Design in Practice: The Breakfast Table

Photo courtesy of the Chipstone Foundation

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.

WMMiniAnother 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).

— Chuck Bender







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3 thoughts on “Design in Practice: The Breakfast Table

  1. Hey Chuck, I just finished a table that I told my wife would be our “Breakfast Table”! I didn’t realize that there were breakfast tables of the Period. Anyway, mine is twenty nine inches tall and thirty five inches in diameter with a four inch scalloped apron and cabriole legs. It’s made of beautiful local Madrone and inlaid down the legs, around the aprons and in the top with double lines, one wider than the other, with local Walnut. Then I pierced out some Fuer-dis-lis (sp) out of Walnut and applied them to the top of each leg. It looks pretty cool. I made mine at twenty nine because it felt comfortable for me and I’m a six foot one lounger! Best Regards, Sincerely, jt

    1. Jeff,

      You might know period breakfast tables by another name – Pembroke Table. Much like your breakfast table, the period versions tended to be an inch or two shorter than the larger dining tables. Modern dining table height is around 30″ so, your 29″ breakfast table is right in line.

      I’ve seen period dining tables range from 25 1/2″ to around 30″ with breakfast tables averaging 26″ – 28″. The William & Mary version I made for 360 is about 25 1/2″ to 26″ if I recall correctly.

  2. Just a lateral thought…
    Maybe a breakfast table was to be sat next to, or was merely a place to put dishes, which were then served and eaten elsewhere.
    In the dining room, breakfast was a buffet service, with heated dishes on the side, and eaten seated at the dining table.

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