For Ladies and Letters: Femininity, Function and Fashion in Neoclassical Ladies’ Writing Desks

Matthew A Thurlow, The Decorative Arts Trust

Tuesday, November 11, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Although furniture forms associated with femininity, such as the tea table and dressing table, were made in significant numbers in the colonial period, the production of furniture for the fairer sex increased tenfold with the introduction of the neoclassical style following the American Revolution. Sewing tables in particular were manufactured in great numbers for the parlors of genteel homes. These specialized forms typically feature refined construction utilizing exotic woods and materials.

Less common, but no less impressive, are the ladies’ writing desks produced in the premiere east coast cabinetmaking centers. These ladies’ desks harness the tenets of neoclassical design within a delicate, diminutive scale — and they often represent the pinnacle of furniture production in that era.

A group of early 19th century Baltimore ladies’ writing desks are recognized by the extensive use of verre églomisé, or reverse painting on glass panels, inset into their facades. églomisé panels, often pertaining to the classical mythology popular at the time, were integrated into looking glasses at the turn of the 19th century, but only in Baltimore did cabinetmakers incorporate them into tables and case furniture. Produced by largely anonymous artisans with specialized skills, the églomisé iconography of Baltimore furniture ranges from patriotism to religion to mythology.

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