Women have been doing various kinds of needlework for millenia. Initially, most of that work was utilitarian, primarily making and mending clothing and household textiles. But as the centuries progressed, more and more women, particularly ladies of the upper classes, began to enjoy a number of different needlework techniques as a form of recreation and a means of creative expression. It was only natural that those ladies would want a place to keep their needlework safe, clean and readily at hand. By the Regency, most avid needleworkers had acquired a special table in which they could secure and protect their current needlework project. Such tables might offer a number of different options by which to embroider a tale of romance set in our favorite decade.
Of work and "pouch" tables through the Regency . . .
From at least the seventeenth century, those ladies who could afford to do fine needlework kept their ongoing projects in a special basket made for the purpose. A few ladies did use boxes, but baskets served the same purpose, were just as sturdy and were much lighter to carry. These baskets usually had a fitted lid with some kind of catch arrangement which allowed them to be securely locked when they were closed. This type of locking basket was necessary since fine textiles, all being hand-made at that time, were extremely valuable. Though the locks on these baskets would not have defeated a determined thief, they would protect the lady’s handiwork from casual misappropriation, such as theft by a servant or visitor. Women of the lower classes, whose needlework was principally utilitarian, generally kept their ongoing projects in a simple bag, usually made of canvas or other sturdy cloth. These women, unlike affluent ladies, had little concern that anyone would try to steal their mundane and every-day needlework.
By the mid-eighteenth century, more and more upper-class ladies were becoming dissatisfied keeping their needlework projects in baskets. Many wanted a larger working area with more extensive storage. At about that same time, the more upscale cabinet-makers in London, and in the larger cities across Britain, were developing more and more specialty forms of furniture in order to please their customers and help increase their trade. Creating elegant fine wood work tables for affluent ladies was an ideal offering. Those first work tables, which began to appear about 1770, were very simple in concept. They were essentially small tables, usually with a shelf below the table top where the lady could store her needlework basket. Some also had a second shelf, either above or below the basket shelf, which could be used to store other needlework supplies or notions. The table top itself made a very convent area on which to work, or to lay out the supplies and notions needed while the lady was stitching. However, as the century progressed, a number avid needlewomen became more demanding and several of those cabinet-makers became more inventive.
In the last decades of the eighteenth century, a number of cabinet-makers created work tables with tops that were hinged, and could be lifted to reveal a shallow space below in which sewing notions and needlework implements could be stored. Other cabinet-makers began to incorporate a shallow drawer beneath the work table top, also for the storage of needlework implements and notions. Since many of those notions and implements were quite valuable, the hinged table-top or the drawer was usually fitted with a small lock. It may be that the hinged table top gave some cabinet-makers ideas, as a number of ladies work tables began to be made as combination needlework and writing tables. Such combination tables often had two shallow drawers, one for writing implements and one for needlework notions. The more elaborate tables had drawers with special fittings to hold the various small items they were intended to contain. Such drawers were then lined with silk. Most work table drawers with special fittings were lined with silk right through the Regency. It was not until the 1830s that work table drawers were generally lined with paper, if they had any lining at all.
The table-tops in a number of the combination work tables were made to function as a writing slope, which could be raised or lowered as needed. [Author’s Note: When writing with a quill pen, the only type of pen available during the Regency, placing the paper on a sloping surface made it much easier to write clearly and legibly. In addition to making the writing easier to see, the slope would make the ink would flow more slowly, and therefore, more evenly, off the nib of the pen if it was held at an angle. That is why so many writing desks, and even portable writing boxes, included a sloping writing surface, many of which were adjustable.] It must also be noted that some people liked to use these adjustable sloped surfaces as a support for their books, while they were reading. For that reason, some of these combination tables were described as needlework/writing/reading tables.
By the 1790s, a new feature began to appear in a number of ladies work tables. The locked work basket on a shelf was replaced with an elegant silk work bag which was built right into the table. This colorful silk bag was usually lined with a sturdy cloth, like a finely woven linen, and was fitted into a wooden frame at the top. This frame, like a drawer, could be pulled out to provide access to the contents of the work bag. When the wooden frame holding the silk-covered work bag was pushed back into the table, the frame had a small lock by which it could be locked it in place so that the contents of the silk work bag were secure. By the turn of the nineteenth century, a few cabinet-makers introduced a work table with a work bag which was comprised of a few yards of pleated silk which covered a wooden frame or a complete wooden box in which the needlework could be stored. As with other types of work tables, this type of work bag could be slid into the table and locked in place when the needleworker had finished working the piece.
In 1803, the noted cabinet-maker, Thomas Sheraton, published The Cabinet Directory, which was basically an illustrated catalog of his furniture designs. One of the illustrations in the book was of an elegant ladies work table with a firm, pleated work bag suspended below the table top. Sheraton labeled this as a "pouch table." For that reason, Sheraton is sometimes given credit for inventing the ladies work table. In actual fact, work tables had been produced and used for at least three decades before The Cabinet Directory was published. However, Sheraton does appear to be the first cabinet-maker to apply the name "pouch table" to these specialty tables. Of course, his publication widely circulated the name "pouch table" among the general public. Therefore, it was not long before several other cabinet-makers adopted that name for some of the work tables they produced.
By the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, quite a number of these pouch or work tables were made so that they could serve multiple purposes. Even before the eighteenth century came to an end, a large percentage of these tables were made as combination needlework/writing tables. By the turn of the nineteenth century, people began to want fewer pieces of furniture in the majority of their rooms. They also wanted those pieces of furniture they did have to serve multiple functions. Therefore, a number of upscale cabinet-makers began making work or pouch tables which could also be used as game tables, as well as for writing and needlework. In that way, a lady could write letters, work on her embroidery or play a game, using only one table. This was particularly convenient for ladies who had a private sitting room or parlour which was not very large, or for ladies who liked more open space in their rooms.
When a work or pouch table was also made to serve as a game table, that might be accomplished in several different ways. The table top might have a double-sided surface, with a checkerboard on one side and a backgammon board on the other. In most versions, the game board top could be lifted out and flipped over in order to turn the desired surface up. In other tables, the game board was double-sided, but could pulled out from under the table top like a drawer. It could be pulled all the way out in order to turn it over in order to expose the other side. Some tables also had candle slides which could be pulled out to hold candlesticks when the table was in use during the evening. These combination tables typically had multiple drawers, to hold needlework notions, writing implements and game pieces. Most of these combination tables could be used to play draughts, chess, backgammon, along with loo, whist or other card games.
Morgan and Sanders was one of the first furniture-making firms to advertise these combination tables to the public. In the June 1811 issue of Ackermann’s Repository, an illustration of a "Lady’s Work Table" was published. The piece was described as " a lady’s backgammon work-table" which was "made of fashionable Brazil wood, beautifully inlaid." It was noted that this was "a very elegant and ornamental piece of furniture for a drawing room or boudoir" and it could serve multiple functions, such as a reading and writing table, as well as a game or work table. The writing surface could be slid off, to reveal a backgammon board and a chess/draught board. The work bag, in the shape of half a cylinder, was covered with pleated silk and was fitted into a wooden frame which could be slid back into the base of the table top. The firm of Morgan and Sanders is stated to be "the inventors and manufacturers of this elegant article."
Though they were not the inventors of the work table, Morgan and Sanders carried the development of the combination-style table to perhaps its greatest complexity and elegance. Quite possibly the most elaborate combination work table made by Morgan and Sanders was made in 1815, following the design of their Pitt’s Globe and Writing Desk. In their first version of a needlework table, the upper half of the globe section was empty and rotated beneath the lower section, where all of the needlework implements and notions were stored, along with a large space for her current stitchery project. A few years later, Morgan and Sanders developed an even more complex combination table which could be used as both a work table and writing desk. In that version of the design, the upper section of the globe could be raised and tipped backward. That section might have some form of decoration and/or fittings for writing implements and needlework notions. The lower half of the globe was fitted with a removable writing surface, the space below serving as the lady’s work bag.
Early in the Regency, several other furniture makers also began to offer their own versions of these finely-made and modish combination work tables, and most of them had a steady stream of interested customers. Many upper-class Regency ladies, even those who were not avid needleworkers, often had a pouch or work table in their bedchamber or private sitting room. In addition to being very useful, these tables were quite fashionable, and therefore, something of a status symbol. For that reason, some ladies chose not to hide them away in their private sitting room or parlor. Instead, they kept them in the drawing room, where they would be seen by visitors, thereby demonstrating that lady’s good taste and style to anyone who entered the room. Since these tables were typically also game tables, their location in the drawing room was quite convenient, should some of the family or their guests, wish to play a few hands of cards, backgammon, or any of the other games for which the work table was equipped. In addition, some of these tables had drop leaves which could be raised when needed, in order to double the surface of the table. Tables of this design, when kept in the drawing room, were sometimes used to serve tea, giving them yet another purpose.
Of course, those Regency ladies who truly enjoyed needlework, in what ever form, might very well keep their work table close, in their bedchamber or private sitting room, despite the growing fashion to show it off more publicly. Regardless of where it was kept, a lady’s work table often became a social focal point, as it was very common for a woman to invite her friends to her home for an afternoon of stitchery. The guests would usually bring their own needlework projects and would sit around the work table stitching, often while someone read aloud from a popular new novel or published play. Should the hostess offer her guests tea and/or other refreshments, they might also be served from her work table.
Morgan and Sanders, as well as several other upscale furniture makers, produced multiple versions of these elegant combination work tables for ladies. And many of those craftsmen, in addition to Morgan and Sanders, included at least one or two secret compartments in their work tables. Since all of these pieces were bespoke and made by hand, the lady who commissioned the table could specify the size, location and operation of any secret compartments which were to be built into her new work table. These hidden compartments could be used by their owners to conceal precious small objects or perhaps a diary or love letters which they wished to keep to themselves. There is some indication that the ladies whose work tables had secret compartments which were in use were more often kept in that lady’s bedchamber or private sitting room, rather than exposed in more public rooms like the drawing room.
Dear Regency Authors, will you gift one or more of your female characters with an elegant work table or combination table in an upcoming romance? Might your heroine’s husband, who has long been impressed by her fine needlework, buy her an elegant work table as a gift? Will his mother, who does not approve of her daughter-in-law, carp about the fact that so much money has been spent on such a newfangled piece of furniture, when, in the old lady’s day, a basket was considered perfectly adequate for storing needlework? How will the hero come to the defense of his wife? Perhaps a very snooty, status-conscious woman gets herself a very fine combination work table, which she has placed prominently in her drawing room to be sure everyone who comes to visit will see it. Naturally, she has no talent for needlework. What will happen when an important person, whose attention and favor she desperately wants, asks to see her most recent stitchery project? Then again, perhaps the heroine uses a secret compartment in her work table to store the promise ring which the hero gave her, against her parents’ wishes, before he went off to fight at Waterloo? How else might a work or a pouch table add some historical embellishment to a Regency romance?