Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Center Table

A common fixture of middle class and more pretentious homes of the Victorian and early 20th Century eras was the center table, most often found in the parlors and later living rooms, but also typical of practically any room in the house except the bathroom.

The illustration above is from the 1912 Sears home heating catalogue, a supplement to the Sears Kit Home catalogue, and it shows a kind of ideal home life of the period, the family gathered around the living room center table, Father in his easy chair reading the papers, Mother reading to Young Daughter in her arm chair next to the table, Young Son on his stool listening raptly, Older Daughter practicing her postures nearby. The lamp on the center table illuminates the scene, somehow providing enough light for all their scattered reading activities while, of course, giving the best light to Father's newspapers. There are books scattered on the center table, as well as Father's cigars and a piece of good pottery that goes with the pots and statuary on the glassed in bookcase in the background. There is an open bookcase next to the glassed one which we note has empty shelves. I've always thought the reason was that the open bookshelf was awaiting future tomes acquired by the family.

While there may be a sofa (called a Davenport) out of view, it's just as likely there wasn't one, nor any occasional tables, nor any other furniture at all except the center table and a collection of chairs scattered more or less randomly, plus some bookcases and possibly a drop front desk, at least not in this era. You'll note the grand piano is in a room of its own, suggesting more than a little bit of prosperity for this family, though the "music room" idea was not all that uncommon, even if the room was small and the piano an upright.

Pictures adorn the walls, the historic portraits probably rotogravure prints which were very popular at the time. The triptych might be an allegorical painting or print, something about the conquest of barbarians by the forces of civilization, a popular theme at the time. The landscape, on the other hand, was quite likely an actual oil painting by an up and coming regional artist whose work now commands tens of thousands of dollars at auction, but at the time, the picture cost in the neighborhood of $50 with frame, and that was considered expensive.

Family photographs and Kodaks of family outings are no doubt leaning against the wall on top of the bookcase. They were likely matted by a creative member of the family.

The center table was used as the depository for all sorts of items and projects. Current books being read, the newspapers, the mail and telegrams, decorative items, linens and pottery, crafts projects under way (such as matting photos), the primary room light, all found a home on the center table, and sometimes meals would be taken there as well -- always if there was no dining room and no room in the kitchen for eating.

This explains why there was a center table in nearly every room large enough for one. It was the work place and the gathering place for the room, and most rooms in most houses were used for more than one thing. A bedroom could also be a sewing room or a reading room. The dining room might serve as a general work room for anything that didn't involve food. The kitchen, if it was big enough, had a center table usually covered in oil cloth, where much of the food preparation went on, informal meals were taken, and messy projects were done.

The institution of the center table was so strong, for so long, yet it is almost unheard of and unknown today, except in dining rooms and occasionally in large foyers, rare as they are in modern homes. In former times, even the dining room table was solitary in the center of the room, the dining chairs set around the walls of the room rather than around the table and only brought to the table at meal times.

Vestigial center tables in today's homes include the ubiquitous coffee table in front of the sofa and the kitchen island. But it's not really the same.

The illustration I chose for this post is from the Progressive Era, and it is in some sense a reflection of Perfect -- and Progressive -- Domesticity as it was conceived in those days. There were some holdovers from the Victorian Era, including the all-important institution of the Center Table, but in many other ways, it was a new and exciting time. Public health was being addressed and longevity improved dramatically. The condition of the poor was recognized and here and there was being ameliorated. The national Frontier was closed and overseas empires were being acquired, mostly at the expense of natives and decrepit old Empires (Spain and Hawaii come to mind.) The American presence was expanding world-wide, and the peoples of the world were looking to the United States to lead the way into the future.

In 1912, the Soviet Union was barely a gleam in some exiled revolutionaries' eyes.

We could be on the cusp of a similar era, it's hard to say.

The United States went down a long and dark path some years back, and it has reached a natural stopping point. Whether a new door will open, new horizons be found is yet to be determined.

The Center Table once provided American households with a focus for each households' endeavors. It was the family's center from which flowed their domestic harmony or its lack. From that center, the family drew its ultimate strength. Definitions of who we were were found around the Center Table became the touchstones for national progress.

I've been trying to determine just when the institution of the Center Table was abandoned in America, so far without a lot of success. It was completely gone by the 1950's. But it had been vanishing through the '30's and '40's.

My guess? The advent of Radio in the 1920's -- unlike the advent of the household piano, even a player piano -- made the institution of the Center Table redundant, and that, ultimately, changed everything.

How 'bout another episode of Nick Danger?

1 comment:

  1. Nice. I love your little jaunts into American cultural and architectural history. Thank you!