This Rococo Revival side chair is from a parlor set in the Henry Ford pattern by J. and J.W Meeks, circa 1850. While it is an imposing chair, it is quite diminutive in size. The front seat rail is only 16 inches high. The “pinched waist” of the lower back is only 11 inches wide, and the back is only 18 inches wide at the widest part.
Assume for a minute that you have found an interesting piece of older or antique furniture that looks like it might do quite nicely in the new family room, den, bedroom or study. It appears to be a style you believe you’ve correctly identified and can get comfortable with. The finish is in pretty good to acceptable condition. The piece appears to have all the right pieces and parts in all the right places and seems to have been pretty well cared for. The price is within range and transportation is not an issue.
Time to write the check? Not quite yet.
By some definitions, furniture is functional art. While a little art is definitely a nice touch, functionality is the key word here. It has to work to be worth the cost and space it requires.
After hundreds of years, we have grown accustomed to certain dimensions in our furniture without even being aware of it, but put one of those dimensions out of whack and the result can be uncomfortable or even unnerving.
Imagine a small, 7-year-old child sitting in a full-size dining chair at a full-length banquet table. The table is much too high for comfort for that child. His chin barely reaches above the table, and his arms are not long enough to reach the edge of his plate.
Or picture the opposite situation, where an adult takes a seat at a child’s table on a child’s chair.
Both cases are exaggerations, of course, but that can be the feeling if one of the critical dimensions is out of our comfort range, even if we didn’t know we had one.
Through the years, the norms of furniture dimensions have changed subtly as the sizes of people have changed. According to some sources, the average Civil War soldier was 5 feet, 7 or 8 inches tall and weighed in the low 140 pounds.
If you have the chance to view in person any of the elegant pierce-carved Rococo Revival works of the period by such masters as J. H. Belter or J. and J.W. Meeks, you will be slightly startled at the scale. They are smaller than they appear in photos. The average 21st-century American would have trouble getting comfortable on a Belter couch or a Meeks side chair.
Today’s standard dining table height, as well as executive-desk height, is in the 29-inch-plus range; from 29 1/2 inches to 30 1/2 inches. Anything more or less will feel awkward when used with modern chairs.
On the other hand, I have a late 18th-century table that is only 28 inches high, even with the large brass casters. However, I have a set of early 19th-century Regency chairs that are somewhat lower than today’s chairs and make the table seem comfortable.
Legroom under a table is another consideration. A table skirt that is more than four or five inches deep will cause discomfort under the table, especially if people try to cross their legs.
Spacing around a table is also very important. A turn-of-the-century oak pedestal table designed to seat six will not comfortably accommodate six 21st-century Americans. At least 29 inches, elbow to elbow, need to be reserved for each diner sitting side-by-side, with at least 18 inches allowed between a side-sitting diner and one sitting on the end.
In addition, with the chair in a dining position, there needs to be at least 24 inches between the back of the chair and the wall. This allows adequate room for a waiter to serve or for a diner to leave the table without disrupting the entire seated group.
Without the small casters on the legs, this turn-of-the-20th-century table would be too low for modern chairs.
Chairs also have preferred dimensions, but they are more forgiving than table dimensions because chair seat height can be adjusted by the addition or subtraction of cushions or pads.
Modern dining chairs have a seat height ranging from 16 to 19 inches and a seat width of 16 to 22 inches. The chairs that fit correctly under my late 18th-century table have a compressed seat height of 16 inches and are 19 inches wide at the widest front portion. A set of Depression-era chairs with hard seats 18 inches high would not be comfortable if used with that table.
Beds also have traditional sizes, or least the bedding that goes on them does, while the actual bed frames wander all over the lot in size. According to “Fine Woodworking” magazine, standard mattress sizes are 39 by 75 inches for twin, 54 by 75 inches for double or full, 60 by 80 inches for queen, 76 by 80 inches for king and 73 by 84 inches for California king.
Most antique beds do not fall exactly within those guidelines, but they can be made to fit. One common problem is the so-called “three-quarter” bed—the one between a twin and a double. Technically a three-quarter bed would be 48 by 75 inches, but almost none of them fit that size. Each three-quarter bed is an opportunity for a custom-made mattress, which is not as expensive as you may think.
Keep all of these traditional dimensions in mind when contemplating the purchase of an antique piece of furniture. Use your trusty tape measure to be sure it will fit in the space you have in mind and make sure that it will also fit you.
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