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Pier Tables—Not for Petticoat Checking
by Bob Brooke

 

Docents in historic houses always seem to have interesting stories about the furniture in them. One of these concerns the pier table. Supposedly, a woman could stop in front of it and check the mirror below it to see if her petticoat was showing before going out. And although it makes a great story, the truth is that women of the 19th century did no such thing. A woman of the time wouldn’t have been caught dead adjusting her undergarments in a public area of her house.

So what is a pier table? Simply, it’s a low, usually narrow table that stands in the pier, or wall section between two windows, often in the parlor of a wealthier person’s house. Cabinetmakers often made them in pairs of expensive woods, such as mahogany, rosewood, and giltwood.

The first known use of such a table was in 1765. During the Regency Period, a pier table had a mirror mounted between its back legs against the wall, or sometimes above it. The purpose of the mirror was to reflect the light around the room, not to check petticoats.

Practically speaking, a woman wouldn’t be able to see her feet, let alone fix her petticoat. The mirrors were often slightly angled towards the ceiling in order to catch as much light as possible. The extensive use of concave looking glasses in the 18th century and mirrors in the 19th century bounced the dim light from oil lamps around the room, increasing overall brightness.

Pier tables became status symbols of wealth. Reflecting light around a room on highly-polished surfaces, including mirrors, glass, crystal pendants on chandeliers, or fine wood surfaces, was a way of demonstrating wealth. It dazzled the eye and demonstrated a great deal of labor from servants who maintained that high degree of cleanliness.

One of the greatest designers of pier tables was French ébéniste Charles-Honoré Lannuier, who emigrated in 1803 and became one of the leading furniture makers in New York. Trained in Paris, he rose to fame during the American Federal Period. After the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, anti-English sentiment made French goods especially appealing to Americans. Lannuier imported French pattern books to keep abreast of the latest Napoleonic style. His work featured robustly carved and gilded caryatid supports, carved dolphin feet, and elaborate gilt-bronze ormolu mounts. And while not every wealthy person could afford a Lannuier pier table, his tables reached the height of design excellence in the first two decades of the 1800s.
 

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