For the Record: History of the Armoire and the Dresser

3 minutes minute read

Often taken for granted as common pieces of bedroom furniture, the armoire and the dresser each possess an intriguing history. Though their primary functions have evolved a great deal over the centuries, there's no denying the elegance and convenience a fine antique armoire or dresser can add to the well-appointed bedroom.

Let's explore how these utilitarian pieces have changed to become the timeless furniture we know today.

Armoires

Like most things, armoires were created out of necessity - in this case for space. The first use for the armoire can be directly linked to the term’s etymology. Armoire comes from the Old French word armarie, a cabinet for storing armor and weapons.

John Henry Belter Rosewood Armoire. American, circa 1860. John Henry Belter Rosewood Armoire. American, circa 1860.

Before being used for clothing and linens, people, particularly the nobility, would store their clothing in large chests, essentially stuffing often frilly and elaborate garments atop one another. It wouldn’t be until the 14th century that the armoire slowly but surely became less useful as storage space for arms and a more logical furnishing for keeping clothes neat and organized.

These first true armoires appeared in 17th-century France and were large and wide, possessed two upper cabinet doors and often incorporated drawers accessed either through the interior or just below the cabinet. The upper portion provided ample space for hanging suits and dresses, while the drawers provided storage for dressing accessories and linens. While commonly referenced as being an “armoire”, the English term “wardrobe” is used interchangeably.

The inside of the armoire provides ample space to hang clothes, while the drawers below can be used for dressing accessories. The inside of the armoire provides ample space to hang clothes, while the drawers below can be used for dressing accessories.

As the form transformed in its use, the craftsmanship employed in their creation also blossomed. Once simply painted or left plain, these massive cabinets proved to be the perfect medium for skilled cabinetmakers to showcase their talents. Soon, their austere appearance gave way to elaborate carvings, marquetry, gilt bronze and nearly every decorative technique imaginable.

Dressers

Although they looked much more like what we would call a sideboard, the earliest use of the word dresser dates to 16th-century England. Used in the kitchen and dining areas, these early incarnations provided space for serving and “dressing” meats headed to the dining table and were essentially side tables with a single row of drawers that rested atop tall legs.

The first dressers were used in the kitchen and dining areas to "dress" one's meal before serving. The first dressers were used in the kitchen and dining areas to "dress" one's meal before serving.

By the 17th century, a tall backboard fitted with shallow shelves was added to display one’s finest dinnerware, with additional drawers for storing table linens and silver. Despite the enthusiasm of the 18th century onward for mahogany sideboards, the dresser continued in used in dining rooms and kitchens of more modest homes through to the Edwardian era.

Coming to America

While the dresser was relegated to the kitchen across the Atlantic, the form took on an entirely different function in the United States.

The longboy was the inspiration for the current use of the dresser that we know today. The longboy was the inspiration for the current use of the dresser that we know today.

Instead of dressing one’s meal, the dresser we know today is essentially a version of the European lowboy and is short for “dressing table”, where one can store their dressing accessories, cosmetics and other beauty products. Before long, mirrors were included to the backs of these dressers, giving rise to the alternative term for the dresser - the vanity.

Sheraton Revival Satinwood Dressing Table and Chair. Late 19th century. Sheraton Revival Satinwood Dressing Table and Chair. Late 19th century.

As was true with the armoire, the form of the dresser opened the door of creativity for furniture makers. A myriad of decorative styles and techniques have been employed in their creation, with many of the most desired examples accompanied by a matching chair and mirror.

Now that you know more about the fascinating history behind these fantastic pieces of furniture, be sure to explore our current selection of armoires and dressers.

 

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