The William & Mary Style

Smaller appeal. With the advent of the high chest, or highboy, dressing tables also came into fashion.

Smaller appeal. With the advent of the high chest, or highboy, dressing tables also came into fashion.

Table Design
Tables also saw a radical change in function and design. Prior to the William & Mary period, tables tended to be four legs with stretchers and aprons, and a fixed top. During the William & Mary period we saw a shift to adaptable furniture. Tables began to have moving parts. The collapsible table was introduced, and the gate-leg began yet another design revolution.

Until late in the 18th century, rooms in houses tended to be multi-functional. In the earliest homes a table of fixed size was often an obstruction. By adding the design features of a swing leg and drop leaves to tables, we could finally fold a table up to a small enough size that it was out of the way. Even with the leaves in the down position, one could still use the table. You could work or entertain on the center section. If you had more work or more company, you could extend one or both leaves. This was a design innovation that would change the furniture world as we knew it.

Another addition to the design culture of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is the dressing table, sometimes referred to as a lowboy. It’s hard to tell whether this form should be discussed as a piece of case furniture or as a table. Clearly, they were in use as tables yet they relate to highboys, or high chests. They were not overly useful as storage pieces, nor were they intended to be used as work or entertaining tables. Their size was perfect for storing one’s personal effects and giving just enough workspace for applying wigs and makeup. Constructed using the same methods as the highboys, dressing tables were usually smaller versions of the base of the matching high chest. Design and decoration usually followed that of the highboy.

Room for more. Gateleg tables became the rage because they could be closed into a much smaller piece.

Room for more. Gateleg tables became the rage because they could be closed into a much smaller piece.

Enduring Influence
With all these radical design and construction innovations, is it any wonder Americans were reluctant to give them up easily? If we look at the highboys and lowboys built by the Goddards and Townsends in Newport during the latter part of the 18th century, we see the same construction techniques are held over from the William & Mary period. These masterpieces of American furniture are constructed using the same techniques as their predecessors – dovetailed boxes atop legs. While the construction methodology changed in most of the country during the Queen Anne period to the now familiar mortise-and-tenon construction, in Newport they saw fit to continue the earlier method.

We see the gateleg table shift and change throughout the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods, becoming even lighter in appearance and incorporating the new design elements of the cabriole leg. Chairs also continued their change in construction and design, first by adding the cyma, or reversing curve, to the shape of the back then eventually adding the same shape to the seat.

Over time, the William & Mary penchant for pierced and carved crest rails would find its way into the pierced and carved splats of Chippendale-period chairs. The bun foot on chests would eventually be replaced with the bracket foot. But without that first bun foot, we might never have known the graceful curve of the ogee foot.

Throughout furniture history, styles and construction methods have built upon everything that came before. Chippendale built upon the foundation of Queen Anne by expanding the Chinese and French influences in design and construction. Hepplewhite and Shaker furniture shifted to a less ornate sensibility. Sheraton and the Neo-Classical
furniture makers hearkened back to the Chippendale period with a nod to Egyptian, Roman and Greek architecture. Stickley and the Greenes took their cues from the pre-Queen Anne days.

So the next time you’re wandering in an antique shop or your favorite museum, take a moment to look over that piece of William & Mary furniture. Even if you’re not a fan, you might just begin to appreciate that the “Glorious Revolution” that began in 1688 had more influence on your favorite furniture style than you may have imagined. PWM

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