It rather depends on where and into which century you were born as to whether or not this special drawer was likely to be a secret to you. Those born in England or America in the seventeenth century would be well aware of this drawer, as they would have used it regularly to store that item of clothing after which it was named. But by the eighteenth century, when both men and women had left off wearing ruffs, this special drawer, no longer regularly used, was soon forgotten by those of succeeding generations. By the Regency, few people remembered either the purpose or even the existence of ruff drawers.
But since ruff drawers have such potential as a hiding place for any number of things in order to serve the plot of a Regency novel, it does seem a pity not to let that secret out, but just between us …
Ruff drawers can only be found in one piece of furniture, known in England as a tallboy and in America as a highboy. In their simplest form, these large case-pieces consist of a chest of drawers set atop another chest of drawers. In some examples, typically in England, the upper portion of the tallboy was instead a wardrobe with two doors, rather than a second set of drawers. This form was much less common in America. So much so, that it has led some to define a tallboy as a lower section of drawers with a wardrobe always in the upper section. But there are plenty of tallboys to be found in England which are comprised of two chests of drawers, one above the other. And there are a very few highboys to be found in America which have a wardrobe in the upper section, rather than drawers. Some of these case-pieces are made with the lower set of drawers nearly to floor-level, often with a few inches of a decorative molding or skirting filling the space just above the floor. But more often, the lower set of drawers sits well above the floor on legs which can measure anywhere from twelve to twenty-four inches or more. These legs can be quite decorative and are found in a number of different styles, in keeping the with style of the body of the case-piece.
However, only certain highboys will have a ruff drawer, those with a flat top. Highboys or tallboys having an ornate pediment at the top are from a later era, most from the second half of the eighteenth century. By then, ruff drawers were considered to be completely unnecessary by most people and few furniture-makers saw any need to invest the time and effort to build one into the later highboys with complex pediments. But even though ruffs had fallen out of fashion by the early years of the eighteenth century, there were still a few flat-top highboys and tallboys made with a ruff drawer early in the century. There is not enough evidence to determine whether these pieces were made at the request of the person who commissioned them, or whether the cabinet-maker was following an old-fashioned pattern simply because it was well-known and easy to make.
There is another significant reason why ruff drawers have been able to keep their secret for so many centuries. They have no handles, so when one is looking at a highboy or tallboy, there is nothing on the exterior to give them away. Ruff drawers are very shallow, usually only two to three inches deep, and the front of the ruff drawer is always concealed as the upper molding or cornice at the top of the tallboy. In most cases, the molding which concealed the front of the ruff drawer usually wrapped an inch or two around both sides of the drawer and if one looks very closely, a very thin line can be seen on each side of the piece, where the molding on the drawer front matches up with the molding along the sides. There are a few instances of ruff drawers in which the molding on the front it mitred right at the corners to meet the molding along the sides of the case. These ruff drawers are even harder to spot since the mitred corners at the front of the piece do an even better job of concealing the line of separation between the drawer front and the side moldings.
Ruff drawers were always shallow and the full width and depth of the highboy or tallboy case into which they were fitted. They were ideal for the storage of the large circles of linen used for ruffs, pressed flat, which would be pleated with a hot gophering iron just before they were to be worn. In the ruff drawer these large cloth circles could be laid flat, typically in a stack of only a few ruffs. The bottom of the drawer was flat and nothing would be laid atop them but a few more ruffs. And because the ruff drawer was shallow and at the very top of the tallboy, there was no loss of storage space, as would have been the case if the ruffs were placed in the larger lower drawers.
Ruff drawers did not immediately go out of fashion when ruffs ceased to be worn, nor did the furniture which held them. Tallboys and highboys were substantial and usually expensive pieces of furniture, so there were few who would have considered tossing them out because one of the drawers was no longer needed for the purpose for which it had been originally designed. In fact, though ruffs had fallen out of fashion, some ladies and gentlemen wore large lace collars, which were also easily stored in ruff drawers. And in later years, many men had taken to carrying large handkerchiefs, and many ladies wore lace kerchiefs or shawls and all of these large flat pieces of cloth fit nicely into those shallow ruff drawers. For these reasons, for a time, ruff drawers continued to be used, and some tallboys and highboys made in the early decades of the eighteenth century still had ruff drawers. Only, of course, if they had flat tops, with a deep molding around the upper edge to conceal them.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, tallboys and highboys were no longer made with ruff drawers, partly because they were, by then, seldom used, and partly because the new fashion in these large case-pieces was to be surmounted by ornate carved pediments. These ornate pediments were an impediment to the placement of a ruff drawer in the highboys and tallboys which they decorated. Gradually, though many great houses and fine town houses in London and other large cities still had flat-topped tallboys acquired by those of earlier generations, and many of those pieces had ruff drawers, few of their owners among the younger generations were even aware these old pieces of furniture had a hidden drawer. By the turn of the nineteenth century, perhaps only a handful of people across England would have known what a ruff drawer was or how to find and open it. By the Regency, that number would have dwindled still more.
Secret drawers can offer so many different and interesting aspects by which to twist the plot of a Regency novel. Perhaps a young lady is working as a maid in a fine house to escape some unpleasantness and in the course of dusting an old tallboy she discovers the ruff drawer it contains. And would that drawer be empty, or had something important been placed within it and forgotten by its original owner decades before? Might it be the long-lost original plan of the estate, which the hero is urgently seeking in order to prove his rightful claim? Or, does the young lady working in the house as governess or lady’s companion find the ruff drawer in an old-fashioned tallboy located in a room seldom used by the family? Must she find a safe hiding place for some item with which she dare not be caught? Mayhap it is evidence that a member of the household is working against the Crown as an agent of France? Dear Regency Authors, now that you know about the "secret" ruff drawer, might it be just the hiding place you need for that very important item in your next novel?