Although I hadn’t really thought of furniture this way before, certain pieces are gendered. In particular, I want to the Yale University Art Gallery‘s furniture storage area to immerse in women’s furniture–objects that tell us something about women’s lives–from the Colonial period.
We have often admired painted chests that women built their Hopes on, hopes for marriage that would come from a good dowry (textiles, china, and other movable objects). The portable stuff in her Hope Chest would stay with her if she was widowed and pass to her daughter, to improve her chances.
You may make out the initials J and P on this chest-with-drawer from the late 17th century. Joanna Porter was not John Marsh’s first wife when she married him in 1704, and she wasn’t his last. From inventory, we know the daughter they had together inherited her mother’s clothing, and perhaps this chest. Known as a stem-and-tulip motif, the carving likely referred back to the maypole festivities in rural England. All about fertility.
Women’s roles change a bit with the development of niceties like this tea table. Although made of cherry, a lesser wood to a mahogany that might be found on a Philadelphia piece, this scallop or pie-crust style tea table says so much about the changes in lifestyle. Now deportment matters. Personal cleanliness typified the new manners of a more affluent colony, and as the price of tea dropped, more classes could afford it. So a table like this would set you apart. Not only would you have the leisure to stop and drink tea, but you knew the right people, including men, to come join you and admire your expensive tea set and table.
And here’s where the trouble starts. Tea tables represented something naughty in society–the emerging power of women. Caused by many social factors, some men just couldn’t deal with it. Unlike the puritan spinning wheel of female virtue and fertility, the tea table allowed not just socializing between the sexes, but also the chance to show off your fashions and flirt. Oh my!
How much better for your to apply your skills to the domestic arts. That’s what your education would be all about–how to attract a husband. Yes, you need to read and write and do basic math to run your household, but perhaps even more important, you need to sing, dance, perform music, and make art.
Plus do your needlework. And how much better that would look pulled out of this graceful, 1808 kidney-shaped work table from Philadelphia. This is high style and function combined. Yes, you could move it easily to catch the light. But that shape. Well, that’s more than your average sewing kit. Here you even see it with its original silk swag. The shape was meant to complement your lovely figure, as you tee hee with your suitor in the parlor. Show off all your advantages!
A stitched cover like this 1753 flame-stitched, horsehair-stuffed seat would also be shown off in the best parlor and to suitors. Let’s hope Abigail Porter from Wethersfield, CT, who made it, was successful. She couldn’t earn a living any other way.
You might also demonstrate your painterly skills on a what-not table like this darling thing. You could use a pattern book, such as the Ladies Amusement Book, to choose your pattern for painting or needlework. You would trace the pattern with chalk or graphite (pencil), then paint it in with watercolor or ink. Voila!
The curators think these bunnies were painted freehand, since they are ‘naive.’ I think they are charming and would certainly be an ’emblem of accomplishment’ if I were able to paint such. Which I can’t.
Later in the 19th century, women’s furniture types grew with women’s expanding roles. A beautiful writing desk like this tambour-door gem provided you a quiet space for writing correspondence or reading, indicative that academic subjects were now part of a girl’s education. And perhaps most important, the desk locks. Ah, for some privacy…