D.K. scoured the town because she’s having family to her new condo for the holidays and she has no dining furniture at all. She shot me a picture of a large dining piece found in a local thrift store, asked if it indeed was cheap at the price of $300. She can make her Christmas Eve buffet work with a long folding table draped with a red tablecloth as long as she has something for serving. She wants something to set off her plates of Christmas cookies and somewhere to light her grandmother’s pair of antique silver candelabra.
D.K., what you have sent me is undoubtedly good quality. It will never fall apart and you will have it all your life, even if your tastes change. You’ll have plenty of storage: there’s two cabinets for china, one long drawer for table linens, and two smaller drawers for silver flatware. The top raised cornice is backed by a mirror that has been replaced from its original, which was more than likely from about 1890. The mirror does not have the telltale ripples of the older mirror-glass, yet the smoother more modern mirror will still reflect the light of those antique candelabra.
The piece is solid oak, with barley-twist columns, flanking each side and echoed in supports for the top cornice. Each cabinet to the base is centered by a griffin cartouche, beloved of the Renaissance Revival period of the late 19th century, and laced with relief arabesques.
$300 is about right, but you can get it for less: you’ll pay for it to be moved, as these beasts weight a ton. The mirror will need to be unscrewed from the back to move it safely. Replacing the mirror will cost more than $300! You’ll search for a replacement bronze bail handle for the drawer.
The oak is in the no-veneer tradition of the American Gold Oak Period, which precedes the more expensive, collectible Craftsman Period.
D.K. asks, “what is it?” She’s undoubtedly young and hasn’t seen many sideboards. “Boards” is the old word for a surface where one dined, harkening back to the medieval manor house tradition of moveable furniture in great rooms, when the servants placed boards upon a pair of trestles. Terms like “room and board” and “chairman of the board” derive from this antique word “board,” to lay a table.
Since a dining table was not a fixture, a medieval dining room needed one sturdy fixed piece of furniture to hold the heavy dishes of communal food during the meal, to be cleared to show the collection of serving pieces. In the medieval days, the sideboard was therefore a status symbol. The English called them “court cupboards:” most had a raised high cabinet surmounting a pair of enormous turned legs. The point was to elevate the wealthy host’s collection of silver and rare Delft or Chinese Export porcelain, usually blue and white.
The French had a version of a sideboard, called a dressoir, from which we get our term dresser. The French dresser was indeed dressed with the host’s rare silver pieces and porcelain, ranging upward on shelves growing higher as the years increased the holdings of the house.
By the 18th century, the famous English furniture-maker Thomas Sheraton suggested, in his 1803 book The Cabinet-maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, or, The Cabinet Director that English families would benefit from a sideboard, for privacy. Privacy? Yes, the meal could be laid ahead by the servants. Sheraton’s book was presubscribed by 600 cabinet shops in 1800, and the Neoclassical thin-legged, elegant bow-shaped sideboard became ‘de rigueur.’ One of the subscribers was the New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe, who designed a substantial version for New York mansions. Sideboards featured in the aristocratic descriptions in the novels of Henry James, when the elegant family trails down to breakfast laid on the sideboard to start their idle day.
Today, the market doesn’t care for sideboards, we don’t serve in the way, nor do we show off our silver, china and crystal. No longer do we have dining knick-knacks on display showing how well we eat, like those cut crystal bowls. So sideboards are passé.
D.K., my advice is to offer the thrift store $200, and then hire three men and a truck to get it up your stairs. Once it is in your condo, set with those candelabra for the holidays, you'll be glad you invested in the ancient tradition of having a sideboard in your dining room.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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