When the British began their abiding love affair with tea in the 17th century, it was only a matter of time before the elite colonial patricians, eager to copy upper-crust trends from the motherland, followed suit. This new ritual came with a list of necessary accoutrements, including tea sets, tea wares, china, and linens. Since the very essence of drinking tea promoted conversation and communion, it was important to design a table that held the tea service within easy reach of all partakers.
As the consumption of tea became a firmly entrenched ritual, it was unthinkable for any well-appointed drawing room or parlor to be without a table specified for this enthusiastically embraced custom. Furniture makers rushed to meet the demand for this sudden necessity. London-based cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale published his book, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Makers Director, in 1754, which provided a wealth of inspiration for colonial furniture artisans to create their own exquisite interpretations of tea tables. Philadelphia-based craftsmen, as well as others from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, were prolific producers of many noteworthy examples.
Early renditions of the tea table featured rectangular tops that rested upon legs, usually crafted from a substantial wood, often mahogany. Occasionally, a heavy silver salver or sideboard dish, sitting atop a wooden tripod stand, substituted for a tabletop. Later designs became more elaborate, displaying distinctive details such as scalloped edges, pie-crust tops, and ornately carved legs.
Unquestionably the most ingenious concept furniture makers implemented was the invention of the tilt-top table. The top rotated on the columned base to facilitate serving guests. The hostess simply poured the tea, and then rotated the table to place the teacup precisely in front of her guest. Perhaps even more helpful was that the tabletop also lifted up so that the table could be stored flat against the wall or in a corner when not in use.
Because of the quality of materials and the skill of the craftsmen, many lovely antique tea tables exist today, alongside modern-day reproductions. Table styles reflect an elegance that mirrors that of taking tea itself. From the graceful cabriole legs and valanced skirt of the Queen Anne style to the oval overhanging top and shaped apron of the New England design to the curving serpentine legs of the Newport Fly version, the tea table not only performs a valuable function, it also adds to the refined beauty of a home’s décor.