In Focus

Sideboard, 1790-1810, Boston area

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

With the emergence of the dining room as a specialized eating space during the late 18th century, new furniture forms like the sideboard were developed. In the dining room, sideboards served as staging and display areas for the elaborate dinners characteristic of upper-class entertaining during this period. One early 19th-century servant described the use of a sideboard as follows:

In setting out your side-board and side-table, you must study convenience, neatness, and grandeur, as you cannot think that ladies and gentlemen have splendid and costly things without wishing them to be seen or set out to the best advantage. . . .Some persons will put out their things with such taste and neatness, that it will strike the eye of every person who enters the room with a pleasing sensation of elegance.

To meet these needs, sideboards furnished ample space for the display, organization, and storage of knife boxes, dishes, and glasses. The deep drawer at the lower right of this example is fitted with dividers for holding liquor bottles. Some sideboards also contained chamber pots so that men could relieve themselves following their female companions' withdrawal from the room after dinner.

The reverse serpentine outline seen on this sideboard was developed by English cabinetmakers during the last quarter of the 18th century. In America this shape was extremely popular. Examples which combine concave end sections with a convex central drawer above an inset pair of doors are known from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Several features found on this sideboard indicate that it was probably made in or near Boston. For example, the fan inlay of contrasting light and dark woods was favored by Boston cabinetmakers. Recent research has also shown that the unusually short tapered feet are most often found on Boston work. However, since no documented Boston example like this is known, it is premature to rule out a possible origin in another eastern Massachusetts town, such as Salem, Newburyport, or Marblehead.

Besides being a fine example of 18th-century taste, this sideboard has a fascinating early 20th-century history. During the early years of this century, this piece was owned by the prominent colonial revival architect and collector, Arthur Little (1852-1925) of Boston. Little was one of the first American architects to actively integrate 18th and early 19th-century design principles into the houses and furniture he created between 1880 and 1920. In 1911, Little refurbished his own home at 35 Commonwealth Avenue at a cost of $22,917.64. As evident from interior photographs of the house, Little combined English and American antiques with furniture of his own design to create the desired atmosphere. This sideboard was used in Little's dining room where it was covered with silver and flanked by side chairs of Little's own design.

Excerpt from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 83-85.

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