October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
In its sweeping tripartite design, its delicate ornamentation, and its rich mahogany surface, this Baltimore sideboard from about 1800 embodies one of the most handsome forms perfected by cabinetmakers in the early years of the new Republic. Though large and commodious (32½” by 5’9¾” by 26”), the piece achieves lightness of design through the lively interplay of geometric shapes and the serpentine movement of the body, through the paring down or reduction of such elements as the taper of the legs, and through a persistent, clear emphasis on line.
The sideboard form came into vogue in the closing years of the eighteenth century during a time when room usage was getting increasingly specialized and it had become fashionable to have a space set apart for the sole purpose of dining. The sideboard stood preeminent among other appropriate furnishings: dining table and chairs, a looking glass, paintings. In England the sideboard’s supremacy was often acknowledged by placing it in a recessed area accented with columns. In America there were few dining rooms with columns, but a recessed area or niche might be designated for the sideboard.
American eating customs mirrored British ones. Dinners, served in the early afternoon, were leisurely affairs that might last several hours. It was, therefore, important that the dining room be furnished comfortably and attractively. Robert Adam, the celebrated Scottish architect and designer, had remarked that whereas the French did not devote great attention to the decoration of the dining room because they left it promptly after meals, in England dining rooms were “as the apartments of conversation, in which we are to pass a great part of our time.” A French officer in New England during the American Revolution was convinced that “on the whole, the greatest part of the time is spent at table.”
What differentiated the sideboard from earlier serving-table forms was its capacity for storage. Veiled behind the eight ovals that play across the facade of this one are a drawer and three commodious cupboards.
The stowage of ample supplies of liquor was one important function of the sideboard in that convivial age, and frequently the deep drawers were partitioned for the safe harboring of square spirits bottles. A necessary accessory to these prolonged hours of imbibement was the chamber pot, which might be discreetly concealed in one cupboard.
Atop the sideboard might also be a pair of cases specifically designed for the display of flatware. These knife boxes were typically in the shape of urns, semicircles, or elaborated rectangles, so that the ensemble of sideboard, knife boxes, and cellarette often provided a sprightly display of form and patterning.
Keyholes were clearly in evidence, their symmetrical placement often highlighted by the reiteration of a geometric lightwood inlay, such as on this Baltimore piece. Theft was rife at home in early America; flatware, liquor, and linens all were temptations to thievery. Even the content of the decanters atop the sideboard might dwindle without close supervision. Writing of his experiences in New York City in the 182Os, Peter Neilson recalled his outrage when one of his servants “came ‘right’ into the parlour, and going over to the sideboard, lifted a large decanter of spirits, and walked out, saying ‘he wished to treat a boy or two who were in the kitchen!’”
Handsome cut or engraved glass decanters might well stretch along the sideboard top. Indeed, this long, expansive sideboard shelf suggests the primary function of the sideboard: display. Baron Axel Klinkowstr’f6m, traveling in the States between 1818 and 1820, observed that in the American dining room “there is always a very elegant mahogany sideboard decorated with the silver and metal vessels of the household as well as with beautiful cut glass and crystal.” The sideboard was the essential emblem of status and achievement and an admirable surface upon which to set out the family wealth when guests were coming to dinner.
Of course, the arrangement atop the sideboard could also assist with ease of serving, and ease was the essential ingredient in politeness. Meals were to be served facilely and noiselessly, and the design of a sideboard with a concave section allowed the butler to reach across the broad top with agility.
In the loud, rushed current of Victorian times, the sideboard became a symbol of the tranquil hospitality of a quieter, slower, more genial era. Today antique ones are available in a wide range of prices. To all for whom hospitality has a warm, special meaning, the sideboard remains a form to live with, to admire, and to enjoy.