J.E. has a fine British Hepplewhite Demi Lune table that she picked up for a song at the Santa Barbara Goodwill before the pandemic.
She threw it in her storage, and now she has had the time to think about it, she wrote, “What is it? How old? Should she refinish? What was it originally used for?”
This table was an extension to a dining table. That’s hard to conceive, but here’s how we know. The table is a little less than 28 inches tall, the height of dining tables in general over the years.
And over the years, because of its age (1810), it has lost about ¾ inch from wood wearing away at the feet bottom. It was part of a dining suite.
It is not the other typical form of demi lune table of that period, which is the game table. This table usually stood about 30 inches tall and typically could seat four players when the top was flipped open and a gate leg was swung around.
I make this point because to tell J.E. what the table was used for, we have certain 18th- and 19th-century standards. I see J.E.’s table is dining height, and I do not see evidence of anything hinging on the long side of her table. There’s no evidence of any swing leg: It is not a game table.
How was this little semicircle furnishing a dining table? It was part of a dining table — and a very inventive part. We have not seen this form in a dining room since about 1825.
Here’s how the suite was configured.
The center table was a rectangular drop leaf table of walnut or mahogany. When not in use, the leaves were flopped down, and the table was drawn to the wall.
When it was to be used, the host had many choices of ways to use the whole set, consisting of one drop leaf table and two similarly sized demi lune tables.
When not in use, the demi lune tables were set against the wall. For a large group of diners, the extended drop leaf table was used, anchored at either end by the two demi lunes, creating a table over 8 feet long. When dining was over, all three pieces went against the walls.
Table suites like this in the Federal Period in America and the Hepplewhite Period in Great Britain were both beautiful and practical- and moveable. Here’s how the host figured the layout of the three pieces for specific guests. To serve four to six people, the host used the drop leaf table only. For six to eight people, the host left the drop leaves down and added both demi lune tables either end. For eight to 12 people, the host opened the drop leaf and added both demi lune tables.
Why did this practical and efficient style go away?
Because new dining habits changed the dining room in about 1840.
A fashion occurred for stately looking dining tables set permanently in the middle of a dining room with chairs. So dining tables “walked’ to the center of dining rooms and have stayed there ever since, except for the year 2020, when the pandemic has forced us to redo our dining rooms into our home offices.
Yet again, dining tables are against the walls as they were in the 15th to 18th centuries.
How do I know this table is Hepplewhite, a style named after a cabinet maker in London in the late 18th century? I know because of the square simple legs that are slightly tapering and the “lion mask” hardware, which are the original pulls to the small drawer (also very practical if the host used the demi lune tables as sideboards.)
These lion masks are a feature of the Hepplewhite and Federal Period, but usually in America we see the lion’s mouth holding the bail handle. So, I believe it is British, about 1804-1810.
Now, should J.E. strip this table? I would say the value is such ($700) that if she didn’t mind losing the value, she COULD, but I would French-polish the piece (and she did as we see in the photo). She took exceptionally light sandpaper and just skimmed the surface of the finish, enough to give 100% beeswax something to adhere to.
Then she put on about three coats with her bare hands (the warmth helped the table accept the wax). She took three pairs of wool socks and buffed the piece with the socks. This is my recipe for French polishing, and of course, you polish the brasses as they were originally. They were very bright.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.