Written by Curator Sarah Neale Fayen for The Chipstone Foundation
This excellent 2003 article is from The Chipstone Foundation, a Wisconsin-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. Originating from the private collection of Stanley & Polly Stone, the foundation uses its objects & resources to support decorative arts projects & publications at other institutions, seeking to find "newer ways to look at old things." Please use the link above to see the entire article & its superb scholarship notes.
Few American furniture forms are more iconic than the tilt-top tea table...Circular tops with carved edges—usually called “scallop’d” in the 18C —acquired the name “piecrust,” & the mechanism that allowed the tops of some tables to tilt up into a vertical position, rotate, & be removed entirely—referred to as a “box” by many colonial tradesmen—became known as a “birdcage.” These & other stylistic & structural features attracted some collectors, while large tops made of highly figured mahogany or tables with histories of ownership in prominent colonial families captivated others. Today, tilt-top tea tables are in virtually every major collection of 18C American furniture, & they remain in great demand.
Despite this long-standing admiration of tilt-top tea tables, their initial development in the 18C, their subsequent rise to popularity, & their importance as cultural texts remains largely unexplored. Documentary sources & surviving tables suggest that the arrival & proliferation of this new form were inextricably linked to changes in the economy, increased Atlantic trade, & accelerating consumerism that emerged among the middle ranks of English society. By the mid-1730s, middle-market tilt-top tables like those made in London & the outlying provinces began appearing in well-to-do American homes. Associated from the start with genteel social interactions—especially tea drinking—tilt-top tables became indispensable components of fashionable parlors & symbols of status & refinement for politicians & planters as well as artisans & laborers. Furniture historians have traditionally studied tilt-top tea tables as landmarks of 18C cabinetmaking. In contrast, this article will address the tilt-top tea table in cultural context by investigating the circumstances that propelled it to the forefront of fashion & exploring the effects of its arrival on consumer behavior & social life.
From the outset, tilt-top tables looked very different from conventional tables. Dining tables, dressing tables, & rectangular tea tables have joined frames, fixed tops, & four or more legs, whereas tilt-top tables typically feature a single pillar supported by three legs. Although people generally invent new types of furniture to accommodate changing needs, this novel table form gained popularity more for its appearance than its utility. Undeniably, tilt-top tables were versatile & useful. Their tops tilted up & down on battens, & many had castors making them easier to move & store. Also, tables with box mechanisms could be oriented so the tripod feet either fit into the corner of a room or along a wall. Tables that changed shape to save space, however, were by no means a new invention. For centuries Europeans had been making tables with falling leaves, foldable frames, & removable tops. A tripod table with a tilting top did not offer considerably more convenience. It was simply a new solution to the old problem of spatial efficiency. Why did English colonists in the 1730s want a new type of table? What social, psychological, economic, or aesthetic needs did tables with central pillars, tripod legs, & tilting tops fulfill? How did their success change the way people interacted or experienced life inside their houses?
To answer these types of questions, scholars from several fields have demonstrated the benefits of studying both production & consumption. Consumption has been a popular topic of inquiry since 1982 when social historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, & J. H. Plumb used the phrase “consumer revolution” to describe the increased demand for a growing variety of goods among 18C residents of the British Atlantic world. Starting in 1675, ownership of domestic goods increased dramatically in England. Scholars have shown that middling artisans & farmers owned goods that their grandparents would have considered luxuries: forks, table knives, linens, mirrors, books, & of course, tea cups & tea tables. Many factors contributed to this increase, including cheaper production due to technological advances, improved transportation, & less hierarchical political climates. As historian Gloria Main has written, “a major change did take place during the 18C [among] ordinary people—in their style of life as well as their standard of living.”
Objects experts & material culture scholars who traditionally focus on modes of production have also emphasized in recent years the need for studying consumption. Social historian Cary Carson’s memorable mantra, “Demand came first!” has inspired innovative rethinking about the hand-in-hand development of consumer desire & new production. Other scholars have emphasized the importance of studying all the parties who create an object & assign it cultural meaning. In these studies, exploring human motivation rather than quantifying artifactual evidence becomes the intellectual goal,
The tea table occupied a potent position in the imagination of 18C consumers. The social ritual of tea drinking, made popular by the English elite beginning in the 1680s, was increasingly affordable & widespread in the colonies after the turn of the century. It became a venue for a new genteel code of conduct that spread throughout the middling social ranks over the course of the 18C. This set of polite manners emphasized physical cleanliness, graceful deportment, & pleasant conversation. It was a model of how people should treat one another that allowed individuals from different social backgrounds to comfortably interact according to a shared set of rules. In the common imagination, the ritual of tea drinking was frequently identified by the tea table itself. For instance, a Philadelphia advertisement for “so very neat” pewter tea wares began “To all Lovers of Decency, Neatness & Tea-Table decorum.” Here, “tea table” functioned as a metonym that succinctly denoted politeness. Rather than using the words “refined” or “fashionable,” this retailer & many others used the tea table to associate their products with the genteel lifestyle.
Other advertisements further demonstrate the centrality of the tea table in the imaginations of refined consumers. Retailers selling imported stoneware & porcelain teawares suggested that customers purchase “blue & white tea table setts” or “a genteel tea table sett.” Rather than being identified as “tea sets” or “tea drinking vessels,” the ceramic wares were described as being of the table. The tea table, more than the teapot or the tea cup that rested on its surface, was the object by which the ritual gained recognition & acceptance. In other words, the piece of furniture around which people gathered to entertain each other with wit & flirtation became the signifier of that particular mode of interaction. The tea table was as much an idea as a particular piece of furniture. As luxurious dining equipage previously restricted to the wealthy & powerful became increasingly affordable, all the excitement of fashionable social gatherings became bound up in one item—the tea table.
In addition to being a primary signifier of gentility, the tea table also connoted a “new female gentility,". As historian David S. Shields has demonstrated, women brought social tea drinking into the home in the first decades of the 18C. Originally, tea drinking & its associated rituals of visits & lively conversation provided the wives of socially prominent husbands an entré into the public sphere. The “brash honesty” that characterized tea table discussions constituted a sort of circumspection that effectively policed the actions of the powerful & elite by threatening to expose scandal & subject any wrong-doers to ridicule. Critics of the ladies’ new power used the tea table much like advertisers to succinctly identify a mode of interaction—in this case, frivolous gossip between women. “Tea table chat” was frequently disparaged in newspapers, books, & private accounts by men whose authority felt threatened.
Open criticism of gossip did not hinder the widespread embrace of tea table interactions by either gender. Through the 18C, more & more people learned the ins & outs of the tea drinking ritual, which existed in countless variations in different towns & cities. The tilt-top tea table probably contributed to tea’s popularity because it facilitated lively interactions among guests while maximizing opportunities to display refinement. A circular table—effectively the social stage—provided spatial parity to all players. No one dominated from the head of the table & no one “sat below the salt.” In addition, a table with a central pillar rather than traditionally joined legs created open spaces for ladies to display their silk brocaded skirts, & for men to elegantly cross their legs & show off their stockinged calves. No vertical table legs obscured a person’s clothing or posture, both primary means for display in the 18C.
Of course, early Americans owned several different kinds of tea tables. In addition to the circular tilt-top tables there were joined rectangular examples with molded tops. Both versions were frequently called “tea tables” in documents, making their relative popularity & use difficult to decipher. Rodris Roth suggested that the circular tea tables enjoyed greater popularity than rectangular versions. Roth based her statement on the frequent appearance of tilt-top tables in prints & paintings from the era. An equally subjective piece of evidence is the much greater number of circular tea tables that survive in comparison to rectangular versions. Though impossible to pin-point, the popularity of the tilt-top table probably stemmed in part from its unusual form that departed dramatically from traditional table construction. This novelty makes it an informative cultural text carrying significant meaning for the historian.
During the 1680s, European joiners began mounting tea trays imported from the Far East on joined frames. This probably led to the production of rectangular tea tables, the earliest of which had turned or scrolled legs. London joiners probably began making examples with cabriole legs by the late 1710s, but the earliest American examples appear to date from the 1720s. Tilt-top tables probably developed as a hybrid of different forms. Candle stands with central pillars & fixed tops were popular in Europe during the 17C. Elaborate versions with carved & gilded surfaces were often made in pairs. In court or other elite settings, they typically flanked a central table & mirror in the French-inspired ensemble sometimes called the “triad.” The inventory of James Brydges, first Duke of Chandos, listed a “large Tea Table cover’d with silver” with a pair of stands to match valued at £750. British craftsmen may have modified their stand designs by adding round, table-sized tops during the early 18C. Dutch artisans began producing tables with central pillars & relatively large, oval tilting tops somewhat earlier. These distinctive forms were conceptual forerunners of the British tilt-top tea table. Given the considerable amount of travel & stylistic exchange between Holland & England during the late 17C & early 18C, it is conceivable that British artisans borrowed the idea of a tilting top from Netherlandish sources & adapted it to their own stand or table forms.
Most English appraisers, merchants, & tradesmen used the term “pillar & claw” to describe tilt-top tea tables (the word “claw” designated the three legs). Other common nomenclature included “claw table” & “snap table,” an onomatopoetic name inspired by the catch that held the top in a horizontal position. One of the earliest American references to this form is in the probate inventory of Captain George Uriell (d. 1739) of Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His household possessions included “two Mohogany Claw Tables” worth £3.3. Documentary references increased during the following decades. The inventory of a Charleston man taken in 1740 listed “one round mahogany claw foot table.” Five years later, Philadelphia cabinetmakers Joseph Hall & Henry Rigby advertised a “Pillar & Claw table” & an “old Pillar & Claw Mahogy Table.” The qualifier “old” implies that the table was made well before 1745.
Some colonists struggled to describe this new furniture form. In 1749 appraisers for the estate of John Calder of Wethersfield, Connecticut, referred to his tilt-top tea table as a “stand” with a “fashion swivel leaf.” In this context “fashion” probably meant “modish” or “stylish.” “Stand table” was used throughout the colonies, most consistently in Wethersfield & Rhode Island. Many appraisers alluded to the kinetic action of the top in describing these tables. The 1757 estate inventory of Boston merchant Peter Minot, for example, listed a “Mahogany Turn up Table.”
“Tea table” with no qualifier was the most common name for the tilt-top variety in British North America. References to “tea tables” occur in advertisements & inventories from the first quarter of the 18C, but they probably denoted rectangular forms. During the 1730s, the term became more ambiguous as it was increasingly applied to circular as well as rectangular tea tables. This shift is evident in merchant advertisements that offer iron & brass “tea table ketches.” Occasionally appraisers, merchants, & artisans differentiated between circular & rectangular tea tables. An inventory taken in Savannah, Georgia, in 1768 lists “1 Mahogany Tea Table Round” valued at one pound. Some regions adopted consistent habits of nomenclature. People in Philadelphia tended to call rectangular tea tables “square.” A lack of descriptive language generally implied a tilt-top form in that city. The fact that Americans consistently used “tea table” rather than “pillar & claw table” or other English terms may suggest a more common association among colonists between tilt-top tables & tea drinking.
The earliest surviving American tilt-top tea table was made in the Philadelphia vicinity & probably dates from the 1720s. Its pillar turnings, faceted base block, & flat-sided cabriole legs appear to be just one step removed from the baroque stand.. Moreover, the use of a wrought iron catch rather than an imported brass one suggests that the latter hardware was not readily available when the table was made. Another tea table with a faceted base block survives, but it was probably made a decade later. Its rounded legs, pad feet, & columnar pillar illustrate the transition in Philadelphia from baroque Netherlandish designs toward the tilt-top table form that became popular among English consumers. By the early 1740s, at least one Philadelphia shop was producing relatively uniform tilt-top tables. Examples in this group typically have complex tops with up to twelve repeats, inverted balusters, & battens with short cross pieces that fit snugly around the top board of the box.
The production of tilt-top tea tables increased during the following decades throughout the colonies. Some colonial cabinetmakers made examples that rivaled those of their London counterparts. Williamsburg, Virginia, cabinetmaker Peter Scott began producing highly sophisticated tilt-top tables about 1745. An elaborate example that descended in the Lee family of Stratford Hall may have served as a model for tables that he made for other prominent Virginia families. A walnut tilt-top tea table labeled by Philadelphia cabinetmaker William Savery is roughly contemporary with Scott’s but has no carving on the top or pillar. This pair illustrates that elaborately carved & relatively plain tilt-top tables were being made simultaneously in the 1740s.
The patterns of production & distribution of tilt-top tables within the colonies indicate that they were being built inexpensively for a mid-level market. Making a tilt-top table required turning skills & the ability to perform simple joinery. In addition to the pillar, the turned components on a tilt-top table could include colonettes or miniature balusters if the object had a box & the top if it had a scalloped or molded edge. Because such tops were too large to be turned over the bed of the lathe, they were typically mounted on an arbor & cross. Some tables represent the work of a single artisan whereas others are the products of several tradesmen.
Growing demand in this era encouraged specialization & collaboration between artisans. In the 17C, English craftsmen & traders challenged Dutch dominance of the Atlantic market by espousing mercantilism, a system of commercial trade that took advantage of English holdings in America & the Caribbean. The success of this carrying trade convinced English tradesmen as well as the Crown that making & marketing goods efficiently & selling them inexpensively to middle range consumers could yield substantial profits. Glenn Adamson has demonstrated that caned chairs made first in London & later in Boston between 1700 & 1730 pioneered a mercantilist production strategy in America. Caned chair makers imitated the carved crests & front stretchers that were fashionable among the late seventeenth-century elite. They could sell them inexpensively, however, by buying the stretchers & stiles in large number from specialist turners who made them quickly & efficiently. Merchants then sold the caned chairs throughout the Atlantic rim to consumers hoping to ally themselves with their fashionable counterparts in London.
Artisans on both sides of the Atlantic recognized that focusing production & cooperating with other specialists made all of their jobs easier, reduced their costs, & raised their profits. Tilt-top tables, whose parts required distinct sets of skills & tools, lent themselves to collaborative production. Documentary records indicate that turners sold & traded tilt-top table pillars & tops on the open market much like caned chair makers had traded stiles & stretchers in previous decades. In the May 30, 1751, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Joseph Pattison, “Turner from London,” directed his advertisement for “tea table tops, & tea boards, pillars, balusters” to other artisans. In 1754 Joshua Delaplaine, a New York carpenter, joiner, & merchant, bought three “pillers of Mahogany” from John Paston & sold “a mahogany round tea table” to Samuel Nottingham, Jr. The account book of Charleston cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe documents a similar business relationship with turner William Wayne. In September 1771 Elfe paid Wayne £1.10 for “2 tea table pillars & turning.”
Some craftsmen traded tilt-top table parts over considerable distances. Beginning in 1766 Samuel Williams repeatedly advertised “mahogany & walnut tea table columns” & “mahogany tea table tops” for local use or for “exportation.” This suggests that he sold components to merchants engaged in the venture cargo trade. On June 10, 1784, Solomon Lathrop, a joiner in Springfield, Massachusetts, recorded “carrying 8 tea table pillars to Windsor,” about fifteen miles away. By the second half of the 18C, the demand for tilt-top tea tables & other furniture forms had become sufficient to sustain specialization & collaboration in rural areas.
Most artisans who routinely produced tilt-top tables probably kept parts on hand to be assembled on short notice. Large cabinet shops in Britain often stockpiled sizable quantities of standard components. The 1763 inventory of London carver, cabinetmaker, & upholsterer William Linnell listed “38 setts of claws for pillar & claw tables” & “4 setts of carved table claws Do.” Similarly, Philadelphia joiner Joshua Moore had “13 tea table pillars” & “1 Tea Table top” at his death in 1778.
Some turners sustained their businesses by making pillars for uses other than tilt-top tables. At least two baluster-shaped tilt-top table pillars have been connected to craftsmen involved in architectural construction. In 1787 Thomas Hayden of Windsor, Connecticut, rendered a cross-section drawing of a baluster-and-ring pillar for a tilt-top table on the same page as plans for architectural cornice moldings. William Hosley & Philip Zea have attributed one table with an identical pillar to Hayden & suggest that he may have made the drawing as a guide to local craftsmen producing similar tables. Patricia E. Kane & Wallace Gusler have established more tangible links between furniture & architectural turnings. Kane has shown that the pillar on one Newport tilt-top table matches the balusters on the second floor of Touro Synagogue (built 1763), & Gusler has demonstrated that the pendant on the Peter Scott table illustrated in is similar to those in the George Wythe & Galt houses in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Some artisans who produced tilt-top table parts began their careers in the chair making trade. William Savery apprenticed with Solomon Fussell, a Philadelphia chair maker who maintained a large shop that produced seating in competition with Boston exports. Fussell made both joined & turned chairs & bought seat lists & slats from specialists outside his shop. By the time Savery completed his apprenticeship in 1741, he would have known how to assemble chairs using parts obtained from other craftsmen. Even though he continued to work at the “Sign of the Chair,” Savery broadened his repertoire by making tables & case furniture. Tilt-top tables may have been one of the first new forms he produced since they could be made quickly & easily using piecework, possibly pillars & tops furnished by the same turners who sold him & his master chair components. The requisite hardware was readily available from Fussel who advertised “brass tea table catches” in 1755.
Carved tables required additional collaboration. Some large cabinet shops had workforces that included cabinetmakers, turners, carvers, & other specialists. Regrettably, cabinetmakers’ account books rarely specify whether a tradesman was a shop employee or an independent contractor. For instance, Thomas Elfe paid Thomas Burton seven pounds “for Carving a Pillar & Claws” in 1771, but the nature of their business relationship remains unclear. Evidence suggests, however, that cabinetmakers making tables & other furniture for wealthy customers went to great lengths to secure skilled carvers. In the May 31, 1762, issue of the New York Mercury, immigrant “Cabinet & Chair-Maker” John Brinner reported that he had “brought over from London six Artificers” & offered: "all sorts of Architectural, Gothic, & Chinese, Chimney Pieces, Glass & Picture Frames, Slab Frames, Gerondoles, Chandaliers, & all kinds of Mouldings & Frontispieces, &c. &c. Desk & Book-Cases, Library Book-Cases, Writing & Reading Tables, Commode & Bureau Dressing Tables, Study Tables, China Shelves & Cases, Commode & Plain Chest of Drawers, Gothic & Chinese Chairs; all Sorts of plain or ornamental Chairs, Sofa Beds, Sofa Settees, Couch & easy Chair Frames, all Kinds of Field Bedsteads."
Philadelphia cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph also imported labor from England. His principal carvers—John Pollard & Hercules Courtenay—trained in major London shops, signed indentures to pay for their passage to the colonies, & established their own businesses after their terms had expired. It is unlikely that either Randolph or Brinner required much outside labor when their shops were fully staffed.
Luke Beckerdite has identified a group of four New York tilt-top tables that were made in one large cabinet shop but carved by four different artisans. Two of the tables were clearly carved in the same shop because the tradesmen who decorated each of them collaborated on a chimneypiece in Van Cortlandt Manor. Although Beckerdite theorized that all four tables may have been produced & carved under the same roof, it is also possible that they are the products of a single cabinet shop & three independent carving firms, one of which employed two hands.
Even the largest cabinet shops occasionally required piecework or services from specialists. Randolph’s competitor Thomas Affleck commissioned carving from independent artisans, particularly James Reynolds & the firm Bernard & Jugiez. A tea table which has carving attributed to Bernard & Jugiez, & its pillar has details that relate to those on firescreens that Affleck made for Philadelphia merchant John Cadwalader.
Between 1740 & 1790 tilt-top tea tables became nearly ubiquitous fixtures in American parlors & drawing rooms. Their increased production coincided with a substantial escalation of travel & trade throughout the British Empire in the 1740s & economic prosperity in the Americas. Historians John J. McCusker & Russel R. Menard have argued that the colonial economy grew in two spurts. The first spurt directly followed initial settlement in the 17C. The second spurt, which began in the 1740s & continued until the Revolutionary War, coincides with the spreading popularity of tilt-top tea tables. After almost a century of “stagnation,” the colonial economy began offering people more opportunity for financial gain than the English economy. More people in the colonies became involved in harvesting, transporting, & selling foodstuffs & raw materials from America to Europe. As their assets grew, these colonists developed a desire for fashionable household goods including new forms like the tilt-top table.
The economic boom lured not only merchants but also ambitious craftsmen prepared to profit from increased demand. Among these were cabinetmakers, joiners, turners, & carvers trained in British urban centers & in the provinces. Immigrant artisans arrived with distinctive stylistic vocabularies & work habits. This led to the dispersal of leg profiles, pillar shapes, & construction details characteristic of many British shop, town, city, & regional furniture making traditions. For example, pillars with spiral-fluted urns occur on tables made in eastern Massachusetts, Newport, Rhode Island, & eastern Virginia. This motif crossed the ocean with English furniture makers who frequently turned spiral-fluted urns on pillars for tilt-top tables as well as bedposts & other forms. Newport absorbed large numbers of English immigrants after the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, & Norfolk was a much larger city where the majority of craftsmen either had trained in England or with an English master. It is equally plausible that British tilt-top tables themselves inspired the design for spiral-fluted urns, particularly in the Boston-Salem area where imported furniture had a strong influence on local production.
Similarly, tilt-top tea tables with plain columnar pillars & baluster shaped pillars survive from nearly every port city in America. Both of these ubiquitous turnings have clear British precedents but, like the spiral-fluted urn pattern, they display considerable variety in shape, proportion, & molded detail.
As a result of furniture importation & immigration, many generic tilt-top tables made in the North American colonies looked more alike than different. Not only did similar turned pillars appear hundreds of miles from each other, but tables made throughout the colonies also shared the same basic top & leg designs. Tables with plain tops, turned tops, & scalloped tops were made from New England to Charleston. Most artisans who produced tilt-top tea tables used dovetails to attach the legs to the pillar rather than to a base block. Although the legs on tilt-top tea tables display considerable variation in shape, arch, & splay, most fall into two basic categories: those with strong cyma shapes & high arched knees, & those with weaker cyma shapes & relatively flat knees.
Of course, variations from shop to shop & region to region do exist. Some Charleston tables resemble English examples more closely than those from other American cities, whereas many Connecticut tables combine designs commonly found in Philadelphia , New York, & Boston. A small group of Newport tables even deviates from the standard pillar & claw design by incorporating multiple pillars or a cabinet with drawers. Despite these decorative differences, tilt-top tables of the same basic type were available to those who could afford them in all the American cities in the mid-18C
The suggestion that similar tilt-top tables were made throughout the colonies challenges the regional differences traditionally catalogued by furniture historians. In “Regionalism in Early American Tea Tables,” furniture scholar Albert Sack suggested that artisans in each colony made pillar forms specific to their location. To some degree, Sack is correct. Tables similar to the ones he illustrated certainly do survive from the regions he indicated; however, more specific information is usually needed to pinpoint a table’s place of origin. More importantly, the pillars, tops, & legs, point out that reality often defies regional categorization. An approach focused on the people who made & used tilt-top tables—rather than the tables themselves—yields a more complex story of trans-Atlantic migration & trade.
Like chairs, which could be produced quickly & economically using specialized labor & piecework, tilt-top tables were perfectly suited for the furniture export trade. Following the model established by Boston tradesmen, merchants, & ship captains during the 1720s, sea-faring entrepreneurs increasingly carried raw materials & finished goods between ports in England, North America, & the West Indies. A Rhode Island tea table that descended in the family of Wilmington, North Carolina, Judge Joshua Grainger Wright may have been exported by a Newport Quaker merchant who maintained business ties with Friends communities in North Carolina. A similar Newport table was probably carried to Berwick, Maine, around mid-century & sold to the father or grandfather of Ichabod Goodwin.
The Wright & Goodwin tables resemble examples with plain columnar pillars from England, Newport, Norfolk, & elsewhere. Patricia E. Kane has argued that some Newport furniture makers developed standardized models exclusively for the export market. Some Newport tradesmen referred to tilt-top tea tables as “fly tables.” In 1758 Job Townsend, Jr., charged Isaac Elizer forty-five pounds for “a Mohogony Fly Table with a Turned Top.” Over the next two years Elizer bought two additional fly tables & four tea boards, which suggests that he may have acquired them for export. “Fly tables” appear frequently in other Newport records, especially in the early 1760s when merchant activity was at its height in that city.
Historians have demonstrated that Newport artisans such as John Cahoone & John Townsend made plain furniture—primarily desks, chests of drawers, & tables—to ship with merchants trading along the Atlantic coast & with the West Indies. The tilt-top tables that Kane identified as “standard models” fit in with this genre of work. Like the desk, they were sturdy forms that could be assembled quickly & inexpensively through the use of piecework, patterns, & collaborative arrangements. The frequent appearance of tilt-top tables in venture cargo shipments also attests to the form’s popularity with mid-level consumers throughout the colonies.
The correlation between increased production of tilt-top tables & economic growth in the colonies after 1740 may explain why tilt-top tables from Massachusetts survive in much lower numbers than those from more southerly areas. New England never took full advantage of the “burgeoning Atlantic economy” in part because the markets for their products grew much slower than the region’s rapidly increasing population. Agricultural land was becoming scarce, towns more crowded, & people in northern New England lived under constant threat of attack from the French & Native Americans who launched violent assaults on British settlements during King George’s War (1739–1748) & the Seven Years’ War (1756– 1763). These factors may have discouraged artisans from immigrating to the region & impeded the importation & local production of certain luxury goods including tilt-top tea tables.
By the last quarter of the 18C, artisans in rural areas & in non-English communities made tilt-top tables that mimicked mainstream urban versions. Were it not for the chip carved ring & unusually deep cove at the top of its pillar, a table with the label of Windham, Connecticut, furniture maker Theodosius Parsons could be attributed to almost any city or town . By contrast, the artisan responsible for the unusual form illustrated in made an Anglo-American tilt-top table using Pennsylvania German construction & design sensibilities. The top is inlaid in traditional Pennsylvania German fashion with the owners’ initials & the date in lightwood stringing. The top tilts on hinged iron straps that are screwed to a large wooden cube at the top of the plain turned pillar, a creative interpretation of the conventional block or box. The tilt-top table had become sufficiently widespread among the rural populace that it crossed cultural boundaries.
Timothy H. Breen has argued that the “challenge of the 18C world of goods was its unprecedented size & fluidity, its openness, its myriad opportunities for individual choice, that subverted traditional assumptions & problematized customary social relations.” As part of this world of goods, the novelty of the tilt-top table form & the choices it offered consumers suggest shifting needs, tastes, & buying habits.
At its inception, the tilt-top table was a new aesthetic choice. When covered with a cloth, the tops of tilt-top tables almost seemed to float in space. Other domestic objects from the second & third quarters of the 18C reflected similar aesthetic sensibilities. Delicate arms & feet supported the center sections & cups of silver epergnes, & wineglasses & goblets rested on thin stems with double-helix twists.
The tilt-top table form might be viewed as a quintessential anglo-American interpretation of the rococo, defined by Jonathan Prown & Richard Miller as a combination of “rational thought” & the “public articulation of unorthodox, hedonistic, & erotic forms of expression.” In some ways, the tilt-top tea table was symmetrical & ordered. Even when the top was tilted up, the table’s façade was visually balanced. On the other hand, the form communicated a degree of precariousness. A heavy item placed too close to the edge of the top could topple the whole structure to the floor. Judging from the number of tables with broken tops, pentil blocks, & boxes, this happened with considerable frequency. The tilt-top table’s simultaneous embodiment of order & unpredictability & its strong association with women potentially locate it in “rococo culture.” Certainly less expensive & more widely owned than the pedimented & carved high chests studied by Prown & Miller, the tilt-top table probably contributed to the spreading enthusiasm for a mainstream expression of imaginative forms.
The tilt-top table retained its imaginative form through the 18C, but consumer preferences in decoration shifted. The tastes of some early American consumers were similar to those of their English counterparts. Many upper-class British patrons commissioned relatively simple tilt-top tea tables. Robert West’s painting of Thomas Smith & his family depicts a tea table of the same basic design as the Savery one. Both objects have circular tops that are about as wide as the tables are high, boxes, simple columnar pillars, & graceful cabriole legs. Neither exhibit carving or any other significant decoration.
In the 1750s more wealthy American patrons commissioned elaborately carved tilt-top tables. An example that descended in the Wharton family of Philadelphia is one of the earliest with carved ornament. The shells & husks on its knees are associated with Samuel Harding, a prominent tradesman whose shop furnished much of the architectural carving in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall). Although Harding’s birthplace is unknown, many of the carvers whose work is represented on existing tilt-top tea tables immigrated to the colonies during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. A large percentage arrived during the 1760s, attracted by the growth in America’s economy after the Seven Years’ War.
English design books, including William Ince & John Mayhew’s The Universal System of Household Furniture (1759) & the Society of Upholsterers’ Genteel Household Furniture in the Present Taste (1760), illustrated “Claw Tables,” but the engravings bear little resemblance to American work. The bases of the English tables are extremely sculptural & organic, whereas those on most American examples simply have carved details overlaid on an otherwise conventional form. Some of the most elaborate English tables may have been constructed & decorated by carvers. American tables, in contrast, were usually made by cabinetmakers & carved by professionals working in the same shop or independently.
A tilt-top tea table that descended in the Eyre family of Philadelphia is one of the most refined examples made in the colonies. It has well-drawn & finely executed cabochons & leaves on the knees, a flower-and-ribbon motif on the astragal at the base of the pillar, & expressive foliage on the compressed ball above. Although the carving contributed greatly to the rich appearance of the table, it did not challenge the basic design formula. The shape of the legs, their attachment to the pillar, & the pillar design—a compressed ball surmounted by a slightly tapering column—have precise parallels in uncarved tea tables from the Philadelphia area. The same relationship between carved & uncarved forms can be observed on Philadelphia case furniture from the 1730s through the 1780s.
The makers & sellers of tilt-top tables offered consumers several options, all of which affected price. The 1756 & 1757 price agreements from Providence, Rhode Island, listed “stand tables” in three woods. Mahogany tilt-top tables cost one & a quarter times more than walnut, which cost one & a quarter times more than maple. A similar ratio appears in the Philadelphia cabinetmaker’s price list of 1772.
Size also influenced price. The Providence agreements indicated that “stand tables” were more expensive than “candlestands.” Similarly, the “tea table” section of the Philadelphia price list included a lower priced “folding stand,” which had a top less than twenty-two inches in diameter & could be made with or without a box. Thomas Elfe offered tops in five sizes priced from ten pounds to fourteen pounds at increments of one pound. He generally referred to the most expensive tilt-top examples as “large tea tables.”
The idea that some craftsmen conceived of turned tops in incremental sizes with incremental prices is supported by entries in the account book of Job Townsend, Jr. He sold tea boards ranging from six to twenty inches in diameter, priced from £1.15 to twenty pounds. Townsend’s customers paid from ten shillings to several pounds extra for each additional inch. Although he did not sell turned tops individually, he owned a lathe & undoubtedly made them for the tilt-top tables he sold.
Repetitive production & demand allowed furniture makers to establish standard prices for generic ornamental details such as “Leaves on the Knees” & “Claw feet.” Even elaborate carving like that on Peter Scott’s tea tables & kettle stands could be offered as an option with a set price. This was especially true of objects constructed & carved in the same shop or made & decorated by tradesmen who collaborated regularly. In many instances, cabinetmakers simply added on charges for the carver’s labor. Thomas Affleck’s bill to John Cadwalader for eighteen major pieces of furniture made between October 13, 1770, & January 14, 1771, included references “To Mr. Reynolds Bill for Carving the Above £37” & “To Bernard & Jugiex for Ditto £24.”
A tea table that reputedly belonged to Michael & Miriam Gratz of Philadelphia has legs with enormous C-scrolls & carving attributed to Bernard & Jugiez. The maker had to saw the legs from unusually thick stock to accommodate the scroll volutes, & the carver had to decorate the sides of the legs rather than just the top. This extra material & labor would have increased the price of this table significantly. In contrast, the C-scrolls on the legs of the South Carolina table may have been a standard option since they required minimal work.
The fact that tilt-top tables were sold at different price levels locates them among other commodities that revolutionized the way people of middling wealth acquired stylish goods. Textiles were the first luxury household goods that came within reach of the non-elite. Over the course of the 17C, laborers, artisans, & tradesmen who formerly could afford only woolens suddenly found themselves choosing between a bewildering array of weaves, colors, & decorative combinations. After textiles, other fashionable commodities began to follow this pattern. Stylish but relatively inexpensive leather chairs & caned chairs became available to members of the middle class, tin-glazed earthenware & refined stoneware emerged as alternatives to porcelain, & importers began selling green tea at cheaper prices to compete with Bohea tea in the 1710s. Although not widely popular in the colonies before the 1740s, the tilt-top table may have been the furniture form most successfully marketed to the middle class.
Because of its distinct role as a consumer commodity affiliated with female gentility, the tilt-top table might be considered in the category of teaware rather than furniture. When choosing a tea table, consumers probably considered how it would complement their teapot, salver, spoons, & ceramics rather than other furniture they owned. Few tilt-top tables were made en suite with other furniture forms, with the possible exception of the Philadelphia examples that descended in the Stevenson family. Tilt-top tea tables, however, often have details that relate to those on teawares. Consumers may have purchased tables with scalloped tops that complemented the edge treatment of salvers & tea boards or vice versa. Even the more modest dished tops had visual cognates in silver & brass trays & tazza.
It is difficult to generalize at which point in their acquisition of requisite tea-related objects consumers chose to buy tea tables. Historians & archaeologists examining several geographic areas have suggested that colonists bought refined artifacts little by little as their funds allowed. Fittingly, it seems that middling consumers tended first to acquire the equipment required for brewing & consuming tea. Owning a few tea cups or a tea pot, however, did not necessarily indicate a full shift toward the genteel lifestyle.
In contrast, buying a tea table—whose very name signified refinement—may have been a more meaningful choice. By all accounts, tilt-top tea tables cost more than ceramic tea wares. On the other hand, they tended to cost much less than silver teapots, kettles, & salvers. Many consumers were willing to spend more for their teawares than their tablewares. Evidence from the Chesapeake region suggests that some consumers bought porcelain teawares but could only afford creamware for their tables. By extension, middling families who may not have been able to afford a set of carved chairs or a looking glass may have purchased a tea table.
The popularity of tilt-top tea tables may have helped spread the consumerist impulse that made possible later increases in stylish goods, most notably Wedgwood’s successful creamware. Creamware introduced a much less expensive type of polite ware to the ceramic market & also offered different types of decoration at varied prices. Consuming fashionable goods in considerable number was a new activity for the British middling ranks in the 18C. It required a change in attitude & often a change in the patterns of daily life.
When creamware appeared on the market in the late 1760s, the appetites of middle-class consumers were already whetted for tea-related objects that signified status but fell within their financial reaches. Within a decade, wealthy Americans as well as those with less financial wherewithal had replaced their old tea & table wares with the new type. The attitudes & infrastructure necessary for this rapid & total change in ceramic consumption patterns had been generated over the previous decades by a wide range of fashionable goods—calicos, forks, mirrors, & many others. Among these goods was the tilt-top tea table.
Ironically, the success of creamware probably contributed to the eventual demise of the tilt-top tea table’s status. Craftsmen continued to make tripod tables through the Federal era (often with attenuated, neo-classical style legs & pillars) but they did not carry the same connotations. The tables that often signified wealth & status in the early 19Cwere long segmented dining tables that filled large dining rooms & entertaining halls.
Tilt-top tables may have lost their ability to communicate status when tea drinking & ownership of teawares—particularly creamware—became nearly ubiquitous after 1770. In the stores of Chesapeake retailers, creamware plates represented 73.3 percent of all plates sold in the 1770s, & 96.2 percent in the 1780s.
In 1774 several colonial newspapers published rhymes titled “A Ladies’ Adieu to her Tea Table.” The poems all differed somewhat, but shared the patriotic fervor that led men & women throughout the colonies to boycott tea in protest of England’s high taxes. The abandonment of tea seemed to accompany a heavy heart, not for want of the drink but rather for the tea table accoutrements. “Farewell the Tea Board, with its gaudy Equipage, / Of Cups & Saucers, Cream Bucket, Sugar Tongs, / The pretty Tea Chest also, lately stor / With Hyson, Congo & best Double Fine.”
By making these tea-related goods more widely available, the consumer revolution had engendered a desire for material objects among middling people faster than ever before. The tilt-top tea table was the product of its particular historical moment. Its production relied on the commercial trade networks that characterize the mid-18C & its function & appearance not only facilitated but came to symbolize the fashionable modes of social interaction that changed daily life for so many. With changes in society & taste after the American Revolution, the tilt-top table lost its potency in the imaginations of American consumers.