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Cupboard Love: Exploring the Intriguing History of the Cupboard

Updated on August 12, 2016

Among the everyday items in our homes that we often take for granted are the cupboards we use to store our possessions and tuck things away to make the house tidy. But have you ever wondered about the history of the cupboard and how they evolved? Here we take a look at one of the most useful features of the home that is so often taken for granted.

In the Beginning

Stand-alone cupboards first evolved from boards used like tables to put cups on, hence the name. That would have been in the early Middle Ages. Before that storage simply consisted of built-in shelving. The first time this shelving was ever hidden behind a door was within churches. These were often decorated with images of saints or other religious subjects. Examples of 13th century church cupboards still exist.

During the 14th century cupboards could be found in the castles and homes of the wealthy upper classes. These were frequently covered in elaborate architectural features and Gothic designs and motifs.

An early cupboard
An early cupboard

Cupboards in Ordinary Homes

Eventually the cupboard became popular with everyday people who began to introduce them into their homes to store their possessions. Innovative cabinetmakers and 15th century do-it-yourself enthusiasts started to make cupboards suitable for storing food with small holes in them to allow ventilation.

Until the 1600s people had stored clothing and valuables in great chests. Then someone had the idea of making them open at the front and putting two together, one above the other, an idea that soon took off and developed into cupboards with a shelf separating the top from the bottom. The latches that kept chests closed changed into catches, handles and door knobs suitable for an upright door.

After this period the décor of cupboards became even more elaborate, often using intarsia, which is a wood mosaic with raised reliefs. If you couldn’t run to the more expensive intarsia, you might commission marquetry - veneer mosaics with no raised reliefs - instead.

The Evolution of the Cupboard

In another hundred or so years cupboards could be found for all sorts of uses, such as stand-alone wardrobes, some of which were built into panelled walls, much like the built-in wardrobes of today that often have mirrored doors. Some were corner cupboards, squat cupboards, thin cupboards, wall cupboards, sideboards (note the word board remains in the name). There were cupboards with drawers in them and cupboards with glass fronts to keep the dust away from displayed ornaments and crockery.

As tastes changed following the Victorian era cupboards became plainer with less decoration on them. Today, cupboards still perform the same duties in our homes, but because of the lack of decoration, they are less expensive to acquire.

Make your cupboards pretty with attractive hinges

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Polished brass snake hingeBlack iron butterfly hingeFinial cabinet hinge satin chrome
Polished brass snake hinge
Polished brass snake hinge
Black iron butterfly hinge
Black iron butterfly hinge
Finial cabinet hinge satin chrome
Finial cabinet hinge satin chrome

Enhancing your Cupboards

You might choose a particular type of wood for its colour and sheen. Sometimes you might decide to paint them to match the colour scheme of the room. You can add transfers to pretty them up in a bedroom, or two tones to brighten a living room. One major way to ring the changes is to replace the fittings, especially if you are looking to achieve an authentic period look.

There is an abundance of choice when it comes to cupboard handles, latches, hinges and knobs. Even the most basic cupboard can be brought to life with the addition of carefully selected fixtures. Solid brass is an excellent choice if you are looking to recreate the appeal of yesteryear and enhance the elegance of a piece. Choose either polished or antique finish depending on your individual taste.

Going for the modern look? Replace the handles or knobs with shiny polished chrome or satin nickel and match up with decorative hinges and shelf brackets for consistency.

There are many ways to enhance the décor of your rooms by making small changes to your cupboards. But after reading about their history, perhaps you won’t be so ready to take them for granted!


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