There’s Something in a Name…

When my friend Robert Hause, a combination skilled woodworker and antiques dealer who owns Art of the Craft in Wilmington, N.C., called me the other morning, the subject turned, as it invariably does, to furniture. And for whatever reason, we began discussing some of the names originally associated with Arts and Crafts furniture.

“I see so many library tables,” he commented, “but how many bungalows actually had their own libraries? Or did they think all those tables would go into public libraries?”

Naturally, all those library tables were not intended for public libraries, and most bungalows did not have a separate room labeled a library. Those library tables were often used just as we use them today – as desks.

Robert agreed, noting, “If I set up at a show and call it a library table, it’s harder to sell than if I just call it a desk.” Which prompted me to wonder, “When does a library table become a desk? Is it determined by its size, or by how it’s being used?”

I used to think that anything over 48” was a desk, until I saw that Gustav Stickley had 60 inch, 66 inch, and 70 inch models – and he called them all “library tables.” To further refute my theory, those large library tables towered over some of his diminutive “writing desks.” In my office, I solved the need for a large partner’s desk by pushing two 48” library tables together, back to back, and putting a chair at either side.

So, are they now still library tables – or are they now considered a desk? Which brought to mind another question: “Why did Gustav Stickley call his small end tables by the French name – tabourets?” And if you really want to get serious, the French word tabouret actually refers to an upholstered stool, not a small table to put beside a chair or settle (pictured above).

Even though today the word “settle” has nearly been replaced by couch or sofa, Stickley’s use of that term was perfectly acceptable in 1910. He did try to use “divan” and “lounge” a few times in his catalogues, but soon gave up and called them all either settles or hall seats. I could not find a single instance in which he used the Victorian term “settee” when referencing a small settle.

In another instance, Gustav Stickley, through his influential editor Irene Sargent, a Syracuse University professor of art history, paid homage to William Morris in the first issue of “The Craftsman” magazine. However, while his competitors were often quick to market a “Morris chair,” Gustav refused to use that term. Instead, each of his were always labeled a “reclining chair.”

Then there is the “costumer,” that single- or double-post, upright stand used to hang coats or clothes. Today we call them hall trees, but Stickley’s use of the term is technically correct for the period, even if it seems obscure today. In a similar fashion, what our Arts and Crafts forefathers labeled a “cellarette,” we would today call the piece of furniture where we store our bottles of liquor a drink cabinet.

For those who in their spare time flip through Arts and Crafts furniture catalogs, you may have been puzzled by a low, lidded chest similar in form to what we would today call a cedar chest or a hope chest. In the Arts and Crafts era it was also called a bridal chest, as well as a less familiar term – “a shirt-waist box.” You fashion-conscious readers already know that the shirt-waist was an early form of a woman’s blouse. Apparently shirt-waists were popular enough in 1910 to command their own piece of furniture.

While modest bungalows were popular during the Arts and Crafts era, enough large Arts and Crafts homes still existed to prompt Gustav Stickley to market an enormous, massive, eight-foot long dining room table, calling it “an interesting table for a large dining room where it is not necessary to have a table that closes up. It is also much used as a director’s table.” And so today, when it rarely becomes available, this enormous table with its two-inch thick top is often labeled a “director’s table.” Suitable, no doubt, for the board of directors of a large corporation, provided they had good taste.

But in the end, Bill Shakespeare had already figured it all out, when he dipped his quill and scratched out the line, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Or look as brown.

Until next Monday, “Rest is rust.” – Elbert Hubbard