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Work table

Origin: America, Maryland, Baltimore
Overall: 14 1/8 x 30 x 20 5/8in. (35.9 x 76.2 x 52.4cm)
Mahogany, tulip poplar, ebony, satinwood, and holly.
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1971-381
Appearance: Oval work table on four tall square tapered legs; flat hinged top with undivided interior compartment; ornamented with multiple bands of complex stringing.

Construction: The hinged top consists of a single mahogany board; the means of fixing the stationary leaf to the frame is undetermined. Each curved and veneered rail consists of a three-part horizontal tulip poplar lamination tenoned into the adjoining legs. The tops of the rails are veneered with cross-banded mahogany. A single board forming the bottom is nailed into a rabbet on the lower edges of the rails.

Materials: Mahogany top, legs, and rail veneers; tulip poplar rail laminates and bottom board; ebony, satinwood, and holly inlays.
Label:Among the many specialized furniture forms popularized during the neoclassical period was the work table. Small in scale and easily portable, work tables were used almost exclusively by women for reading, writing, and sewing. Hand sewing was familiarly known as "work" in the eighteenth century, hence the name applied to the table form. Because work tables were generally employed in parlors, drawing rooms, and other semipublic parts of the house, most were carved, inlaid, painted, or otherwise adorned with surface ornament. Not surprisingly, ownership of such specialized and nonessential pieces of furniture was confined largely to gentry households or those that aspired to gentry status.

Patrons could choose from a variety of optional elements when ordering a work table. Some examples were fitted with multiple compartments especially shaped for storing quills, ink, wax wafers, and other writing equipment. Small divisions for holding sewing utensils could be ordered, as could padded writing surfaces mounted on adjustable brackets flanked by candle slides. Quite a few work tables incorporated a suspended textile bag, or "pouch," for needlework projects. Others were of simpler form, consisting of little more than a drawer or lidded compartment supported on legs. The Baltimore table illustrated here has a top that is hinged on one side and opens to reveal an undivided oval-shaped box with a textile lining. The compartment, which could be locked, was used to store embroidery, mending, or other small needlework in progress together with the implements necessary for hand work.

Work tables of oval form were particularly popular in Baltimore, and a number of locally made examples survive. In addition to the hinged box variation seen here, the oval shape was also offered with a hinged lid leading to a deep textile bag, and a plainer form with a single front drawer. Nearly all of these tables were embellished in the same way, with a variety of patterned string inlays, a decorative technique much favored in Federal Baltimore. In spite of its small size, the CWF table features no fewer than four complex stringing patterns. Whether the string inlays were made locally or imported from Britain, the advertisements and estate inventories of early Baltimore furniture makers clearly indicate that "bandings," as they were called, were available in vast quantities.
Provenance:The table was purchased from antiques dealer Israel Sack, New York, N. Y., in 1971.