EMBRACE THE FANCY CHARMS OF A VINTAGE TEA TABLE
Don’t let their antiquated-sounding moniker fool you. Vintage tea tables aren’t the blaring anachronisms you might think. Yes, these stately tables were once integral in the now-defunct ritual of high tea, but that doesn’t mean they’re talismans of a bygone era. Perfect for bringing a sense of provenance to any space, vintage American and English tea tables are worth employing in living rooms, bedrooms, and beyond. Strictly a coffee consumer, but intrigued by the notion of adding an antique tea table to your space and want to know more? Read on to discover everything you need to know about this pedigreed perch.
What Are Tea Tables?
Tea tables originated in late 17th century England. While tea had been circulating among the high courts since 1650, limited trade routes had prevented the drink from going mainstream. However, as trade routes increased and more tea leaves infiltrated the market, tea-drinking grew in popularity among the common English classes. Aiming to mimic the high teas that were held in royal courts, the English began holding afternoon teas. These hours-long teas were part social affair, part epicurean, with bite-size sandwiches and pastries arranged on serveware which more often than not rested on a small serving table. To fill the demand for these small serving tables, furniture makers began crafting “tea tables,” small, rectangular tables often outfitted with a raised rim to act as a sort of tray. To own a tea table in the 17th century was considered to be the epitome of good taste.
As time wore on, the tea table evolved to fit shifting consumer tastes. Rectangular top tables fell out of fashion around 1720, as round-top tea tables became all the rage. Many even came equipped with tilting tops that could be flipped up to reduce the table’s footprint when not in use. Craftspeople also adopted the reigning styles of the day into designs, including Chippendale, Queen Anne, Georgian, and later on, Victorian style. Queen Anne tea tables are likely to feature rectangular tops with simple, understated cabriole legs and oftentimes a scalloped apron of some kind. In contrast, Victorian tea tables are often heftier pieces of furniture with round or octagonal tops. Many feature elaborate bases with several supporting posts and scrolled feet or hefty plinth bases.
Do Antique American Tea Tables Exist?
Around 1740, tea began seeping into the colonies, and likewise, tea tables. Americans soon began designing their own tea tables, which closely echoed the design of British tea tables. Most early American tea tables showcase Queen Anne details, such as cabriole legs and curled feet, with raised rims that lend the tops a tray-like appearance. American tea tables were not produced for very long, however. Following the American Revolution in the 1770s, drinking tea was considered anti-American, which resulted in a virtual halt in production. Consequently, most American tea tables you find will likely be from a much later era, such as Victorian tea tables.
How is a Tea Table Different from an Accent Table?
In truth, tea tables and side tables are virtually indistinguishable. Both are accent tables typically measuring between 24” and 28” tall and can come in a variety of styles. The main difference between tea tables and accent tables is that tea tables frequently feature a rim. Historically, the rims were intended to prevent items such as teacups, saucers, and teapots from sliding off the edge. This was especially imperative for tea tables, as despite their petite size, they often hosted many people at one time.
Tea tables are also more likely to feature design accents such as drop leafs or pull-out drink trays. Drop leaf tea tables generally feature two drop leaves on either side that are attached with hinges. Some more elaborate designs will feature four drop leaves, though these are far less common finds. Pull-out drink trays are typically encased in the side panels of a tea table. These trays are usually wide enough to set a small plate or saucer and are accessed by small protruding knobs.
How is a Tea Table Different from a Moroccan Tea Table?
Moroccan tea tables are often classified as “tea tables,” although they harbor very different origins. Deriving from Morocco, these tea tables feature wood folding legs topped with a round, incised brass tray. In most cases, the base can be folded so that the tray can be used as individual serving pieces if desired. Bases ranged from traditional turned spindle legs to more streamlined, Mid-Century designs that feature curved spider leg-like bases. These pieces are usually coffee table height and traditionally were used to drink tea while seated on low cushions.
How is a Tea Table Different from a Butler’s Tray or Table?
A butler’s tray is an oval wooden tray equipped with four hinged sides that fold out flat when set down. A butler’s table is slightly different but maintains a similar purpose. Consisting of a tray top (usually three-sided) set atop a pair of folding x-legs, the style also originated in England, slightly after the tea table in the 17th century. Early styles often feature a removable tray, while later reproduction styles almost always include a fixed tray. The style is often grouped in with campaign furniture, as this style table is extremely portable and features the x-leg base also seen on campaign stools.