Fancy Dressing Tables
As I stood before the looking-glass, laying my watch and exhausted purse on the dressing-table and leisurely untying my cravat, I could not forbear a glance of approbation at what I thought a very handsome and very impudent face…
Used for grooming and dressing by both men and women, dressing tables made of walnut or imported mahogany, with cases and drawers supported by cabriole legs, first appeared in major American urban centers in the 1730s. The form found a strong market among people of means but had mostly fallen from fashion by the 1780s. After 1800, the form was revived, and dressing tables featuring new designs and ornamental painted surfaces came into vogue. The market for these was particularly strong in New England, where cabinetmakers and ornamental painters exercised enormous freedom in their interpretations of the form and decoration. The large number of surviving post-1800 New England painted dressing tables probably accounts for only a small fraction of the total number that were made.
In the seventeenth century, elite women groomed themselves while sitting at a table before a portable dressing glass. A Dutch genre painting from 1650-1660 depicts a young lady in her chamber who has just risen from bed, the door to the commode ajar (Fig. 1). Wearing a costly lace-trimmed yellow dressing gown and slippers, she sits before a dressing glass on a covered table. A pearl necklace, rings, and silver vessels displayed prominently on the table offer evidence of her wealth and status, and a domestic has set aside her sweeping to affix a length of blue ribbon in her mistress’s hair. A drape is pulled back, revealing the lady looking squarely at the viewer who has intruded upon this private scene. Documenting the clothing and furnishings that were part of her daily grooming ritual, the painting offers a privileged glimpse of one woman as she readies herself to present her public persona.
Eighteenth-century American dressing tables were modeled after the bases of high chests, and cabinet- makers in Boston and Philadelphia often made them en suite with high chests for wealthy patrons. The preferred surface ornamentation on such dressing tables was carving and the grain of the hardwoods from which they were constructed. However, some late baroque, or “Queen Anne,” Boston examples, along with chairs and other forms produced before 1750, have “japanned” surfaces, a decorative style and technique inspired by Chinese and Japanese lacquerware boxes. Vignettes of animals, landscapes, figures, and other motifs modeled in low relief in gesso were affixed to the surface of furniture painted with a faux tortoiseshell or lacquer ground, resulting in stunning decorative effects (Fig. 2). Japanned dressing tables and matching high chests were extremely costly and, therefore, affordable by only the wealthiest consumers. An interest in surface ornamentation approaching what japanners had achieved would not appear again until the nineteenth century.
After 1800, a new dressing table design was introduced that enabled users to sit with their legs under the case, a more comfortable position than earlier forms with deep, scrolled skirts allowed. Cabinetmakers turned to card tables, whose height, generous width, and open space below provided a more functional model than tall chest bases. Dressing tables were more than merely functional furniture: they served as a reminder of their users’ social status and marital role, making them appropriate furnishings in the bedchamber of a stylish neoclassical house decorated with brilliant painted walls and vibrant patterned wallpapers.
Designs for elaborate “Ladies Dressing Tables” in Thomas Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1794) and Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1802) show that the tables were firmly gendered furniture forms.Fig. 4). Sitting at a dressing table and preparing herself for the day ahead or for sleep was a private indulgence that had been enjoyed previously only by women of high status. After about 1820, dressing tables used for grooming had become part of the daily lives of a growing number of middle-class women.Hepplewhite intended them to be used for storing “combs, powders, essences, pin-cushions, and other necessary equipage,” which mirrored the function of dressing tables in the United States. The association between dressing tables and women is explicitly expressed by a circa 1830 New England example bearing the silhouette likeness of the woman who used it painted on the splashboard (
The proliferation of painted dressing tables in New England coincided with the rise of “fancy.”An aesthetic movement and decorative philosophy that viewed everyday objects as offering opportunities for creative expression and bringing color and pattern into the home, fancy delighted the eye and the imagination. The rise in popularity of paint-decorated furniture, along with ornamented metalwares, ceramics, woven carpets, bedcovers, painted interiors, and wall murals, shows the wide influence fancy exerted on utilitarian objects and the domestic environment. Fancy furniture had been considered as fashionable as hardwood furniture among affluent consumers in Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia from the mid-1790s through the first decade of the nineteenth century. Afterward, the desire for richly-decorated and affordable hand-made furniture among an expanding population was satisfied by joiners working outside of urban centers.
Chartered by Governor Benning Wentworth (1696–1770) in 1761, Newport was settled in the summer and fall of 1765 by six men from Killingworth, Connecticut, who cleared land, brought in a crop of rye, and returned the following June with more settlers. Newport’s location on the Sugar River provided water power for a grist mill established before 1787, and the town’s first cotton mill opened in 1813. The Croydon Turnpike, linking Newport, Croydon, and Lebanon, was built in 1806, easing travel between these communities.Fig. 9). The town’s prominence led to it being named the county seat after Sullivan County was formed from part of Cheshire County, and a courthouse was built there in 1827.Newport grew to become a prosperous agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial center, with many fashionable residences and commercial buildings (
With its growing population and wealth, Newport attracted cabinetmakers and chairmakers.The chair-making firm of Dame & Howe was established, and cabinetmakers Willard Harris (1782–1848) opened a shop in 1808, and William Lowell (1795–1839) began producing furniture in Newport in 1818. From 1820 until 1837, when the nationwide economic depression sent Newport into decline, cabinetmaking was “one of the most extensive and successful branches of business in town.” Harris and Lowell operated the town’s “two large rival shops,” producing furniture for residents of Newport and the surrounding area. Harris harnessed water power from the Sugar River to operate his woodworking machinery, employing upwards of fifteen workers to produce furniture.
Four of the nine dressing tables in the group represent what is perhaps the earliest dressing table design marketed by Harris (Fig. 11). Having a nearly full-width rectangular accessory box with two drawers on top, three have swelled turned legs, one has tapered turned legs, and all have rings on the legs picked out in darker paint. The paint scheme is consistent, with yellow grounds, and reserves having convex ends outlined with heavy lines centered on the splashboard and drawer fronts. Stenciled grapes and leaves are placed within the reserves on the splashboards; spaces flanking the reserves have curving infilled faux grain paint; and the edges of the tops of the main cases are ornamented with stenciled bands of leaves. The grapes and leaves recall the symbolic reference of the vase of flowers on the Salem dressing table made over twenty-five years earlier.
Two drawers on the example illustrated in Figure 11 are inscribed, one “D. Harris” and the other “Hannah Morse Croydon NH”. The signature of David Harris, Willard’s son, confirms that he painted it, if not also built it, at his father’s Newport shop. David Harris was twenty-five years old when his father placed the 1828 advertisement, by which time he was an accomplished ornamental artist, painting fancy furniture produced in his father’s shop, along with carriages and signs. The paint scheme featuring heavy lining, reserves, and faux graining was likely the Harris shop style, and it would be repeated with variations on the nine dressing tables.
Of recorded dressing tables with galleries, one is signed by Bullock (Fig. 15). Probably made circa 1830, this may be the earliest dressing table with a gallery. Replicating the top and first full drawer of his bureau, and supported on swelled turned legs, the gallery’s vertical wall was fashioned from a thin board that Bullock bent into a semicircle. Matching the gallery on his bureau, this one is slightly smaller, scaled to fit the dressing table’s reduced dimensions. Except for the stenciled and freehand-painted grapes, leaves, and tendrils on the splashboard, the paint scheme follows the one used on the earlier dressing tables without galleries, including the one signed by David Harris. If David Harris painted Bullock’s dressing table, then his bureau and this dressing table would indicate that Bullock most likely worked at Harris’s cabinet shop.
The gallery represents a significant design departure from other New England dressing tables. “Examples with galleries (Figs. 16, 18, and 19), for which Bullock’s can be seen as a precursor, show the continued evolution of the forms. All were given a yellow ground, tapered turned legs, and stenciled compotes of fruit within dark reserves, replacing the grapes and leaves on the splashboard of the Bullock’s dressing table. Instead of reserves painted on the small gallery drawers on Bullock’s dressing table, which looks somewhat cramped, circles echo the pressed glass pulls (manufactured in Sandwich, Massachusetts) that replace the stamped brass pulls on Bullock’s dressing table. On two examples (Figs. 16 and 18), the curving infill design is painted red-brown, simulating wood grain more effectively and increasing the color contrasts. On Figure 18, the overall amount of yellow makes the wall of the gallery and the reserve on the long drawer now appear more prominent, and, being the same width, the eye is drawn from one to the other.
The possibility that Martin Bullock made all of the other dressing tables with galleries in Sullivan County was discounted with the appearance of one example inscribed on an upper drawer, “Made by David Colby Dec. 4th 1835/Croydon East Vil[l]age New Hampshire/ Sullivan County” (Figs. 16 and 17). Croydon East Village was the former name of present-day Croydon. Two men named David Colby were born near Newport in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but no information linking them to cabinetmaking is known, leaving the identity of this David Colby unresolved. The inscription places Colby in Croydon, where he built a dressing table that reproduced a Harris shop design. Revealingly, after twenty-three years in business in Newport, Willard Harris sold his “Cabinet and Chair Shop, together with the whole of his stock” to the firm of Gilmore, Hall & Dwinel in 1831, and moved to Croydon Flat, where he opened another cabinet shop. Harris remained there until 1836, when he sold the new shop and returned to Newport. The date of Colby’s dressing table corresponds to the period when Harris was working in Croydon Flat. The gallery on the dressing table shows Harris continued to produce the form there, raising the likelihood that the two men worked together. This also strengthens the link between Harris and Bullock’s Newport bureau and dressing table.
David Colby’s signed dressing table is key in establishing the origin of other fancy dressing tables with galleries. All have painted circles on the gallery drawers; Sandwich glass pulls; and stenciled compotes of fruit on the splashboards, with pairs of hook-shaped loops, painted freehand around the compotes on Figure 19. These dressing tables were likely made in Croydon between 1831 and 1836, while Willard Harris worked there as a cabinetmaker. Harris’ activities after he returned to Newport in 1836 are unrecorded; however, the probate inventory compiled after his death there in 1848 lists “25 sett[sic] dress table legs”—evidence that he continued producing dressing tables into the next decade. All of these dressing tables appear to have been made in Croydon between 1831 and 1836, while Willard Harris worked there as a cabinetmaker.
In 1832, the year after Harris sold his Newport shop, Martin Bullock was in Claremont, New Hampshire, ten miles west of Newport, where he advertised “… all kinds of carriage sign and ornamental painting, he will also paint in imitation of different kinds of wood, such as mahogany, oak, bird’s eye maple, &c &c.”Bullock may have acquired ornamental painting experience at the Harris shop, although no evidence that he painted dressing tables has been found. His 1830 bureau, and his appearance in Claremont two years later define a short period of time when he produced mahogany and fancy furniture. Bullock left the trade and disappeared from the public record until 1847, when he was back in Grafton and was quartermaster of the 37th Regiment of the New Hampshire State Militia. Never married, he worked his father’s Grafton farm for the remainder of his life.
About the Author
1 Jennifer Van Horn, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 302; Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World (Santa Barbara, CA.: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 50.
2 Thomas Hepplewhite, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London: I. And J. Taylor, 1794), 13, and Plates 72 and 73; Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (London: T. Bensley, 1802), 397, and Plate 46.
3 The most thorough examination of fancy is Sumpter Priddy, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts: 1790-1840, (Milwaukee: The Chipstone Foundation, 2004).
4 Jane C. Nylander, Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993), 72. Spooner offered “Sign and Ornamental–Painting done at short notice” in an advertisement in the Barre Gazette on November 2, 1838. I thank Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village, for this reference.
5 Edmund Wheeler, The History of Newport, New Hampshire, From 1766 to 1878 (Concord, N.H.: n.p., 1879), 90, 84.
6 The history of the Newport furniture industry and the Harris shop are described in Donna-Belle Garvin, “ A ‘Neat and Lively Aspect’: Newport, New Hampshire as a Cabinetmaking Center, Historical New Hampshire 43, no. 3 (Fall 1988): 202-224.
Newport’s prosperity also attracted artists. Vermont portraitist Benjamin Franklin Mason (1804–1871) painted portraits of Newport cabinetmaker William Lowell (1795–1839) and his wife, Jane Giles Lowell (1803–1872), about 1826. Richard Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire. The husband and wife portrait-painting team of Samuel Addison Shute (1803–1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803–1882) advertised in Newport’s New Hampshire Argus and Spectator on April 15, 1833, that they had “taken a room at Nettleton’s Hotel, where they will remain for a short time.” The “short time” turned into an eight-month stay. Wheeler, The History of Newport, New Hampshire, 102; Helen Kellogg, “Ruth W. and Samuel A. Shute” in Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong, eds., American Folk Painters of Three Centuries (NY: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1980), 170.
7 Wheeler, The History of Newport, New Hampshire, 96.
8 Others include one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; one sold by Paul McInnis, Inc., Americana Sale, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, January 3, 1985; and a third illustrated in Antiques & The Arts Weekly, Newtown, Connecticut, July 24, 1987: 32. I thank Donna- Belle Garvin for providing the last two references.
9 The Samuel Morse House Museum is operated by the Croydon Historical Society. Hannah Morse married in 1851, and the 1900 Federal Census for Hyde Park, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, lists Hannah, a widow, living with her daughter, son-in-law, her mother, Chloe Morse, and a servant. Chloe Morse died that year at age ninety-eight. If the dressing table descended to Hannah’s daughter, Alma, she would have been the third generation of the family to own it. “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org.ark:/61903/1:/1:M9TF67N (accessed 12 September 2019).
10 A bureau made about 1830 by Otis Warren (1807–1867) of Pomfret, Vermont, features a similar gallery. The source of Warren’s gallery is unknown. See Jean M. Burks and Philip Zea, Rich and Tasty: Vermont Furniture to 1850 (Shelburne, VT: Shelburne Museum, 2015), 162-163.
11 Others include a dressing table with a gallery and a faux marble top owned by Stephen-Douglas Antiques, Rockingham, Vermont; one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; one sold by Paul McInnis, Inc., Americana sale, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, January 3, 1985; and a third illustrated in Antiques & The Arts Weekly, Newtown, Connecticut, July 24, 1987: 32. I thank Donna-Belle Garvin for providing the last two references.
12 A related dressing table of unknown origin with a gallery shows differences. Its overall dimensions, leg turnings, and a gallery wall composed of two boards rather than a single board differ from the Sullivan County group. Moreover, the case lacks painted reserves, and a full-width rectangular backsplash is painted with a band of foliate motifs resembling a printed wallpaper border. Despite certain design similarities to Sullivan County examples, it does not appear to be part of this group. See Ellen Kenney Glennon, “The John Tarrant Kenny Hitchcock Museum, Riverton, Connecticut,” The Magazine Antiques 125, no. 5 (May 1984): Pl. VI on p. 1145.
13 I thank Bill Kelly for bringing the dressing table signed by David Colby to my attention.
14 A David Colby Jr. (1807–1893), born in Enfield, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, moved to Ohio, after his father migrated there in 1834. Whether he moved to Ohio after 1835—the year the dressing tables was made—is not known. No biographical information about the David Colby born in 1801 in Sutton, New Hampshire, in adjacent Merrimack County has been located. Interestingly, another cabinetmaker who worked for Harris, Horace Ellis (1807– 1872), was also born in Sutton. Ellis signed a bureau without a gallery “Made by H Ellis/Newport N H” and “Horace Ellis, 1832”. Ellis made the bureau a year after Harris sold his shop to the firm of Gilmore, Hall & Dwinel. See Garvin, Garvin, and Page, Plain & Elegant, 134-135, and Wheeler, History of Newport, New Hampshire, 96.
15 Garvin, A ‘Neat and Lively Aspect’: 224, n. 43.
16 Garvin, A ‘Neat and Lively Aspect’: 212, n. 9.
17 Ibid: 212.
18 G. Parker Lyon, The New-Hampshire Annual Register, and United States Calendar, For the Year 1847 (Concord: G. Parker Lyon, 1847), 91. David Harris also left the ornamental painting trade, becoming Newport’s coroner in 1839, deputy sheriff in 1841, and the town’s jailer in 1847. Jacob B. Moore, The New-Hampshire Annual Register, and United States Calendar, For the Year 1839 (Concord, N.H.: Marsh, Capen and Lyon, 1839), 63; Asa Fowler, The New-Hampshire Annual Register, and United States Calendar, For the Year 1841 (Concord, N.H.: Luther Hamilton, 1842), 67; G. Parker Lyon, The New-Hampshire Annual Register, 76.