Breakfast tables became fashionable in the mid- to late-18th century. As the middle class grew, people had more time for pursuits other than survival. Traveling and visiting with family and friends was reasonably common. Hosts were expected to entertain their guests at various points throughout the day. And, if the relationship was particularly close as with immediate family or a dear friend, that often meant breakfast in a bed chamber.
These tables were small in size with falling leaves that allowed them to be tucked away without being removed from the room. Leaves down and they could be used for light refreshments; leaves up and they could serve a meal.
Chippendale included a couple of breakfast table designs in his Director, but the form remained popular throughout the Sheraton period. The designs can be seen with square and oval tops and with straight, turned or tapered legs. Many are ornamented with molded, carved or inlaid legs, but nearly all are shorter in height than their dining room counterparts.
I can understand the want of a smaller table for your bedroom, but why shorter? The only reason I can come up with is the lower top height is a little more comfortable to use when you aren’t trussed up in formal attire. Unlike today, people didn’t lounge at dinner. When dressed in formal clothing they tended to sit more upright and at the edges of their chairs making a taller table height a better option. When dressed more informally they may have sat further back in their chairs and lounged making the lower height the more appropriate choice.
All of this, however, is conjecture on my part because I have been unable to find rules of etiquette from the 18th century regarding sitting posture at formal and informal gatherings. The difference in height certainly raises some interesting questions.
Another interesting question revolves around the second table in this post. It’s from Massachusetts during the first half of the 18th century, but it’s a breakfast table – not a full-size gate leg dining table. While small tables with falling leaves existed in the William & Mary period (they tend to be more akin to butterfly tables) why aren’t there more examples of table designs as refined as this?
Any thoughts? I welcome theories wild or educated. And if you’d like to learn more about the miniature William & Mary Gateleg table at the end of this post, you need to be a subscriber – it’s the final project in Issue #2 (for logged in subscribers it can be found under the “Members/Past Issues” tab of the Nav bar).