair. The top served as a table when lowered over the chair frame. When the top was lifted over the chair and folded back, it served to shield the chair user from a draft that probably was a constant irritation in early Colonial housing. It was an ingenious storage concept, allowing a table to be stored vertically along a wall while providing an out of the way place to sit—a true multipurpose device.

The chair table of the late 17th and early 18th century was made like most chairs of the period with square or turned stiles and rails made primarily of oak or other hardwoods. The tops were generally round but sometimes rectangular made of a soft wood such as pine. The tops usually had only two boards that were held together by cleats under the top that were attached to the chair by wooden pins through the top portions of the rear stiles of the chair. The top boards were attached to the cleats by wooden pegs driven though the top into the cleats.

This primitive-looking table reveals itself to be a hutch table or a cabinet table. The four boards in the top, the joinery and the type of nails used indicate it was made around the middle of the 19th century, so it is not a Colonial-period antique.

A variation of the chair table was the hutch table. This model, instead of a having a chair beneath the top, opened to reveal storage in the form of a shelf or a series of shelves or a cabinet with drawers. This second type was sometimes called a cabinet table, of course.

The basic design of the chair table or hutch table changed little from the 17th century to the 19th century, but the construction techniques did and they can be used to determine the age of this useful chameleon.

One of the main clues to age is the number of boards used in the top. The earliest versions of the chair table or the hutch table had a limited number of wide boards in the top, only two or three at the most. In this case, they are similar to Windsor chairs. The more boards used in the seat or top, the more recent the construction.

Versions of the hutch table were made well into the late 19th century, so construction details are important to determine the age. Most 17th- and early 18th-century tops were attached to the cleats using pegs driven through the top, but later-18th-century and early-19th-century models used hand-wrought or cut nails driven through the top surface to hold them. Versions made after the 1820s used screws inserted into the cleats from below that attached the cleats to the tops from underneath.

Then of course the age of the screw becomes important to the age of the piece. The history of screw manufacturing can be found in my book, How to Become a Furniture Detective.”

Another important clue to originality and age is the edges of the boards used in the top. Virtually all original tops, no matter when made, were made of boards with smooth, square edges, more or less. Jointed edges, such as tongue and groove or splined joints, were hard to make and were seldom used for this type furniture.

However, this type joinery was often used for the sides or backs of cabinets, since it produced a dust-free joint. It is not a far stretch to attach the back of a dilapidated cabinet with tongue and groove joinery to the base of an equally dilapidated old chair table to produce a newly assembled “antique chair table.”

And, of course, a chair table made prior to the mid-19th century will show evidence of hand planning or hand sawing on the bottom side of the top boards.

Chair tables and hutch tables were an important part of our early furniture history. Just be sure you know how to tell a real colonial piece from a later factory-made reproduction.


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