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Updated on April 23, 2010
Photo by Nitin Ale
Photo by Nitin Ale

A table is a piece of furniture generally composed of a horizontal top with vertical supports or legs to raise it from the floor. Although some primitive societies never developed the table, among most peoples it has been one of the basic types of furniture. Table styles differ considerably from region to region and period to period, but the fundamental form is unchanged.

Early Forms

Surviving Egyptian tables, dating from about 1600 to 1500 B.C., are small wooden rectangles with four legs connected by stretchers, or rungs. Greek and Roman tables, with extant examples in marble and bronze, were round or rectangular and stood on three or four legs, a pedestal, or two slabs. In the Middle East and Japan, areas where it was customary to sit on the ground, wooden tables were low and portable. Chinese tables, used with chairs or stools, were larger, carefully proportioned wooden rectangles.

In the medieval West most tables were crude series of boards placed on trestles and dismantled after use. The long, narrow refectory table found in monasteries was permanently fixed on trestles. In the Renaissance the refectory table continued for secular use, supported by fat balusters, heavy slabs, or four legs connected by stretchers. There was also a return to classic Greek and Roman forms and ornament. These early tables were used principally for dining, although they might serve as altars or for writing.

Later Forms

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European tables showed baroque influence. Elaborately carved pedestals and legs, sometimes representing human forms, gave a feeling of solidity and a sculpturesque quality. In the 18th century, tables were decorated with delicate curved ornament in the rococo style, then with light rectilinear designs derived from the classical.

During these centuries, as domestic life became more complex, a variety of table forms developed. A common 16th century form was the draw table. Just under the top was a second top in two sections, which could be drawn out to increase the size of the table. Another form was the drop leaf table composed of a fixed center section with two suspended leaves that could be raised and supported by brackets or slides or by a swinging leg. The latter type was called a gatelegged table. English 18th century dining tables could be pulled apart in the middle and extra leaves inserted.

There were also tables for different purposes. Console tables for display were fastened directly to the wall or placed against it resting on a bracket, pedestal, or legs and were decorated on one side only. A related form was the side table, for the service of food, from which the sideboard developed. The writing table, or library table, was created by placing drawers below a table top. There were also small tables for sewing, reading, playing cards and other games, and serving tea. Some had hinged tops that tilted vertically. Dressing tables, for both men and women, were closely related to cabinets and had intricate arrangements of mirrors and drawers.

In the 20th century, tables continued to be made in traditional forms and styles. New materials and techniques, however, made possible new kinds of tables in glass, metal, or plastic. Some incorporate supports and top in one solid geometric shape.


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