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Dining Table

On view

Dining Table

Date: 1820-1840
Medium: Mahogany, yellow-poplar, eastern white pine, basswood, cherry
Overall: Separated: 25 5/8 × 36 5/8 × 18 3/4in. (65.1 × 93 × 47.6cm)
Overall: Joined: 25 5/8 × 36 5/8 × 78 1/2in. (65.1 × 93 × 199.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.20.A-B
Label Text
Animal motifs on American furniture can denote the origin of the style and the city where the object was made. In the 1820s and 1830s, furniture artisans were influenced by the classical designs of ancient Rome and Greece. The eagle, for example, was viewed as a symbol of power and authority--a derivation of the bird's association with the god Zeus. Here it is combined with a bountiful urn of fruit, which represents prosperity.This ornamental assemblage is exceptionally appropriate for a flourishing new nation that based its democratic government on that of Rome.

The particular execution of this imagery also indicates where the table was made. The realistically carved pedestal and the eagle-headed monopods are two of several features on this table that appear in the 1828 Philadelphia "Cabinet and Chair Makers' Union Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet Ware," indicating Philadelphia as a likely place of origin for the table.

Text Entries

During the eighteenth century the standard American dining table had two hinged leaves that hung vertically when not required for eating. When necessary, the leaves were raised to a horizontal position and, supported by hinged legs, formed an oval, circular, or rectangular tabletop.(1) During the last quarter of the century, drop-leaf tables with rectangular leaves were sometimes lengthened by attaching two separate ends to a center section. Dining tables of this type were always supported by legs affixed at the perimeter. When not in use for dining, these separate ends were placed against a wall to serve as side tables.(2)

During the nineteenth century the dining table form evolved to accommodate changing lifestyles. In 1845 Thomas Webster noted that dining tables are “necessarily of various sizes and forms, to suit the apartments, numbers of guests, and other circumstances. Various methods have been contrived for increasing the size of tables on occasion, and of causing them to occupy less space when out of use.”(3)

By the third decade of the nineteenth century, dining tables like the MWPI example were usually supported by central pedestals. The central support was a distinct improvement over legs at the perimeter because it allowed diners to sit comfortably with their knees under the table. Tables of this kind typically consisted of two identical ends, each with a hinged leaf. The leaves were swung to a horizontal position and rotated to form a large dining surface supported by the pedestal. The two ends could be used individually, or if more space was needed, one architect pointed out that they could “be placed together so as to form one square [actually rectangular] table, made fast by thumbscrews.”(4)

Most pedestal tables had only a single, plain, cylinder-on-cube support and four-toed claw feet (see cat. no. ll). The MWPI table, however, described as “a round cornered end table on pillar and claws” in The Philadelphia Cabinet and Chair Makers’ Union Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet Ware (1828), is an unusual and attractive variant.(5) The price book lists, and gives prices for, optional extra features including a distinctive detail present on this table—the canting of the front edge of the skirt decorated with applied leafy panels. This feature is described in the 1828 Philadelphia price book as “eased away not to exceed five inches from the square of the corner.” Two more options listed in the price book appear on this table—the two-part pedestal base carved in the form of a vase holding fruit and leaves, and the eagle-headed claw feet.(6)

The pedestal carving is deep, realistically executed, dramatic, and of excellent quality. The vase overflows with fruit and is flanked by eagle-headed monopods. Carving of this type represents the Philadelphia school at its best and is comparable to related designs on contemporary furniture bearing the paper labels or stencils of renowned early nineteenth-century Philadelphia furniture makers such as Anthony G. Quervelle, Michel Bouvier, Charles H. White, and Lawrence Sink.(7) Although these men were undoubtedly capable of executing this type of carving, they frequently assigned the work to specialist carvers who were either in their employ or were self-employed jobbers.

The configuration of dining table ends like these, with extensive carved sections on only one side, makes it clear that they were intended to be placed against walls when not in use for eating; they would be moved into a room and set up for dining when the need arose. When the tables were brought together and topped with a tablecloth, for all practical purposes the carved features were completely obscured. The consistent-presence of casters on the feet of such tables under-scores their portability.

Essay by Donald L. Fennimore

1. For tables of this type, see Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Random House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), pp. 178-82.

2. For a table of this type, see Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: Viking Press, 1966), pp. 345-46, no. 321.

3. Thomas Webster, An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1845), p. 258.

4. John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1839), p. 1048.

5. This and other price books were compiled for the use of members of the cabinet- and chairmaking trades. For a standard version of the Philadelphia pillar and claw dining table end, see Robert C. Smith, “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part II: The Pedestal Tables," Antiques 104, no. 1 (July 1973): 92, fig. 7.

6. The canted corners are described in The Philadelphia Cabinet and Chair Makers’ Union Book of Prices (1828), p. 23. The two-part pedestal is a modified version of the table supports pictured as line drawings in plate 9, figs. 1 and 2, in the price book. An eagle-headed claw foot is pictured in plate 8, fig. 6.

7. The carving is comparable to related fruit clusters on a Philadelphia-made desk and bookcase, side chair, sideboard, and dining table. The desk, book-case, and sideboard are illustrated in Robert C. Smith, “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part IV: Some Case Pieces,” Antiques 105, no. 1 (January 1974): 183, fig. 4; 186, plate I. The dining table appears in Robert C. Smith, “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part III: The Worktables,“ Antiques 104, no. 2 (August 1973): 264, fig. 7. The carving on the chair is illustrated in Robert C. Smith, “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part V: Sofas, Chairs, and Beds," Antiques 105, no. 3 (March 1974): 516, fig. 7; 518, plate I.