The Extension Table: From Ancient Rome to the Dining Room

The side leaves on this drop-leaf table close down out of the way. But how to support them when they are up in use?

A reader recently sent me some photos of a Victorian-period table. At first glance, it looked like a typical “turtle-top” parlor or lamp table with a wooden top. Closer inspection revealed it to be an extension table that opened to nearly 10 feet using wooden interlocking table slides.

The reader asked me to confirm his date of 1840 to 1860. The style said yes. The form said yes. The slides said maybe.

Interlocking parallel wooden table slides did not show up on a regular basis until the 1870s. One of the earliest commercial manufacturers of wooden table slides was J. F. Snyder of Dayton, Ohio, in business from 1874 to 1894. He had a patented table slide in 1876, patent number 176,816.

Another was Walter of Wabash (B. Walter & Co. of Wabash, Ind.), which was established in the mid to late 1880s.

The other major manufacturer was the Watertown Table-Slide Co. of Watertown, Wis., established in 1889.

These latter two makers provided a great deal of the entire market in wooden table slides from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. But that doesn’t mean that wooden slides were not in use before then. 

This is an early Rococo Revival–style extension table, circa 1850, with wooden extension slides, that opens to 10 feet. (Photo: John Maeder)

An example from the 1840s can be found in the book “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture” by Joseph T. Butler. It is a New York Gothic Revival dining table with a center leg, circa 1840.

A dealer in Southampton, Mass., also recently had a Renaissance Revival–style table with wooden slides that he dated as 1860. That is a very early date for the style, but he is still in the ballpark and well before the 1880s.

While wooden table slides may seem to be an intuitive concept now that we see them, why did it take until the middle of the 19th century to be able to figure out how to extend a table? It didn’t.

One way to support the leaves was the use of an open “gate” with a swinging leg.

The idea of a stationary dedicated eating surface is a relatively recent concept. The Romans mostly never bothered with the idea. By the Middle Ages, dinnertime had graduated to the great room, where boards laid on trestles acted like dining tables until they were cleared away to make room for entertainment.

By the 16th century, a more or less solid table came into use in Europe based on tables used originally in the dining halls of Italian monasteries, or refectories. These tables featured the old plank top, but this time it was permanently attached to a strong base that had legs at each corner and rails below to provide stability.

The early models used in monasteries could be built long enough to seat as many monks as required. The idea of the refectory table, or the stretcher table as it was sometimes called, was adopted for private family dining simply by a reduction in scale. That was a grand idea until somebody dropped by for dinner.

It wasn’t long before somebody in Elizabethan England of the late 1500s came up with the idea of making the table expandable by the use of additional planks for the top. The planks, called leaves, were stored under the main top surface of the table, sliding in between the top and the frame of the base. They could then be drawn out to expand the tabletop. Thus was born the first extension table—the draw-leaf table or, simply, the draw table.

Another idea is to support the leaves with a butterfly-shaped support that is out of the way of the diner’s feet.

The draw-table style has been in continuous production since that time.

The draw table was the last word in extension tables for nearly a century until a new idea of using the leaves came around. Instead of sliding the leaves under the original top, the new idea hung the leaves on hinges at each side of the table. When they were not needed for the top surface, they could be lowered or dropped down out of the way.

That solved one problem but presented others. The most obvious was how to support the leaves when they needed to be up. The other was to accomplish that and still leave room for the legs—the diner’s legs.

Early 17th-century examples of drop-leaf tables solved the support problem by using gate legs—legs that swung out from the main table structure using an open gate-like frame to stabilize a mobile leg mounted on hinges to the frame. But that meant whoever sat at that center-leg position at the table had to straddle the leg.

The clever idea of making the leaf fold in half and store below the table top appeared in the 1940s.

Like the draw table, that was that for about another century, until American (or at least Colonial) ingenuity stepped up to the plate.

The next bright idea was the butterfly table, introduced around 1700. The table itself was not shaped like a butterfly, but the drop leaf support was. It was a swinging piece of wood that rotated out. It was shaped like a butterfly wing or a ship’s rudder and was fastened to the tabletop frame on the top edge and inserted into the lower stretcher between the fixed legs.

The shape of the butterfly meant that no diner had to straddle the leg, and since it took up no floor space, it did not impede foot space.

The butterfly table was followed by D-end tables of the early 1800s, which could be joined to make a big table. A few examples of early extension tables that had a complex “accordion” extension mechanism.

The by the mid 19th century along came the prototype interlocking wooden slides that would become the standard for the next century and half (so far). It just took awhile.

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