A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Glossary -- Chest of Drawers

Chest of drawers ... derives in name, and to a considerable extent in principle, from the chest, a link being the chest-with-drawers, with a single range of drawers beneath the box. Such pieces were in being by the latter part of the sixteenth century, a gradual tendency to increase the drawer-space at the expense of the box resulting in the chest-of-drawers. At the same time various structures enclosing a quantity of drawers were also in being, on the Continent and in England, as with the "new cubborde of boxes" made by Lawrence Abelle in 1595 for Stratford-upon-Avon or the "cubborde with drawing boxes" of the Unton Inventory, 1596. "Nests of boxes" is another old term... .

1595 James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, An Historical Account of the New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon: The Last Residence of Shakespeare London: J E Adlard, 1864


Example of Smith's 'Children of the Chest'

In what perhaps gives the claim by Donald Smith the most credibility -- that many furniture forms spring from the chest, where, in his words, "they are the 'children' of the chest" -- is that evidence which comes with the "chest of drawers".

1934 Donald Smith, Old Furniture and WoodworkLondon: Batsford, Chapter 3.


As a phrase in the English language, "chest of drawers" evidently appears around 1560. This detail comes from Margaret Jourdain, a prominent historian of British furniture in the 1920s. The uses of the chest as a receptacle, says Jourdain, are

shared by the chest of drawers, which developed from a drawer contrived at the bottom of a chest. A chest at Hardwick, very similar to the Offley chest in architectural design and in its delicate inlay, has drawers in the lower portion, and is of even earlier date, as it was made for Gilbert Talbot -- whose initials it bears -- on the occasion of his marriage in 1568. But these two chests with drawers are for their date exceptional; and in Minsheu's Dictionary: [I]n 1599, a chest of drawers is described as if it [is] ... still a novelty. ... Chests of drawers in the modern sense, which mark an advance in the conveniences of household arrangement, date from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century; in early examples the drawer fronts were panelled, and many examples are remarkable for the variety of geometric patterns comprised on the drawer fronts, giving an effective contrast of light and shade.

1924 Margaret Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance (1500-1650): An Account of its Development and Characteristic Forms, London: B. T. Batsford, 1924, pages 265-266.

However, as a furniture form, the chest of drawers comes to Britain from the northern part of Europe.

It is a myth, evidently, that the chest of drawers is a native innovation, or that it "evolves" from the so-called "six-board chest", where, first one drawer is added to the chest, and then another, another, and finally the "chest" part of the form is not included.

See John Gloag, Guide to Furniture Styles: English and French, 1450 to 1850 London: A & C Black, 1972; Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles From 1500-1830 Harmondsworth, Middle sex, England, 1955, Plate 6.


In the image above, for example, we see

Hugh Offley's chest in Southwark Cathedral (probably made in 1588 by immigrant craftsmen in Southwark) has three drawers in the lower part ...; while there are two in a chest of similar character made for Gilbert Talbot, probably in 1568, at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

Source Ralph Edwards, Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture London: Country Life, 1964, page 197.

We get another hint about an idea of the chest of drawers originating in Continental Europe in the quote from the 1599 John Minsheu, Dictionary of Spanish and English.The Oxford English Dictionary defines the chest of drawers as “a kind of large box or frame fitted with a set of drawers; formerly used for keeping money and other valuables, now an article of bedroom furniture in which clothes are kept”. The source that the OED quotes shows when the term "chest of drawers" comes into use: 1599 John Minsheu Dictionary of Spanish and English  

Caxon, a great chest or standerd with drawing chests or boxes in it.

Also L. G. G. Ramsey and Helen Comstock, The Connoisseur's guide to antique furniture New York: Galahad Books, 1969, page 242.

Other sources quoted by the OED are:

1677   London Gazetteer No 1166/4  

Quilts, Chairs, Carpets … and Chests of Drawers.

1691   Moses Pitt, The Cry of the Oppressed London, 1691.

Whilst his lordship was gone there came into the study one of his lordship's gentlemen, and opens my lord's chest of drawers, wherein his money was, and takes it out in handfuls and fills both his pockets, and goes away without saying one word to me; he was no sooner gone, but comes a second gentleman, opens the same drawers, fills both his pockets with money, and goes away as the former did, without speaking one word to me; at which I was surprised, and much concerned, and was resolved to acquaint my lord with it.

The Chest of Drawers Evolves

chest of drawers late 17th-c

The chest of drawers as a furniture form in Britain comes at a time in that nation's history when a greater variety of small pieces in the home are due to the evolution to more intimate family living conditions.

As a larger number of smaller furniture forms develop, we witness chairs becoming lighter and -- for this entry -- the chest of drawers begins to challenge the larger "chests" as the residence's primary location for storing personal belongings. The simple chest is the earliest furniture form used for storage, a form that -- in its own right -- creates much interest and variety. Chest construction itself ranges from rough carpentry to fine joinery, and its decoration from the plain with crude axe marks to the carver's highest skills.

Is the transition from the primitive "chest" -- initially a hollowed out tree-trunk -- to the "chest-of-drawers" an example of "learning on the shop floor"? Not quite, evidently. Instead, the chest of drawers surfaces as an example of "copying from the Continent".

In the 17th-century British domestic furniture is so often dissociated from its provenance that, as the noted furniture historian Benno M. Forman tells us, the history of various forms is often not easy to reconstruct. Unfortunately for us, unlike the history of other handicraft forms such as silver work. That is, our history of furniture making of has none of the hallmarks of silver, which has its official mark that indicates where the piece is made or marks to tell us who is its maker.

Yes, evidently a few furniture forms survive with carved or incised dates that tell us when they are made. But only a few. In most cases, no enough evidence exists to tell us about a piece's fingerprints. In response, speculation about the origins of British furniture forms of this period is often not more than, yes, speculation. And, says Forman, few of our Western furniture forms have suffered in this formulation more than the "joined chest of drawers".

On the one hand, Forman argues, the educated guesses of respected writers on the subject are taken as definitive statements, creating a condition that, often as not, forestalls further research.

Or, on the other hand, these "cultured assumptions" evoke images of Darwinian natural selection observed, an act which seems to bring with it quasi-scientific legitimacy.

As his evidence, Forman cites a handful of authorities in the field. Without any sign of critical examination, he claims, several authors, both English and American, essentially evoke the idea of the chest of drawers "evolving" as the 17th-century develops: to wit, by adding to the chest form first one drawer and then another, and so on, and then removing the chest.

Other equally cultured assumptions convey this notion by implication.

Considering the popularity of this idea, evidence in abundance ought to be available to support it. In fact, British 17th-century joined chests with even a single long drawer or allusions to this form in documents are rare. None, in fact, are known which predate those exquisite chests of drawers with doors by London joiners working between Charles I's and Charles II's reigns, a period spanning most of the 17th-century. Further if we are to base our concepts of the relationship of chests with drawers to chest of drawers on the documents that mention domestic furniture in America, say, "chests of drawers" occur earlier in the 17th century than "chests with drawers" - a fact which seems to indicate that if New England is considered alone, the reverse of the old idea is true; the advantages of the chest of drawers could easily have suggested to English joiners that their joined chests might profit from having drawers added to them.

Example is article in Architectural History 42, 1999, pages 190-191.

Likewise, documentary evidence does not support the rather mystical notion that crude forms of the domestic chest of drawers developed spontaneously among joiners working in the traditions of rural or village Britain, and the ideas that flow from it - that these forms are later adopted and refined in such major urban centers as London. Evidently the mania to be fashionable does not operate in that way during the 17th-century.

Instead, argues Forman, more evidence, overwhelmingly compelling exists which suggests the following: Armed with their European pattern books, rather than their native land, the eyes of British taste makers at that time are focusing on innovations in furniture forms on the European continent and not on the English countryside. Thus, Forman claims, rather than from Britain's countryside it is from the Continent that new stylistic ideas and new forms of furniture, are introduced. On the contrary, Forman emphasizes,

The idea that extant joiner's chests of drawers with oak carcasses and rude carving could predate the Continental-influenced, London-made examples with exotic veneers, fine joinery, brilliantly turned classical half-spindles and bone and mother of pearl inlay simply cannot be taken seriously.

None of the surviving English chests of drawers can in fact be assumed to predate the earliest examples of the London group, which bears the incised date 1647. This elegant piece of furniture, with its tall doors flanked by a range of drawers above and below, is significant because it is dated, but is atypical of the usual form which most often has two decorated drawers in the upper case and three drawers behind the ornamented doors of the lower case... . This form represents dual high points in the history of English furniture. For one, it demonstrates the high level of skill attained by London joiners in the generation before they are replaced by cabinetmakers as the creators of the most fashionable furniture in England, and for another, it represents the innovation, which occurred on English soil, of a new and enduring form: the chest of drawers. The appearance of a new form is sufficiently rare in the international history of 17th-century furniture to require celebration.

See, for example, Esther Singleton, The Furniture of Our Forefathers New York: Doubleday, 1901; page 55; or Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles, 1500—1830 Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955, page 37.

1. By the end of Charles II's reign . . . the last suggestions of an evolution from the chest disappear.

2. The questions under consideration here are not affected by such chests with drawers as the one now in Southwark Cathedral, which was once owned by Hugh Offley [see illustration above] and very likely predates 1589. This chest is not part of the English joiner's tradition. If it were made in London, a supposition which cannot as yet be demonstrated, it was made by a northern European, probably German, craftsman working there, and that craftsman was not properly a joiner, using panel-and-frame, mortise-and-tenon construction rather than side hung are other features that put the Offley chest outside of the competence of the last sixteenth-century London joiner and his vocabulary of techniques.

#1, Edwards, The Shorter Dictionary page 199; #2, Edwards, Shorter Dictionary, page 189, figure 13;

Additional Sources of Information

Two excellent sources exist, for both narrative of historical background and images: first there are over seventy pages of discussion and photos in Volume (Ch.- M.) of the Percy MacQuoid and Ralph Edwards' Dictionary of English Furniture From the Middle Ages to the Late Georgian Period London: Country Life; New York: Charles Scribner's, 1924: "Chests and Coffers"; "Chests of Drawers"; and "Construction", the latter having excellent schematic drawings of the anatomy of numerous medieval, Renaissance and Restoration forms of chest; and two articles by Benno Forman: "The Origin of the Joined Chest of Drawers", 1981; "The Chest of Drawers in America, 1635-1730: The Origins of the Joined Chest of Drawers", Winterthur Portfolio 1985. For very early evidence of the emergence of the chest-of-drawers, see also Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century London:The Furniture History Society, 1977; S. W. Wolsey and R. W. P. Luff, Furniture in England: The Age of the Joiner London: Arthur Barker, 1968, narratie and numerous photos; see also Gabriel Olive, "Furniture in a West Country Parish," Furniture History 11 1976, pages 17-23; Francis W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 Colchester: Essex County Council, 1950, appears on January 25, 1673 (p. 127). The earliest in Peter C. D. Brears, ed., Yorkshire Probate Inventories, 1542-1689 Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1972; ); Pauline Agius, "Late 16th- and 17th-Century Furniture in Oxford," Furniture History 7 1971; Margaret Jourdain, English decoration and furniture of the early renaissance (1500-1650): an account of its development and characteristic forms London : B.T. Batsford ; New York : Scribner, 1924; T. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, Catalogus van meubelen (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 1952), no. io6. I am indebted to Prof. Lunsingh Scheurieer for suggestions concerning the Zeeland cupboards. For a French example with octagonal, decorated panels, see John Gloag, Guide to Furniture Styles: English and French, 1450 to 1850 (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1972) on order 2/9/24, 8 A list of 405 master craftsmen from northern Europe as well as 72 journeymen and apprentices who were working in London is to be found in Benno M. Forman, "Continental Furniture Craftsmen in London: 1511-1625," Furniture History 7 (197 1): 105-20; more illustrations, Jourdain, English Decoration, p. 226 fig. 311; another is in Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, Early English Furniture and Woodwork, vol. 2 London: George Routledge and Sons, 1922 page 87 fig. 117; Benno M. Forman "The Origins of the Joined Chest of Drawers" Nederlands Kunst-historisch Jaarboek 31 1981, page 169-183: for an expansion of this article see Winterthur Portfolio, 20, No.1, Spring 1985.