I have mentioned many times that one definition of furniture is “functional art.” Furniture is almost an absolute requirement in today’s society. We must have chairs and beds, tables and sofas, bookcases and dressers, mirrors and desks. Those are forms of furniture that blend in with our everyday duties of living and working. They are definitely “functional” while the “art” part in many cases can certainly be debated. But there is a class of furniture that evolved not necessarily to fulfill our daily needs but to fulfill a function defined strictly by social norms of the day. These are things that we probably could have lived without in the long run but which filled a certain niche in a given social environment.
Several prominent examples come from the 20th century, but there are examples from almost every society in almost every period. One outstanding example from the 20th century is the gossip bench. It is true that no particular type of furniture is required or even desired for the completion of the task of “gossiping,” but nothing has enhanced the art of gossip so much as the telephone, so it seems fitting that a piece of gossip furniture is devoted to this aspect of the use of the telephone.
When telephones first became available to the public, they were large heavy appliances that were best hung on a wall and the user had to stand next to it to take advantage of it. A tall stool quickly followed for longer conversations. When the desk top or table top phone made its way into the home, it usually, at least initially, was regarded as intrusive and was relegated to a separate stand, a hall table or a nook in the living room. Gradually the phone became an indispensable part of daily home life and comfort and convenience while using the device became important. And as cities grew, the telephone companies issued phone directories, the ubiquitous list of everyone who had one of the new devices. The new publications quickly became burdensome and storage was a problem.
Then along came the gossip bench. It provided a place to sit, either attached or as a separate matching piece, a place for the phone on the table top, a writing surface to make taking notes easier and, at long last, a storage shelf or drawer for the directory.
The gossip bench solved several problems with one piece of furniture.
Was it necessary? No.
Was it convenient? Yes.
Has it survived? Only as a curiosity from another time before phones became so portable.
But initially it was the social solution to a technological advance.
While gossip benches were interesting they were small items in comparison to the rest of the household. In the mid-19th century, social status and presentation were much more important, and nowhere was it seen so much as in the parlor set.
The roles and ranks of men and women were much more codified than today and the parlor set was the perfect example of the rigid separations of the period. The parlor in a Victorian home was very formal place, used only for entertaining and for social show. It was not designed to be comfortable. It was designed to enforce proper posture by rank and gender.
The typical mid-19th century parlor set contained a sofa, the focal point of the set, a large gentleman’s chair with padded arms and high back, and a lady’s chair with no arms or with small sloping arms without padding and a lower back. The rest of the set was made up usually of four side chairs with open, low backs. This provided seating by rank for the entire family plus one or more guests.
Guests sat on the largest piece, the sofa, which also was the most comfortable, providing the most leeway in seating positions. There was no latitude in the assignment of seats. By the end of the century, as the Victorian age wound down, so did the formality of the parlor set. By the turn of the century the typical set included only five or fewer pieces which often included rocking chairs and platform rockers and the large sofa was now a two place love seat. By the Depression era the parlor set as such was gone. There was no more need for such social distinction.
In the 18th century, some of the prime examples of furniture forms driven by social graces revolved around the service and storage of tea. During the 1700s tea became the primary import of England and the financial effects were far reaching. At first the simple herb was stored in simple wooden boxes known as “caddies.” Over the course of the century they
became more elaborate and more expensive. By the beginning of the 19th century the simple wooden box had become the “teapoy,” a free-standing storage box with lined compartments inside for various types of tea as well as the tools of the service. Teapoys became the height of the craftsman’s art and served no other purpose than the storage of tea.
Along with the tea caddy and teapoy came the tea table. The tea table was like a candle stand but with a larger top surface and a surprisingly tall pedestal. We are used to low tables for our coffee and cocktail service, but tea tables were tall, as high as 32 inches. That was so that the tea could be served on the table and there was less chance of spillage on the way to the mouth since the mouth and tabletop were on similar levels. Such tall serving tables and tea storage devices faded out when the formal service of tea in America and England faded.
Have you seen something that qualifies as uniquely “social furniture”? Please let us know by sending your responses to Letters to the Editor Antique Trader 700 East State St. Iola, WI 54990 or send your response via email to ATNews@fwmedia.com
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