Expanding tables accommodate families of every size

Eating used to be such a simple affair: If you found something to eat you ate it right then and there. When we got civilized eating became more complicated.
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Eating used to be such a simple affair. If you found something to eat you ate it – right then and there. But then we got civilized and eating became more complicated. Special eating utensils were developed along with plates and presumably napkins at some point. Then came the revolutionary idea of eating in the same place at roughly the same time every day.

These Federal D end console tables have drop leaves attached that would rest on a rectangular center section.

These Federal D end console tables have drop leaves attached that would rest on a rectangular center section.

And since we were at the same place every day wouldn’t something like a table be nice to hold the food?

In Medieval times there was a simple solution: Throw a couple of boards across a trestle stand. When dinner was over the boards were stored somewhere else and the trestles were put to other uses.

That was fine for the large common eating areas of estates where the entire company ate together in the great hall. But as time wore on the desire for privacy led to smaller accommodations for dining and more permanent table arrangements.

This Art Deco table shows a variation of the draw table, the side draw, with leaves on the side.

This Art Deco table shows a variation of the draw table, the side draw, with leaves on the side.

By the sixteenth century a more or less solid table came into use in Europe based on tables used originally in Italian refectories, the dining halls of monasteries, that featured the old plank top but this time instead of just being thrown across a stand it was permanently attached to a strong base that had legs at each corner and rails below to provide stability.

The early models used in monasteries could be built long enough to seat as many monks as was required. The idea of the refectory table, or the stretcher table as it was sometimes called, was adopted for private family dining simply by a reduction in scale.

That was a grand idea until somebody dropped by for dinner. If the refectory table wasn’t quite big enough for much extra company it was a problem. The table was too heavy to move and not very flexible in size. It wasn’t long before somebody came up with the idea of making the table expandable by the use of additional planks for the top.

Early refectory tables featured a solid top and a strong stationary base.

Early refectory tables featured a solid top and a strong stationary base.

The planks, called leaves, were stored under the main top surface of the table, sliding in between the top and the frame of the base. They could then be drawn out to expand the table top. This was born the first extension table, the draw top table or simply the draw table. That style table has been in continuous production since that time.

The draw table was the last word in extension tables for nearly a century until a new idea of using the leaves came around. Instead of sliding the leaves under the original top the new idea hung the leaves on hinges at each side of the table. When they were not needed for the top surface they could be lowered or dropped down out of the way. That solved one problem but presented a couple of other “opportunities.”

The most obvious of those was how to support the leaves when they needed to be up. The other was to accomplish that and still leave room for the legs – the diner’s legs.

This 1950s table shows the leaf extension method of the sixteenth century draw top table with leaves on the ends.

This 1950s table shows the leaf extension method of the sixteenth century draw top table with leaves on the ends.

Early seventeenth century examples of drop leaf tables solved the support problem using gate legs: legs that swung out from the main table structure using an open gate-like frame to stabilize a mobile leg mounted on hinges to the table frame to support the leaf.

That meant that whoever sat at that position at the table had to straddle the leg and was left with no space for feet. And like the draw table, that was that for about another century until American (or at least Colonial) ingenuity stepped up to the plate.

The next bright idea was the butterfly table introduced around 1700. The table itself was not shaped like a butterfly but the drop leaf support was. It was a swinging piece of wood that rotated out. It was shaped like a butterfly wing or a ship’s rudder and was fastened to the table top frame on the top edge and inserted into the lower stretcher between the fixed legs. The shape of the butterfly meant that no diner had to straddle the leg and since it took up no floor space it did not impede foot space.

On the other hand the support for the leaf was not quite as solid as the gate leg so most butterfly tables tended to be smaller than gatelegs and the circular shape was the best suited design so that still left an opening for “improvement,” which wasn’t far behind.

This reproduction shows the support mechanism of an early eighteenth century butterfly drop leaf table.

This reproduction shows the support mechanism of an early eighteenth century butterfly drop leaf table.

What followed next after 1730 was the line of swing leg tables that employed two of the table’s four legs as leaf supports. The swing legs, on opposite corners of the table, were suspended on wooden knuckle hinges that allowed the leg to swing out to support the raised leaf. The knuckle hinge supplied some of the stability lost when the swing leg shed its gate-like frame and was supported only in one spot on the table frame. Clever solution but it still meant that the same four legs supporting the original table top now supported an expanded table top with no additional help.

That generated the multiple swing-leg table after mid century with as many as eight legs crammed under a small top when the leaves were down. A six legged swing-leg table had one mobile leg on each side to provide leaf support while still retaining four stationary legs for the main surface and the eight-legged table had two extra, one on each side. That meant that a lot of legs, human and otherwise, had to find room under that table.

The final installment of the motion leg tables appeared just after the turn of the nineteenth century. In many early century Federal homes such as Jefferson’s Monticello, no specific space was set aside as the dining room. Monticello had a large general purpose room that could be used as a dining room depending on how it was set up. In everyday use it employed a series of seating groups and small tables. For dining hall use, several smaller tables were combined to provide a suitable dining surface for a banquet. A three part table was perfect for this use. One version had a rectangular center section with two floor length drop leaves supported by swing legs. That was flanked by two stationary legged “D” shaped ends that often connected to the center unit using brass table forks. This was the famous “D” end banquet table of the first half of the nineteenth century.

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