The Lowboys

No, not an eighteenth-century cittern-playing group, but a group nonetheless, that includes certain small turned-, cabriole- and square-legged tables with up to five drawers. The term ‘lowboy’ appears in usage towards the end of the nineteenth century and has been broadly adopted amongst the trade and public alike to describe these useful little tables.

Contemporary texts make no mention of lowboys, but there are numerous references to ‘dressing tables’: In an inventory of the contents of Boughton (the Northamptonshire seat of The Duke of Montague) taken in November 1718, are itemised two ‘Wainscot Dressing Tables’ and two ‘Walnut Tree Dressing Tables’.[1] It is generally accepted that those tables with kneeholes (usually too small to accommodate knees though) were indeed dressing tables and those without were designated ‘side tables’.

Dressing tables first appeared in England at the turn of the seventeenth-century and if not actually introduced by, were significantly influenced by Huguenot craftsmen, who, fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France made their way in their thousands to England, Holland and the New World. The Huguenot menuisieres d’art would have been familiar with the similar looking French bureaux Mazarin which undoubtedly spawned the English dressing table. Certainly, dressing tables became popular not long after the accession to the English throne of Willem II of Orange in 1689.

Whether the immigrant Huguenot cabinetmakers influenced the English cabinetmakers initially or vice versa, the outcome, in this instance, was a small, delicate table containing a shallow central drawer and one deep drawer either side of a kneehole, supported on four turned legs, united by a shaped and moulded stretcher.

Fig. 1. William and Mary oak dressing table, circa 1695.

Many of these early dressing tables were made in the same manner that the English cabinetmakers had been making the stands of chests-on-stands viz. a box-like carcase (wainscot or veneered deal) constructed around corner blocks, into which were tenoned  ornately turned legs.

Fig. 2. English stand undergoing restoration.

Fig. 3. The walnut veneered stand with legs tenoned through thin abaci and into the corner blocks.

Even after the advent of the cabriole leg circa 1715, lowboy legs were still routinely tenoned into the carcase’s corner blocks or occasionally, short square stubs, formed on the tops of the legs, were glued and nailed into the internal corners of the carcase. Narrow vertical facings on the front corners of carcases are often indicative of glued and nailed stub legs – whether turned or cabriole.

Fig. 4. William and Mary walnut veneered dressing table with turned, stub legs, circa 1695. (Christie’s)

Little technical joinery was employed in the manufacture of these crude box-like carcases; in the absence of substantial, full height front corner blocks (which were necessary for dowelled legs), aprons on stub-leg carcases were often lap-jointed and nailed into the lower front edges of the side panels. Backboards were similarly nailed into rebates in the back edges of the sides.

Fig. 5. Provincial George II solid ash dressing table with lap-jointed apron (later handles), circa 1730.

By 1720 cabriole legs were the norm and their square tops were extended to the full height of the carcase, allowing the side panels to be tenoned into them. Aprons too were tenoned into the front legs, the exception being in carcases with narrow front edges where the aprons were again, lapped, or more increasingly, dovetailed into them.

Fig. 6. George I walnut veneered dressing table of mortise and tenon construction (later handles), circa 1720.

Taper-turned legs with pad feet (club legs) gained favour from about 1740 and straight, square legs from 1750.

Fig. 7. George II oak lowboy with club legs, circa 1740.

At least one cabinetmaker preferred to keep a (pad) foot in each camp:

Fig. 8. Provincial George II solid oak dressing table with both cabriole and club legs, circa 1745.

Fig. 9. George III mahogany lowboy with square legs, circa 1780.

Early lowboy carcases relied on pegged-down tops to close the box structure and to provide rigidity around the drawer openings. This worked to a point as long as the top remained flat, but if the top warped or cupped, it could interfere with the smooth functioning of one or more drawers.

Fig. 10. Queen Anne walnut veneered dressing table, sans top rail, circa 1710.

To alleviate any issues arising from tops potentially cupping, drawer sides and backs were made somewhat lower in height than the drawer fronts but even so, shallow aprons being the sole jointed connection between the front legs was less than optimal. One solution was to make an integral front panel and cut the drawer openings into it. While this added immense rigidity to the whole, it wasn’t the most economic use of raw materials.

Fig. 11. George I oak dressing table with one-piece front panel (ears and handles replaced), circa 1725.

Around 1720 a more cost-effective method of producing an adequately stiff carcase was achieved with the general adoption of a rail between the drawers and the top which was dovetailed into the top of each front leg. Separate vertical drawer divisions were then added between the rail and apron.

Fig. 12. George II walnut-veneered dressing table with fully jointed carcase, circa 1730.

As with other case furniture of the period, walnut veneers predominated. Some lowboy carcases were veneered as if tea caddies i.e. seamlessly enveloped in veneer, while others were curiously veneered in a patchwork fashion that highlighted each individual component of the carcase – legs included. While pieced veneers such as burr or other highly figured woods might not be too conspicuous, the same cannot be said of plainer cuts of veneers. At any rate, the figure of the chosen veneers appears to have been of greater magnitude to our forefathers than the manner in which they were laid.

Fig. 13. Pieced burr elm veneer on a George II dressing table, circa 1735. (Christie’s)

The tops of early lowboys shared the same  mouldings as other contemporary small tables and chests.

Fig. 14. George I walnut veneered lowboy with ovolo-bead moulded top and re-entrant front corners (later handles), circa 1720.

Drawer construction also echoed coeval case furniture: Early drawer fronts were unadorned; any decoration – in the form of D-moulding (figs. 1, 6 & 11), double bead moulding (figs. 4 & 10) and bead-and-channel moulding (fig. 15) – was applied around the drawer openings.

Fig. 15. George I oak dressing table with bead-and-channel moulding surrounding drawer openings, circa 1725.

The cock-beaded drawer (fig. 14) first appeared about 1720 and was fashionable until the nineteenth-century and beyond. D- and bead carcase mouldings lingered on until about 1730 whereupon ovolo-lipped drawers (figs. 5, 12 & 13) enjoyed three decades of popularity.

[1] Dr. Tessa Murdoch, Noble Households – Eighteenth Century Inventories of Great English Houses, John Adamson, 2006, p.62.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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7 Responses to The Lowboys

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    This is the best treatise I’ve read on the subject of the evolution of the Lowboy. When you run out of space in your house for your wonderful furniture (which must be pretty soon), why not turn your attention to a book?


  2. Eric R says:

    Very informative and interesting post as always. Thanks you.
    I aspire to raise my skill level to be able to create pieces as nice as these.


  3. David Nash says:

    You’re not John Bly…are you??
    Really enjoy your nuggets of knowlegde and wisdom. You’re doing the future of our antiques an invaluable service.


  4. Stunning! One can easily see why these magnificent pieces are truly treasures. A feast for the eyes!


  5. Pingback: Picture This LXVI | Pegs and 'Tails

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