There were pieces of furniture in France known as chiffonnières decades before the Regency began, and there are still European and American pieces known by the term "chiffonier" today. However, the English chiffonier, which originated in the early nineteenth century, was of a specific design and was most often used for a specific purpose. In Regency England, the chiffonier was a particularly popular piece of furniture with those who owned books.
The "rag-picker" of furniture . . .
The eighteenth century in France saw the development of a wide array of new furniture types. A number of new case pieces were introduced, one of which was called the chiffonnière. The familiar and ubiquitous rag-pickers or rag-gatherers of eighteenth-century Paris were known as chiffonnières. These rag-pickers emerged onto the streets of the city each evening at dusk, a large wicker basket on their backs, carrying a lantern in one hand and a wooden pole with a large iron hook in the other. The poor chiffonnières scoured the streets each night, seeking rags (chiffons), bones, scrap iron or anything else of any a value which they could sell to support themselves. Once they filled the basket on their back, they would take their night’s haul to one of the many brokers in the city who would purchase the objects they had found.
Despite their poor and lowly existence, the rag-pickers of Paris gave their name to a new form of furniture which emerged in France in the middle of the eighteenth century. The wooden chiffonnière served a purpose a bit like its Parisian namesake, since it was most often used to store lengths of cloth and other odds and ends of clothing and apparel which could not be conveniently stored elsewhere. Chiffonnières were low chest of drawers which were usually raised off the floor on short legs. These fashionable chests of drawers were typically designed in the Rococo style, with curved fronts, sides and legs. Many of them were ornamented with fine inlay and ornate gilt brass fittings. Chiffonnières could be found in most of the best homes in France through the end of the eighteenth century.
As with all French fashions, the chiffonnière soon crossed the English Channel, where it found a similar purpose but a slightly new name. In England, this case piece of furniture was known by the more anglicized term of "chiffonier." Like its French cousin, the chiffonier was a small chest of drawers set on four legs. However, the English chiffonier tended to be less curvilinear in design and was not as ornately ornamented, though it was usually made of very good quality and fashionable furniture woods. These small pieces of furniture were very convenient for storing all kinds of small items and many households had more than one of them scattered throughout the house. Even the noted cabinet-maker, Thomas Chippendale, is known to have made chiffoniers for his clients, as did a number of other prominent cabinet-makers, both in London and across Britain.
As the eighteenth century slipped into the nineteenth, the chiffonier got something of a make-over from the English cabinet-makers of that period. With the increasing popularity of the Neo-Classical style, the chiffonier became a low, open cupboard with columns supporting a set of shelves. By the start of the Regency, the lower, larger shelves of a chiffonier were enclosed by a pair of doors and an additional, smaller open shelf was set atop the case. The uppermost shelf often had a small raised railing or gallery across the back or around both sides and the back. Very often, this gallery was made of pierced brass, though some were made of wood. By the middle of the Regency, some chiffoniers were made with a pair of drawers set in the upper portion of the larger shelf area. These drawers were often decorated with ornate brass drawer pulls in Neo-Classical or, more rarely, Egyptian designs.
Though some chiffonier doors were made of paneled and veneered wood, others were wood frames set with brass or wooden grill-work in a variety of designs. The grills of the doors were often backed with pleated fabric which matched or blended with the decor of the room in which the chiffonier was placed. A few chiffonier door grills were backed with heavy paper, such as paper-hanging remnants or even large prints. Fabric or paper was also sometimes used as a backing for the upper shelf of a chiffonier. In most cases, this backing matched that used in the doors, if they also had grill-work. Both the doors and the drawers in many chiffoniers could be locked to protect valuable items. Some chiffoniers had short legs, many with brass feet or claws, while a few of the most upscale models had sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs in gilt bronze. Others had a simple molded base and sat directly on the floor.
These Regency era chiffoniers were most often used to store books. In larger houses, a chiffonier was used to hold the books the family used most often. In smaller homes, the family might store all of their books in their chiffonier. Some very large and affluent homes might have two chiffoniers, usually one in the library and one in the drawing room. The chiffonier in the library or book room was used to store either the books used most often, or the most valuable books in the family’s collection. A chiffonier in the drawing room was often the province of the ladies. It was there that they might keep the books on embroidery designs, water-colour painting, music, dancing, gardening, and, of course, the popular novels that they enjoyed reading. Single gentlemen living in rooms in London might have a chiffonier in which to store their books in restricted quarters which did not allow them to have a book room.
The chiffonier got another make-over in the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Regency ended. In its next incarnation, it became a small cupboard with an upper shelf, very much like a reduced version of a sideboard. These later chiffoniers were found in a great many Victorian era dining rooms where they served a purpose similar to a full-size sideboard for those with smaller rooms. But such dining room chiffoniers did not exist in the England of the Regency.
A selection of images which are results of an image search on the key phrase "British chiffoniers" can be found here.
Dear Regency Authors, might a chiffonier serve a purpose in one of your upcoming romance novels? Could it be that the villain has searched the family library seeking a valuable rare book he intends to steal? Will he be unable to find it because it is safely locked away in the chiffonier? Or, might the heroine, a young woman working as the companion to an aristocratic lady, find herself in a quandry when told to fetch a book from the chiffonier in the drawing room? This young lady is fresh from the country, and the only chiffonier she knows is a small chest of drawers which stood in her grandmother’s sitting room. Will the hero, alert to the situation, gently guide her to the correct peice of furniture in order to spare her any embarrassment, and thereby earn her gratitude? The chiffonier used for books was a piece of case furniture which emerged during the Regency and would be a most appropriate prop for a story set in that period.