While working at a small auction house right out of college, I noticed that one form of furniture almost never moved from the gallery floor: the sideboard. Having once revered these objects as a museum intern, I began to wonder exactly why they had fallen so out of favor?


Above: Sideboard, circa 1790-1810, mahogany and satinwood, 6′ x 4′. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY, N0065.1969.

Looking at this Federal style sideboard from the NYSHA collection, I think I may have found some answers. Records note that it was probably constructed in New York sometime between 1790 and 1810.  At this time it would have been a sign to visitors that its owner knew about, and engaged in, the proper etiquette of formal dining. It served a specified purpose, likely complementing the floor plan of a federal home that sought to define spaces for predetermined functions.

Created from exotic mahogany with a lavish serpentine front, the side board’s drawers and doors are inlaid in contrasting satinwood of an oval shape and adorned with brass oval pulls. Ovals were clearly a popular motif of the Federal style. At one time you may have found table linens, special cutlery, and other dining accessories hidden in its deep drawers, each with a role to play in multi-course dinner parties.


Above: Interior of sideboard drawer.

But today, there is no longer a need for such a piece. It has not lost its aesthetic appeal, but rather society has changed. The popularity of open floor plans and the loss of formal dining areas in most American homes has rendered the side board nearly obsolete. Informal gatherings and paper napkins have ensured that we no longer need a space to store dining linens or superfluous cutlery.

The size alone–this thing measures six feet long and four feet deep–is a problem. These pieces were not meant to be moved. Built at a time when it was likely that a family would stay in one home for generations, this side board probably never left the state. Local testimony in the piece’s curatorial file notes that it spent a sizable portion of its life on a single Cooperstown estate.

Our society is increasingly transient, and nowadays people often move great distances multiple times over a lifetime. So why invest in heavy furniture that is expensive to transport if you are likely to change homes in the coming years? This question is especially pertinent when considering that newer furniture comes in pieces, is often multipurpose, and in some cases is even cheap enough to be disposable.

This side board, once just an expensive piece of furniture, now serves as a reminder of the changes that have occurred in the way we socialize, inhabit space, and even live our lives since the time of the Early Republic.

-Britney Schline, CGP ’14

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.