How to Identify Antique Dresser Chest Types

Written by susan ward
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Antique dressers began as very simple chests in the medieval era (fifth to 16th centuries). Dressers reached the height of sophistication with 18th century American Philadelphia-made cabinets-on-chests. The terminology for identifying dressers is not consistent across time periods, countries, styles, or makers. However, a few basic terms can be applied. Ask yourself a series of questions to determine what type of dresser or chest it is.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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  1. 1

    Determine whether the furniture is a single piece without drawers that opens from the top. Depending on the time period and country of origin, this item is a coffer, a cassone, or a chest. These chests were a common furniture piece from the Middle Ages forward. Royal families packed all belongings in chests as they moved from castle to castle. The very earliest chests had leather hinges. Later, metal smiths made the hinges, usually from brass.

  2. 2

    Note whether the chest has horizontal drawers. This furniture type is referred to as a chest of drawers, a dresser, commode, or a bureau. It may sit on a base, on feet, or on short legs. More elaborate, two-piece chest of drawers sets are chests-on-chests. Chests of drawers, first built in the 17th century, were made from solid wood. In the 18th century, they often were veneered.

  3. 3

    Observe whether the chest of drawers has a bowed front, and possibly bowed sides. This type of furniture is a bombe chest. Originally, made in the 18th century, bombe chests were a favourite of wealthy, early American families in New England. In Europe, bombe chests often had marble tops but simpler American fashion tastes did not favour the use of marble.

  4. 4

    Note whether the chest is raised up and sitting on a wooden stand. This furniture type is called a cabinet-on-stand or a vargueno, depending on the time period and country of origin. Often, these furniture pieces have both drawers and doors. The base stands might be simple or very elaborate, often painted, gilded or with inlay decoration. First built in the 16th century, these cabinets-on-stand remained popular into the 18th century. Cabinets-on-stands were more popular in Europe than in America.

  5. 5

    Observe whether the furniture item is made of two pieces with drawers in the bottom piece and two cabinet doors for the top piece. This is a cabinet-on-chest. This type of furniture evolved from other cabinet furniture at the end of the 17th century. Cabinets-on-chests, made in and around Philadelphia, had carved decorations of scrolls, shells and birds. A few major American museums display exemplary examples of these Philadelphia cabinets-on-chests.

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