A young reader, J.E., who is 20, saw a piece of furniture in a local antique shop and sent me a photo asking how it was used. She likes it but doesn’t know how she would use it in her apartment near Santa Barbara City College. The piece is “dirt cheap” at $200. What is it?
J.E., we used to have a dedicated dining room devoted to the eating experience of a large family. The center of the room contained a large table with enough space around it for at least six, perhaps more if grandparents were involved. Furniture existed in a dining room that appeared nowhere else. Objects that contained things related to dining were invented as furniture forms, expressly to hold large sets of porcelain. These sets of tableware included pieces custom-designed for certain foods. This custom of making porcelain containers for special foodstuffs was a very new invention, only going back about 200 years before your birth in 1999.
The interaction between marketplace and furniture was growing in the 19th century, the grand era of dining. No respectable hostess in the 19th century would even think of serving coffee in a water glass. No water glass would have held red wine. And so on.
Hostesses all over America strove to have a complete, even-numbered set of porcelain vessels for special foods: a service for 12 people, or 24. If a piece was broken, she would replace it, because she wanted that even number to be consistent.
You will notice the cabinet doors in the bottom case piece. This is for the stacks of porcelain dishes, perhaps on one side within that cabinet; on the other side, you found silver metal specially created to hold, let’s say, vegetables or mashed potatoes. Trays designed for specific functions, such as carving a joint of meat, lived there, too.
Two drawers surmount the cabinet piece. The drawers would have contained a full even numbered set of silver flatware, either 12 or 24, polished monthly and hand washed (which was the only way of washing anything). The other drawer would contain the handiwork of little old ladies: embroidered table napkins. These would also have to be handwashed and line dried (but of course, that would be the only way to dry).
You may ask, why then, is the piece mirrored in a way that no face would reflect in a glass so low? That mirror was to reflect a candelabra, lit to enhance the dining experience. (A candelabra would also need to be polished regularly.) A dining experience could last for hours, with many courses.
The shelves on either side of the mirror regularly held used objects necessary for any meal, such as a pickle container, a water jug, a sugar shaker, a bowl for salt. Yes, a bowl, called a salt cellar, held a little spoon for salt. (Salt in certain times of American history was expensive, as was sugar; pickles were de rigueur.)
Behind the mirror is another cupboard, so called because it was a board that held stacks of cups (teacups) and saucers; tea was the midafternoon beverage of choice, served with a little cake. The cake dish had matching cake plates. Since these little dishes were trimmed with real gold; the hostess never thought of putting them into the dishwasher or even the microwave because the appliances were not even invented then.
Solid walnut was at one time plentiful, and the carving into the walnut could be very deep, because it was the style for many surfaces to catch the dust. A more expensive wood was mahogany, pricey because it was not native to America; instead, it was harvested from tropical rainy islands.
The design of the piece indicates a date of 1880, when the style called renaissance revival was popular, a resurgence of classical taste. Throughout the history of furniture design, there’s a battle between the elements of classical design and organic styles like art nouveau. (Our taste today for midcentury modern is actually a classical revival of straight lines and angles.)
So, J.E., if you spend $200 on this piece and place it where you can serve a meal, you will be doing it a favor. It is, after all, called a “server.”
I hope this little explanation convinces you that times have changed, and you were quite right. The sideboard might be forever unknown to young people such as yourself and future generations. After all, we just don’t dine anymore.