Dictionary of English Pieces - Steps, Stools, Tea Tables, Trays


Portable sets of steps were made in the eighteenth century for use in libraries. Many wore ingeniously designed to fold away and be transformed into a table, others became a chair. Steps were made also for the purpose of climbing into a bed.


Stools are shown in illuminated manuscripts dating back to the twelfth century, but none survive that are older than about 1500. Those of the seventeenth century are the oldest usually to be met with outside museums and stately homes, and are of the simple pattern called coffin stools, or more recently, joint stools. They are supported on turned legs which splay outwards slightly and are united by plain stretchers, the tops usually having a moulded edge. The majority are of oak, and their sturdy dowelled construction has kept them intact for three centuries.

With the Carolean tall-back chairs came stools with carving to match the cresting and legs of the chair, and upholstery that replaced the hard wooden seat used previously. Most of the stools made in the eighteenth century, whether in walnut or mahogany, follow the styles in fashion for chairs: from the cabriole leg with ball-and-claw or lion's-paw foot to the variety seen in Chippendale's Director. In past years stools have received attention from furniture fakers, and many have been made from chairs; equally, the process has been reversed and stools have been transformed on occasion into chairs. The underneath framework will usually show what has happened if it is given a very thorough examination.

Tea Tables

Portable tables for holding tea-ware came into use with the introduction of the beverage late in the seventeenth century. The most familiar are the circular-topped mahogany examples made between 1740 and 1780, supported on tripod bases. These were often carved elaborately, and some had tops with shaped and moulded edges, known as 'pie-crust' from the slight resemblance they bear to that pastry. Tables of folding-top card-table type, but with the insides of the tops polished were used also for serving tea.


Eighteenth-century wooden serving trays were made in mahogany and other woods; inlaid oval examples in the Sheraton style replacing mahogany ones with pierced or brass-bound rims.

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