Furniture for Storing Clothing—What's in a Name?
The development of the cupboard has taken several forms, but among the most fascinating are the forms of the armoire, wardrobe, Kas or Schrank. These are known as case furniture, or box-like forms with the main function being storage. All are very similar in form and function, yet defined by different decorative characteristics and/or construction techniques.
A cupboard-like form is in evidence in an illustration from the Codex Amiatinus, circa 700 A.D. This gives furniture historians an idea of the type of cupboard possibly used. The illustration depicts the prophet Ezra writing in front of a cupboard that is very architectural in form. In the earliest times, furniture was a luxury only wealthy landowners or the clergy could afford. The form really didn’t develop until the medieval-Gothic period, around the 12th century. Unfortunately for furniture scholars, very few of these earliest forms have survived. With time, the cupboard’s box-like form grew larger in size, with added enhancements such as doors, shelves or drawers. Its purpose was to store household goods. The term press was used to describe these cupboards.
In France during this period, the armoire was a low, wide functional storage piece that was heavy and plain, with the only decoration consisting of iron strap work hinges and locks, often painted. Toward the end of the 14th century, it emerged into a very beautiful art form. With changes in styles, it increased in height and narrowed in width. The form was now more massive and architectural motifs such as columns, pilasters, pediments and carved panels were used for decoration. The true armoire had only two doors on the front that when opened revealed shelves, cubbyholes and often drawers. There were no drawers below the doors and this piece often rested on a base without feet. Because of the dimension and weight of these armoires, they were typically constructed in several pieces for mobility.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch had been refining a similar cupboard form known as the Kas or Kasten. By the 17th century, the Kas had become a very massive piece of furniture that was quite likely considered the most important piece of furniture in the household. This cupboard was used to store everything from dishes to linens. Typically located in the center hallway, the Kas was kept locked. The lady of the house had the keys and would dispense any needed items to the members of the family or servants. The Kas remained a prominent furniture piece well into the 18th century.
The Dutch colonial immigrants who settled in the areas of New York, Long Island, northern New Jersey and the Hudson River valley brought this form with them. The colonial Kas remained fairly true to the Dutch design, but gradually changes evolved to produce a simpler form. Surface decorations consisted of paintings, some with trompe l’oeil called Grisaille, which gave the impression of a carved surface. With time these charming painted pieces gave way to the influences of their Anglican neighbors with the additions of ball and claw or bracket feet replacing the large ball feet that were such a typical Dutch characteristic.
In 17th century Germany, a distinct cupboard known as the Schrank was popular. Similar in construction to the Dutch Kas and made in sections for easy mobility, the Schrank’s feet were permanently affixed to the lower section in contrast to the Kas. The lower component had one or two drawers; a large central area housed drawers or shelves enclosed by two doors. A heavy baroque cornice completed the design. When this form was brought to the colonies, German settlers used an elegant surface decoration of wax inlay technique called Wachseinlegen. The surface had lines cut into it, filled with a mixture of sulfur and wax or sulfur and putty, which gave the appearance of inlaid ivory or satinwood. This technique was frequently used in the Pennsylvania German settlements. By the late 17th century, German Palatine settlers had a modified form of the Schrank, which was not as ornately decorated and painted with floral or geometric patterns.
The Schrank, which was used into the late 18th century, was considered to be a very important part of a bride’s dowry, understandably so since this one piece of furniture was used to store many of the family treasures as well as clothing.
Across the Channel, the English had developed the wardrobe, also known as press. The term wardrobe was derived from the medieval castle or manor house’s storage room where the clothing and linens were kept. Over the 16th and 17th centuries, the press evolved to include the addition of drawers below and shelves enclosed by two doors on top. This was the most widely used form in England, although by the 18th century we begin to see the wardrobe constructed with tall sections containing sliding metal rods for hanging clothing. Eventually a mirror was added to the inside or outside of the door or doors. England’s most famous 18th-century cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale, was not particularly recognized for his designs of clothes presses or wardrobes, but his designs for them can be seen in Chippendale’s famous publication The Gentleman’s and Cabinetmaker’s Directory. One of Chippendale’s designs was a wardrobe with wings added to the sides. It had four large sections with doors behind which there were drawers, shelves or open spaces to hang clothing. This wardrobe was massive, measuring almost 8 feet wide. The English wardrobe as we know it really didn’t develop until the 19th century during the Victorian period.
There were few 18th-century wardrobes built in the English-influenced colonies. Colonists commonly used the chest of drawers. The style known as Federal was dominating American furniture in the early 19th century but was soon replaced by influences from French styles. Keep in mind that many French people fled their country during the French Revolution in 1789, settling in America. Many of these settlers had been trained as joiners, crafts people and designers in their native country, bringing with them the new trends from France. Probably the most recognizable French cabinetmaker working in New York was Charles-Honoré Lannuier, who advertised his services as the “cabinetmaker from Paris."
The development of steam power in the first half of the 19th century changed the furniture industry worldwide. By the late 1880s, America had moved almost exclusively to factory-made furniture, with large factories located on the East Coast, in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. Grand Rapids, Mich., was home to many of the big furniture producers. Furniture could be shipped by railroad almost anywhere. The styles were more modern and it was fashionable to have manufactured furniture in the home. A wardrobe was standard when a bedroom suite was purchased.
With the turn of the 20th century, closets were rapidly becoming standard features in houses. Furniture factories were still producing a smaller, modern wardrobe or a chifforobe. After World War I, new home construction began lowering ceiling heights and many of the beautiful wardrobes became obsolete in the modern home. But there are many who still cherish the old, large pieces, and we are witnessing furniture history repeating itself with new wardrobe, press and armoire forms designed to conceal modern technology, also known as televisions, computers and audio equipment. Once again, this form’s basic function has not changed over the centuries and is rapidly becoming an essential case piece in today’s home.
For further reading consult the following books:
World Furniture, the Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd.; The Encyclopedia of Furniture, third edition, by Joseph Aronson; and Classical European Furniture Design, by José Claret Rubira.
Sharon Ring Rollins, ASA, specializes in the appraisal of residential contents. She has been collecting and studying antique furniture for more than 25 years. Her appraisal practice serves the greater Houston, Texas, area.