Types of Tables

This week, we are talking tables. Tables have become a hot topic around here lately, mostly because we seem to have so many of them. At the moment, we have three tables on display in the bedchamber, four tables in the dining room and two more in the drawing room. There are four examples in the exhibit gallery of the Visitor Center, and our collections manager is constantly annoyed by the number of tables in our storage rooms.  Yes, it would seem we are overrun with tables around here. Why is that?

The tables currently on display in Kenmore are there to give our visitors an idea of the types and uses of tables available to 18th-century Virginians, and to illustrate some of the decisions we have to make while refurnishing the house. In the 18th century, tables were made for very specific purposes (tea, cards, writing, dining, etc.) and a well-equipped house would have a variety of forms, each used for its specific purpose. It was not at all uncommon to find a tea table, a dressing table, a writing table and a candlestand (which is a type of small pedestal table mean to hold a candlestick)

Left to right: a dressing table, a candlestand, and a tilt-top tea table, all on display in the Bedchamber

 all in the bedchamber. Likewise, a dining room often had more than one main dining table, and it was often accompanied by sideboard tables and serving tables of different sorts. All in all, 18th-century life simply required more specialized tables than what we are used to today. And Kenmore was no different.

After last week’s post about the uses and intricacies of probate inventories, you are probably wondering how many tables appear on Fielding Lewis’s 1781 inventory. An excellent question! The inventory shows us that there were seven tables in the three main rooms on the first floor of the house. Unfortunately, the inventory is irritatingly vague about what types of tables were in use in the bedchamber, and we have reason to believe that it is also incomplete in the dining room. This is a case of an inventory being almost as useful for what is doesn’t say as what it does. Here’s where it gets interesting:

The inventory says the bedchamber had “1 small Walnut Table” and “1 small Mahogany Table.” But what types of table? There are a few ways of narrowing it down. First, the inventory also shows that the bedchamber had a looking glass, or mirror. Mirrors would either be hung on the wall, or they could be the tabletop variety. We know from the restoration of Kenmore that no tack marks or picture hangers of any kind were found in the bedchamber walls, so the looking glass could not have hung on a wall – it must have been placed on a table. In most cases a tabletop looking glass would be found on a dressing table, which was a small table with drawers that was used much like a modern vanity. Ergo, it is quite likely that one of the two tables in the bedchamber was a dressing table. As for the second table, well, that one may be more of a guess. In the other rooms of the house, the inventory is much more specific about the type of table. For instance, in the drawing

Corner table from the GWF collection

room, the tables are identified as a “corner table” and a “tea table.” Therefore, the tables in the bedchamber are probably not either of those two forms – if they were, the inventory-taker would have identified them that way. The drawing room does not have a card or gaming table listed, which seems an odd omission.

Card or gaming table with Washington family provenance - currently on loan to Mount Vernon

The drawing room was a public entertaining space, and cards and games were an important part of social occasions in the 18th century. Surely the Lewis family had a gaming table somewhere. If it wasn’t in the drawing room, could it have been in the bedchamber? Remember, the bedchamber was often used for entertaining, too. Perhaps our second bedchamber table was in fact a gaming table.

I also mentioned that the probate inventory appears to be incomplete when it comes to tables at Kenmore. Why do I say that? The inventory lists a “large oval table” and a “3 ½ ft. square table” in the dining room, but no others. The size and value of these two tables indicates that they were the main dining tables, intended for the service of meals. If the inventory is taken at face value, Kenmore appears not to have had any serving tables or sideboards, both of which were common in late 18th-century dining rooms. One would certainly think that Kenmore’s dining room, with its elaborate plasterwork ceilings and papered walls would have been one of the most well-equipped dining rooms in town. A look at the 1797 inventory of Betty Lewis’s personal estate at Millbrook, the house she moved into during the last few months of her life, does not list any sideboards or serving tables either.

One of the sideboard tables currently displayed in the dining room (shown without its marble top, which is out for conservation)

 However, it does list several “sideboard cloths,” or tablecloths intended to cover sideboards (something like our modern table runners). Why would she need sideboard cloths if she didn’t have any sideboards? Is it possible that these sideboard cloths were a remnant of her former life at Kenmore? Betty’s desperate financial situation at the end of her life made it unlikely that she was purchasing expensive table linens after leaving Kenmore. Hmmm…

So, that is our look at tables for today. If you happen to visit Kenmore in the coming months, please understand that we’re not obsessed with tables. It’s just the way it was.

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