Case furniture, also known as casegoods, includes many different types of antiques. Among these are various types of chests, bureaus, bookcases, and secretaries. These pieces were made for storage and sometimes had multiple uses. For instance, a butler's chest with a built-in secretary section provides a place to stow clothing and other personal items but also serves as a desk. These multi-purpose pieces can come in handy even today when space is at a premium.
Below are a number of different types of case furniture pieces, including the commode, highboy, lowboy, credenza, lingerie chest, secretary, and the breakfront.
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A toilet is often referenced as a commode today, and there's a good reason for that. A piece of furniture meant to hold a chamber pot or pitcher and bowl for washing was often called a commode decades, if not centuries, ago. Eventually, any low cabinet containing drawers or shelves could be deemed a commode, and many of them were highly ornamental.
For instance, the fancy example shown here made of gilt-lacquered rose- and tulipwood, covered with intricate, floral-themed marquetry is a prime example of a commode. This one, with haughty provenance, belonged to the 10th Earl of Harrington and was purportedly made by renowned furniture craftsman Thomas Chippendale. For this reason, it sold at auction at Sotheby's in December 2010 for close to $6 million.
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This is a small, low case piece consisting of a tabletop with drawers underneath mounted on legs. It was often made as a companion to a highboy, matching its lower section. The configuration of the drawers varies, often depending on the region in which it was made, but a single shallow drawer with three underneath is viewed as typical. This type of furniture is sometimes referenced as a dressing table or chest-on-stand as well.
The lowboy originated in the late 1600s in England and became extremely popular in the American colonies, especially the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions, by 1730. Designs followed the style trends of the century, with early versions typical of William and Mary style, with long ring-turned or trumpet legs connected by stretchers that rested on ball or bun feet. As the 18th century wore on it became more typical of Queen Anne and Chippendale styles, resting on shorter cabriole legs with pad, paw, or claw-and-ball feet. One difference is that the lowboys' drawers often have nonworking locks, in contrast to those of highboys––suggesting that the highboys stored goods that were more valuable in nature.
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This type of case furniture consists of a chest-on-stand: two stacked pieces, with the top being a chest of drawers (typically two small ones at the top, then several of uniform or graduated depth below) that rests on a shorter, wider base that contains several smaller or shallower drawers.
The highboy was developed in England in the late 17th century where a variation was known as the tallboy. This piece of furniture became highly popular in the American colonies, especially the northeast and mid-Atlantic, by 1730. Early varieties were typical of William and Mary style with flat tops, long ring-turned or trumpet legs and stretchers that rested on ball or bun feet. Like the lowboy, they became typical of Queen Anne and Chippendale styles in the 18th century, with shorter cabriole legs featuring pad, paw, or claw-and-ball feet and tops that became more ornate with scroll top pediments and finials.
Highboys were often paired with a matching lowboy (see example above), a shorter piece that resembles the highboy's lower half.
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A credenza is a long, substantial, rectangular piece of furniture, consisting of a flat table surface above and cupboard below, sitting on very short legs, or sometimes none.
It originated in 15th-century Italy (credenza is Italian for "cupboard"), possibly in churches, and it quickly became a popular item for the service of food and storage of tableware and linens. By the 1500s, a recessed upper section was also common. Original Renaissance examples typically boast pilasters or caryatids, cornices, and elaborate carvings. But even as its style evolved to fit contemporary furniture trends, it remained an ornate piece––especially in the mid-19th century when it experienced a surge of popularity among Victorian and Second Empire furniture-makers, though almost more as a decorative, rather than functional, furniture piece. Since credenzas were usually meant to be placed against a wall, their backs are often flat and quite plain in contrast to their lavishly decorated fronts.
The term credenza also references a type of office furniture popular in the 20th century which holds file drawers and provides space for the storage of supplies. In fact, the traditional credenza would more often be referenced as a buffet or sideboard today, while the more modern use of the term references office-related pieces made to coordinate with a desk.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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A semainier is a chest of drawers, usually tall and thin, intended for storing linen and lingerie. It traditionally has seven drawers, one for each day of the week (the name derives from the French word, Semaine, meaning "week").
Originating in 18th-century France, semainier has come to mean any seven-drawer chest these days but the term is sometimes erroneously applied to tall thin lingerie chests with only six drawers. Devoted to a single type of clothing––lingerie and stockings––this piece of case furniture was typical of the luxurious types of furniture developed in the Rococo period of the early 1700s.
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The term secretary describes a section in a piece of case furniture that serves as a desk. It is usually hidden behind a panel, which can be flat or slanted, that folds out to serve as a writing surface. This usually reveals a series of slots and small drawers to hold mail, writing materials, and a variety of desk implements. In some cases, the writing surface may slide out of a hidden compartment or appear to be a drawer until it is pulled out to reveal a writing surface.
The term is used to describe a complete piece of furniture as well. The secretary section of the piece sits permanently attached to a station of drawers and may be topped with a bookcase. Doors enclosing the bookcase area can be fitted with glass panels, hold mirrors, or be made completely of wood. Drawers can encompass the width of the piece, or be in two smaller stations with a kneehole between them.
Since the earliest versions made in France in the first half of the 18th century, there have been many variations of the secretary in styles ranging from the Federal period to Rococo. While those heavy, one-piece versions with drawers and bookcases come to mind most often, by the early 19th century lighter secretaries with legs satisfied consumers wanting a bit more elegance in furniture design.
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The term breakfront describes the squared central section of a piece of case furniture (usually a bookcase or cabinet) that juts forward, ahead of two recessed sides. This is the most common use of the term. Sometimes, however, it references the entire piece of furniture.
The breakfront was developed in the latter half of the 18th century. In keeping with the angularity of emerging Neo-Classical styles, such as Louis XVI and late Chippendale, it offset the newer, relatively plain surfaces of those pieces. Designers Thomas Sheraton, George Hepplewhite, Roger Vandercruse, and Jean-Henri Riesener are known for incorporating this element in their work.