If you’ve ever closed a drawer swiftly, you might have noticed that it displaces air. Drawers pushed and pulled in and out of a carcase act like bellows and are capable of moving a substantial quantity of air. As a rule, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English chests and bureaux were constructed with three-quarter depth dustboards which, rather than preventing the movement of dust from one tier to the next, actually promote the distribution of dust throughout the chest as and when drawers are opened and closed.
A view of one school of thought holds that the dustboard was intended as a security measure to prevent would-be thieves from gaining access to locked drawers having first jimmied the top drawer. I can lend no credence to this argument as any miscreant barefaced enough to jimmy open one drawer, wouldn’t hesitate to pry open the remainder in his pursuance of booty. At any rate, once the top drawer has been removed, it’s a simple affair to slightly raise the leading edges (even with fingertips) of successive dustboards in order to clear any shot lock bolts in the drawers below.
As yet, I haven’t discovered any early reference to the word ‘dustboard’ in English texts, but at any rate, I feel the word is erroneous and probably didn’t appear until Victorian times when dustboards had ceased to serve any real structural purpose.
The origin of the dustboard dates to around 1670 when they served as drawer guides (at a time when drawer bottoms were devoid of runners) and supported the weight of the drawer across their entire surface. These ‘dustboards’ comprised a couple of 1/2″ thick pine boards rubbed, edge-to-edge and inserted into housings ploughed into the inner faces of the carcase ends. Despite rarely extending to the full depth of the carcase, dustboards add significant rigidity to the structure as a whole. In keeping with other case mouldings of the period, the front edges of the dustboards were embellished with cross-grain D-moulding.
Around 1700, drawers began sporting narrow runners under their ends which meant their entire weight was born by the dustboards where they in turn were directly supported by the carcase ends. As a result, it was possible to use substantially thinner, composite or ‘lapped’ dustboards. Leading edge strength was retained by the use of narrow 1/2″ thick drawer dividers, to the top rear of which were lapped thin (1/4″ to 5/16″), three-quarter depth dustboards. The dustboards still engaged directly in the carcase ends, contributing to the overall integrity of the piece.
There were variations in how lapped dustboards were housed in the carcase ends: The earlier, uniform dustboards resided in matching 1/2″ wide housings that extended from the front of the carcase ends through to the back. The housings for lapped dustboards were more often than not made 1/2″ wide too, purely for ease of manufacture. The 1/2″ thick drawer dividers occupied the front of the 1/2″ wide housings and the thin dustboards were jammed into the housings from beneath, either with wedges, short off-cuts or narrow strips of wood. Continuous strips of wood were preferable as they also acted as kickers when the drawers below were withdrawn.
Many chests though had housings matched to the thickness of the thin dustboards and just the front few inches of the housings were cut wider to accept the 1/2″ thick dividers. Drawer dividers increased in thickness to 3/4″ around 1740.
By the early nineteenth-century, single or twin frame-and-panel dustboards became common.