Tables are likely one of the most under-appreciated types of furniture in our homes, yet they provide the foundation for much of our decor. From displaying your cherished photos and collectibles, to providing the backdrop for family meals and celebrations, the table has many roles and boasts its own unique history and evolution from simple wood planks to the multitude of styles and forms available today. If you are looking to learn how to identify antique tables, read on.
History of the Table
The most basic of furnishings, the table has been in use for thousands of years, though not just for dining. The ancient Egyptians crafted simple 4-legged tables of stone and wood, while the Greeks and Romans utilized more exotic materials such as bronze and cedar to craft tables that often resembled altars with slab sides for support. Later Roman examples were more decorative and often featured elaborate legs in the shape of animals, sphinxes and other grotesque figures and were crafted lower to the ground to accommodate dining from couches.
Western dining tables, most notably those of the Medieval period, were simple planks that rested upon trestles using peg construction, which allowed them to be easily assembled and disassembled as needed. Known as "refectory tables," these trestle-based tables originated in monasteries and were later adopted for use in the Great Halls of feudal castles. Massive rectangular tables of oak and elm took center stage at large gatherings but they proved to be cumbersome and difficult to move after the feasts had concluded. This was problematic as most halls were used for other purposes in addition to dining. It would be some time before the idea of a dedicated room for dining took hold.
In the 16th century, the invention of the “draw top” or “joined” table allowed you to double the length of your table with leaves that rested beneath the table top and could be extended on runners from beneath other leaves. Such tables proved to be more compact and versatile and were the first iterations of mechanical and specialized tables that were to follow over the next several hundred years.
It was also during this time that tables began to better reflect, and often define, the styles of the period, typically reflected in the design and number of legs that supported the table. For example, the large bulbous legs of the 16th-century table are one of the most recognizable design elements of the Tudor period and can be found on most antique tables of that time.
Guide to Table Types
It was around this time, that we see the development of many other types of tables, crafted to serve more specific purposes. From pier tables to hall tables, drafting tables to billiard tables, the various types of tables seems endless. Below is a quick guide to identifying specialized table types and some of the terminology used when referring to table design. You will note that many of these terms can be used to describe a single table. For example, a tilt top table may also feature a pie crust edge and a pedestal base.
The predominant table of the Middle Ages, the trestle table is characterized by a tabletop that sits upon a trestle, a framework consisting of a horizontal stretcher or beam supported by pairs of sloping, crossed or central legs that are inset from the edge of the table. Trestle tables allowed for maximum seating without the hindrance of table legs placed at four corners. In the early days of the trestle table, this was important as diners were often only seated on one side of the table while food and drink were served from the other side. These early tables were of peg construction and could be easily disassembled, which was important because most early castles did not have rooms dedicated to dining. The trestle table's sensible design remains popular even today.
Gate Leg Tables
The gate leg table was first used in England in the late 1600s as dining habits began to change. More intimate dining arrangements required smaller tables that could also be easily stored or moved when not in use. Early gate leg tables featured 6 legs and featured two hinged leaves that dropped down when not in use. When opened, these "flaps" were supported on pivoted legs that could swing out from the frame, joined at the top and bottom by stretchers, thus resembling a gate.
Drop Leaf Tables
This oval drop leaf table exhibits classic ball and claw feet and dates to the mid 18th century. From the collection of the LA County Museum of Art.
Another style of drop leaf table also features a fixed section in the center with two hinged leaves that fold down on either side. Unlike the gate leg table, the four legs of the drop leaf table are fixed and the leaves are supported by a simple bracket instead of additional legs that pivot from the base. Drop leaf tables can feature oval, round, square or rectangular tops and the leaves can range in size from a few inches in length to almost touching the ground. Early examples of these antique tables were found primarily in England as far back as the Elizabethan era.
According to English furniture designer Thomas Sheraton, Pembroke tables took their name from "that lady who first gave the orders for one of them, who probably gave the first idea of such a table to the workmen,” referring to Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621). It is more likely that this lightweight occasional table was named after Henry Herbert, the 9th Earl of Pembroke (1693-1751), an amateur architect who's lifetime more closely corresponds with the appearance of these versatile tables.
Crafted in a range of sizes and styles, the Pembroke table is characterized by a central drawer and two flaps of various shapes, which, when raised, are supported by hinged brackets known as “elbows.” Pembroke tables, also known as “flap and elbow tables” were usually crafted of mahogany and generally featured slim tapered legs. A set of casters at their base made them easy to move and thus very convenient for taking a bedside meal, writing a letter or serving tea. In America, Pembroke tables were crafted of a wider variety of woods such a cherry or maple.
The word demilune is French and translates to “half-moon” which perfectly describes these “half-round” tables. These semi-circular tables were designed to hug the wall with the absence of corners. Popular in France in the 1700s, demilunes were the perfect, compact piece to adorn the narrow hallways or entryways of Parisian homes. They can be found in virtually every style, from the ornate Louis XVI style to the more classic English Hepplewhite and Sheraton antique table styles, and were crafted of mahogany, satinwood or gilt wood. Fine examples would also include exquisite marble top counters, marquetry or hand painted decoration. These versatile tables might also include drawers or even a single drop leaf.
The console table style reached the height of fashion during the Louis XV period and, in keeping with decorating dictates, they were often considered more a part of the architecture than merely a piece of furniture. As a rule, it was believed that no single element of the 18th-century interior should be considered on its own. Every element from upholstery to hardware served to unify the design of the room. As their popularity spread, console tables were crafted in an endless number of iterations, but they have one central feature in common: they are designed to sit flush against a wall or other flat surface. Early console tables generally featured two legs which were supported by an S-shaped bracket known as a "console." Later examples began to incorporate 4 legs which allowed them to be freestanding without the need for support brackets. A console differs from a demilune table in that it can be found in all shapes.
The French guéridon is a small round table supported by a single column, or there or four legs, often featuring sculptural mythological figures crafted of wood, bronze or other metal. The guéridon was first introduced in France around the middle of the 17th century and was originally used to hold candelabra or vases. It was also used as a high-style decorative piece of furniture in the courts of the French kings and could be adorned with marble, marquetry, decorative paintings, porcelain or any number of exotic materials. In fact, when King Louis XIV died in 1715, Versailles housed several hundred of these diminutive tables. Their compact size and variety of styles make them a perfect addition to any decor.
A pedestal table can be any type or size of table that is supported by a single column or pedestal, or in the case of dining tables, multiple pedestals. Candle stands were some of the first pedestal tables to appear, followed by larger examples that became popular in the late 18th century. Smaller homes used larger pedestal tables for dining, while others utilized them as side tables or display tables. In America, the pedestal dining table found footing during the Victorian era and was crafted from a variety of wood including oak. Pedestal tables are identified by their central, often large and ornate pedestal support and, while they are most often round, you can also find square pedestal tables. The style of the pedestal feet and the shape of the pedestal can indicate the period in which the table was crafted.
It is little wonder that this table style originated in England, a country inextricably associated with tea and its rituals. But the tea table was also popular in the American colonies where the ritual of tea drinking was also followed. A tea table is quite simply a small, study table used for serving tea. Until the early 18th-century, tea tables were most often rectangular in shape but after around 1720, the round tea table became more popular and included pie-crust tables, tilt-top tables, simply adorned tables, and highly carved and ornate tables. Some tea tables are fitted with a removable tray top. The tea table would be moved to the center of the room for afternoon tea and returned when not in use.
Pie Crust Tables
This small, round furniture style tea table originated in England in the mid-18th century and is most associated with the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles. The table is distinguished by a top with a raised carved or molded scalloped edge that resembles the crimped crust of a pie. Generally set atop a single pedestal with a tripod base, pie crust tables typically measure between 25 and 30 inches across and often feature a tilt top. Most often crafted of mahogany, the finest examples feature tops made from a single piece of wood.
The American version of the pie crust table first found favor with the Philadelphia cabinetmakers who added their own special flair. In fact, a Philadelphia pie crust table was the first piece of furniture to break the $1 million dollar mark at auction in 1986, selling for $1,045,000 at Christie's. In 2008, another Philadelphia example sold for $6,761,000.
Drum tables, so called because of their round, drum-like shape, were popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries and were generally used in the libraries of wealthy households. The top of the table was often covered with leather or inlay work and was fitted with drawers in its deep apron, making it a useful workspace for organizing one’s business affairs.
Also known as a “rent” table, landlords would use them to collect rent. Money would be placed in one of the drawers and the table would be rotated to the other party who would retrieve the money from the drawer. It was considered a gentlemanly and discreet way of exchanging funds. These tables can be found in any number of styles, woods and decoration, however, they are easily identified by their shape, comparatively low stature and deep apron fitted with drawers.
Irish Wake Tables
These large "wake" tables were skillfully constructed with folding side panels to display and support a coffin before burial. Wake tables, especially of this phenomenal size and quality, are rarely found outside of Ireland. Circa 1870
Perhaps one of the most fascinating of all tables, the Irish wake table is much more than a finely crafted table, it is an Irish tradition. These large, beautiful tables feature rounded leaves that, when folded, flank a central table top that is exactly the width and length of a coffin. When the leaves are opened, the table forms an oval shape.
Celtic tradition mandated that the body of the recently departed had to be watched constantly for various purported reasons, among them the potential theft of the body and soul by evil spirits. Thus, the coffin would be set upon the wake table, allowing mourners to protect and pay their last respects to the deceased.
When not called into service, these tables were also used for dining or as hunt tables, carried outdoors to hold refreshments for the hunt. Wake tables are exceptionally rare and can vary in quality. They are often crafted of oak or mahogany and feature 8 legs, four fixed and four swing legs used to support the leaves. Other examples feature sliding brackets that support the extended leaves.
The hunt table was used for enjoying refreshments before and after a fox hunt. The table’s unique semi-circular design, removable leaf and brass serving mechanism, allowed this versatile table to be utilized in a number of ways. First, it could be brought into a parlor in front of a roaring fire, with the pivoting brass “chariot” in the center holding a warming beverage that could be slid around the table on its track to serve the huntsmen. Second, the chariot could be removed to allow a member of the hunt staff to serve the hunters outdoors either before the hunt or upon their return. Third, the table could be used as a serving station in a living room, with the center leaf installed and placed against a wall as a buffet.
The antique games table, designed for the specific purpose of playing games, is an exceptionally versatile piece of wood furniture that enjoyed popularity across Europe and America. The games table is generally characterized by its double layered top that could be flipped open on a hinge to double the size of the table. Once open, these antique dining room and accent tables might feature a leather or felted playing surface, or in some case, an inlaid chess or backgammon board. The decorative style of these tables varies widely, reflecting the location and period in which they were crafted. The mechanisms can also vary widely, with some featuring a swinging leg to support the leaf, and others set upon a swivel mechanism that when turned, allowed the surface to be supported on fixed legs or a pedestal. There are even examples that feature multiple table layers that open to reveal multiple playing surfaces.
Caring for your Antique Table
As with any fine piece of antique furniture, special care should be taken when cleaning and displaying antique tables. Here are a few tips from our in-house experts:
• Routine dusting with a soft dry cloth is all that is generally needed to maintain your antique table. Take care when dusting to avoid snagging your soft cloth on any loose veneers, hardware or mounts.
• When you wax, apply a very thin coat with the grain of the wood, allow it to dry and then buff with a clean cloth. A second buffing after a few hours can further enhance the wood.
• Avoid any kind of spray wax (wax in a can) or polish. Most have a high level of harsh chemicals in them, including silicone, which can soak into the wood and leave a film.
• Do not use metal cleaners on bronze or brass mounts. Such cleaners can damage and remove the finish of the surrounding wood, or settle into crevices and turn white, and that can be very difficult to remove.
• Wear gloves when handling any item with bronze or brass mounts as the acid and oil secreted from your skin can actually corrode the metal and leave marks that are very hard to remove.
• For intricately carved pieces, don’t use a dry cloth as it can snag carved edges and cause damage. Instead, use a good quality feather duster.
• When it comes to humidity and temperature, maintaining a steady environment can go a long way in preserving the beauty and integrity of your piece of wood furniture.
• When caring for your treasured antiques, if you are ever unsure about how to clean them or make a repair, it is always best to consult a professional restorer.
Learn more from our blog: Caring for Antique Furniture.
Discover more about our favorite dining room and accent tables whose stories are as interesting as these antique tables are beautiful: Do Tell! 5 Tables With a Unique Story