The Advent of the English Chiffonier

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to The Advent of the English Chiffonier

  1. When I was small, there was still a rag-and-bone man in Beccles, he had a small cart drawn by a horse called Queenie, who was a dappled grey with feathers and she loved children, especially if they had half a carrot for her… the bones, I presume, were sold to glue factories? I know hide is better, but I suppose everything helps… or for things carved from bone?
    The thought struck me of a secret drawer in such an item of furniture which the heroine opens by accident revealing the lost will that rescues her family from the poverty they thought they were condemned to, which could be a dangerous thing if she has taken a position of companion/governess/ in the house of those who have apparently inherited just to stay in her family home. Or such a thing might be inside a commonplace book in a chiffonier, and ignored by the inheritor for not being an important book to hide anything in…. Did the heroine accept a lowly position on the offchance of finding a true will, and is she suffering the advances of a sleazy cousin who makes P&P’s Mr Collins look like the soul of tact and discretion? is there a connection to the new owners of the house who becomes more and more convinced that the girl he is falling in love with is more deserving?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I love your story about Queenie! Thanks for sharing that. Though our streets today are much less aromatic without horses, I think they also have a lot less character!

      In terms of the use of bone, I do not know what it might have been in the 20th century, but in Regency times they were quite valuable. If the bones were fresh, grease could be extracted from them for the making of candles and other purposes. Bone was also used to make lots of items, from buttons to sewing notions to toys and ornaments. Also, cattle bones, in particular, were in high demand for the making of bone china. The addition of bone produced a whiter, more translucent body.

      What a delightful plot bunny! So much potential for drama before true love wins the day!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • thank you for all those uses for bone! I have a few bone items from the family, most of which are novelty items from around 1900 like a tiny pair of opera glasses with scenes of Great Yarmouth, but also the front of a needlecase. and now the reason for the name ‘Bone China’ is made clear, how wonderful to fill those gaps of ignorance!
        we’ve always used all our bones for broth/dripping/gelatin in the home, but of course it was a time when not all people could afford to keep a fire in all the time, and even if they could might not have enough room for extras like a hot pot; I get the impression from the Epicure’s Almanack [from 1815] that eating out in ordinaries, or buying hot food was considered quite normal in a town, the way it had been in Medieval times when few people had facilities to do much in the way of cooking. So I presume that bones might be more prevalent than in the country where the stockpot was always on the go?
        So far as I am aware, when Joe died, Queenie went to live out the rest of her life in a meadow which Joe had rented for her accommodation. She was 20 or so when I knew her, but not living locally I don’t know any details. Only that her death at 38 was announced in the paper, as a ‘much loved local character’.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          You are quite right that many poor people living in lodgings, particularly in urban areas, would have been unlikely to cook. Partly because they could not afford a pot or the other utensils necessary to cook a meal, but the costs of the ingredients would likely have been beyond their means, even if they had the skills, which many did not. In addition, they would probably not have been able to afford enough fuel to heat the food hot enough to properly cook it. Lots of children of poor families scoured the banks of the Thames daily, seeking bits of coal which had fallen off coal barges which they then carried home for use in heating the house. But even this meagre fuel was usually hoarded and rationed, used only when needed to heat rooms during very cold weather. At that time, there were lots of enterprising vendors selling all kinds of cheap food on the street, so even folks with only a few pence could get a hot meal at least once a day. (The clever and quick ones might even nick something to eat when a vendor was not looking.) Fast food is not a 20th century invention, though the forms available in Regency England would have been different than what we know today.

          Affluent single gentlemen who lived in rooms were also not likely to have had the knowledge or the means to cook a meal. Even if they did employ a manservant, he was most likely a valet-cum-butler, but not a cook. In many lodging houses, the landlady would provide meals and/or other refreshments for an additional, usually nominal, payment. Also, many public houses and taverns had inexpensive meals on offer, as did most gentlemen’s clubs. And places like Fortum & Mason’s routinely prepared take-out meals to order, so home cooking was not a requirement in Regency London.

          Thank you for sharing the end of Queenie’s story. I am so very glad to know that she had a comfortable retirement in her old age. She must have been given very good care in her life, since 38 is quite an advanced age for most horses.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • “Partly because they could not afford a pot or the other utensils necessary to cook a meal, but the costs of the ingredients would likely have been beyond their means, even if they had the skills, which many did not.”
            Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. And this is why there is food poverty in Britain because they stopped teaching girls how to shop efficiently and how to cook when they were at school… my son took charge of the income of the other students sharing a house with him and shopped and cooked for everyone in exchange for them doing the cleaning because none of them knew how to buy real food or cook it. Or how to scrounge bruised fruit and veg from the market, and how to get meat and fish half price at end of selling day Sunday [or back then, Saturday]. And I strongly suspect it’s more the skills than the cost of ingredients, or rather the cost of ingredients if you know where to go and how to haggle…. there’s an ad I’ve seen on TV with a girl going to school with only a jam sandwich [made with branded jam at 4 times the price of supermarket’s own] because the oven is broken. And presumably the mother can’t boil a kettle to pour over veg and meat and place it into a hay box to make stew, or buy cheaper jam for two weeks to buy a cheap hob. We shouldn’t have food poverty in an affluent country but much of it could be cured if people were a bit more flexible.
            Sorry, ranting a bit there. But it’s come home to roost again that people live on fast food because they can’t afford to cook and don’t know how.
            I do recommend the Epicure’s Almanack of 1815, reprinted with notes and edited by Janet Ing Freeman. All you wanted to know about eel pie island, and where to get a steak, and what markets to use for fresh ingredients!

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Thank you for the reference, I will seek out the Epicure’s Almanack, I am eager to read it.

              Your son sounds like a very smart and enterprising fellow! I’ll bet his house-mates were delighted to have him, and glad to relieve him of cleaning duties in return for decent and affordable meals!!! 😉

              Sadly, I think you are right about the fact that many people were never taught to shop for and select fresh foods, nor how to cook them. Not only is it a primary cause of food poverty, it is also a major contributing factor to illness and the reduction of life expectancy because people are not regularly able to eat healthy meals. They know how to use a smart phone, but can’t make a healthy meal to save their lives! How sad!

              Regards,

              Kat

              • It’s one of several books I keep by me at all times; the others are the two-volume ‘All things Austen’, the ‘1811 dictionary of the vulgar tongue, ‘the compleat servant’ by Samuel and Sarah Adams, Patterson’s ‘Roads…’ and Mrs Rundell’s book of Domestic Economy. And I’ve added to that the ‘treatise on Carriages’, Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, and my growing collection of Ackermann’s. I have a bookshelf at my side with the 40 books I am going to use over and over for research, and those closest to hand include those.
                The more esoteric ones like a history of Bow Street and a section on period gardening are perhaps of less general interest, though I do recommend the Shorter Oxford Dictionary on historic principles, 1971 edition which has more in it about archaic words than later editions.
                Judging by the published lists of sicknesses each month in Ackermann’s, one might conclude that malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies played a large part in London sicknesses too, and of course there was also rickets, due to the lack of sun in the city. Especially when children were working inside for all the hours of daylight. It’s a sadder thing today when you’d think people could easily access the internet to find out how to live healthily and well on a low budget.
                And I’m rather proud of my boy….

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