Curating a beautiful space means taking into account every item in a room, and there are some items of furniture which find their way into everyone’s homes. In bedrooms across the world, a solid chest of drawers is an essential piece of furniture.
For the antique enthusiast who adores furniture that tells a story, has a history and a unique beauty not so easily found in modern creations, an antique chest of drawers can add a real sense of style to your bedroom.
However, the history of the chest of drawers is not as long as you may expect – but it is a delightfully storied history, with a rich selection of antique chests of drawers being created to match growing demand.
So how did one of our favourite bedroom staples come to be? And in what periods of history did certain pieces gain popularity? Read on to discover a concise history of this much-beloved item and perhaps find a favourite new piece of furniture while you do.
Pre-17th century chests
Chests of drawers may be found in most homes nowadays, but before the 17th century, it is fair to say that the idea of a chest with drawers inside had not yet been born. Prior to this point in history, items were kept simply in chests, which did not have dividing drawers within them. Chests were used to primarily store clothes, usually items that would not be stored in a wardrobe – such as delicates, or items that were not often worn but were still kept.
Alternatively known as a coffer, chests were usually used by the nobility, who could afford multiple outfits and had the space to store them. An early predecessor of the chest of drawers was born directly of the coffer chest – a single drawer was inserted into the bottom of the design, allowing for the creation of a separate space.
However, it was not until the mid to late 17th century that the chest of drawers became an established item of furniture in its own right. In fact, it was well into the 1670s before the chest was entirely filled with drawers, rather than having a drawer and a larger space.
The 17th century
Even once the chest of drawers became an established piece of furniture all on its own, it was once again mostly popular with the nobility and other households in the upper echelons.
Those in positions of wealth and power were looking to fill their homes with a more lavish, luxurious style of furniture, a far cry from the strictly practical pieces found in middling and lower class homes.
However, it has been said that, from the 1670s onward, imitation items that seem like early chests of drawers could be found in more middle-class homes, as they followed the growing style of the time. If you find a small antique chest of drawers, it very likely will have originated from a middling home, as they overall had less space but were still keen to employ cabinet makers to create a bespoke piece of practical and stylish furniture. Cabinet makers were able to develop their skills to adapt to this new trend – one that has definitely stood the test of time!
Once the 1680s rolled around, the standard look for a chest of drawers would be more recognisable to us and our modern furnishings than a traditional coffer chest – a collection of three long drawers with a variety of depths, and two shorter drawers atop them which would sit side by side.
As you can imagine, the convenience of this design was a brave new world for even the aristocracy. With this modern twist on the traditional coffer chest, soon the chest of drawers began adapting to suit the changing styles of the time.
Queen Anne era
Time marched on into the dawn of the 18th century, bringing with it many changes, and this is reflected in the evolving design of the chest of drawers.
When seeking a chest of drawers from the 18th century, you will find that they are often lined with oak in the drawers themselves, while the outer casing (the chest) will often be made from walnut.
During this period, known as the Queen Anne period and into the very early Georgian period, walnut was considered a highly prized and valuable wood for creating fine and beautiful furniture. Some slightly lower quality drawers, however, may have been lined with pine rather than oak. These drawers are not quite as high quality as those lined with oak, but can still be authentic Queen Anne era pieces.
If you notice a pear drop handle on an antique chest of drawers, it is very likely that you will be looking at an authentic piece from the Queen Anne era. However, if the handles are post-1750, they are far more likely to be a swan neck design.
Because this era was one of decadence and opulence, the hunger for creating furniture from walnut extended to the chest of drawers, and this desire to collect walnut antique furniture continues today due to its superior quality and great beauty.
A chest of drawers from this period (sometimes known as Rococo furniture), is sometimes adorned with floral and trellis designs, truly reflecting the fashions of the day.
If you are an eagle-eyed antique enthusiast, you will know that customs altered as the Queen Anne period passed. If you find an antique chest of drawers made from mahogany, it is most likely from this time period.
From the mid-18th century, the design of the chest of drawers also fluctuated. Serpentine shaped chest of drawers became more widely desired, though the bow-fronted design remained popular.
Another thing that changed was the smaller details. Bun feet became popular in Georgian era furniture (though these have often been replaced by bracket feet in antique chest of drawers you may find). Further details that were focused on were the handles, which were made from ornate brass, tasteful yet striking.
The Georgian sense of style varied greatly from the Queen Anne period – this era is known for its cleaner, simpler, neoclassical designs. Quality was valued highly, with the levels of craftsmanship growing.
This is also the time when the popular (and still widely regarded) Chippendale designs were rising to prominence. Thomas Chippendale was an innovator, creating beautiful, functional and high-quality furniture.
Along with other masters of the trade such as Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite, the furniture created by these craftsmen defined the aesthetic of the period so strongly that the designs are almost inextricable from our collective mental picture of the time, including the functional, highly striking chests of drawers that became the focal points for many a dressing room.
The 19th century and beyond
The chest of drawers which rose to popularity and prominence during the late 17th and the 18th century solidified key design elements that remain recognisable today in both antique pieces and modern adaptations.
However, it would be remiss to not mention how the chest of drawers continued to be a much-beloved piece of furniture well into the 19th century and into the present day. Around this time, into the Victorian era, mahogany continued to be a popular choice for high quality, long-lasting furniture items, as well as always reliable walnut.
The designs once again became more lavish, with floral accents often carved into the wood of the chest of drawers, creating unique and beautiful pieces that remain popular with those who adore the detailed elegance of Victoriana.
Yet the accessibility of more exotic wood was increasing, and the chest of drawers design was being adapted by craftsmen all over the world. For example, you may find an Italian parquetry bureau, which owes much to the original designs of the chest of drawers that gained such an immovable place in our homes.
With this brief overview of the history of the antique chest of drawers, we hope that you have gained some ideas about the best style of drawers for your home, whether you wish to keep them in your bedroom or make them a statement piece somewhere more prominent.
As a statement piece, a small antique chest of drawers or a large antique chest of drawers will look incredible in your house. Whatever your favourite historical period, there is a beautiful antique waiting for you to place it in your home, like so many before you.