Antique tables as we know them evolved gradually after the appearance of the refectory table in the early medieval period. The word ‘table’ is derived from the Latin ‘tabula’. Later in medieval English the table was known as a ‘bord’. The oldest tables or platforms were used simply to keep food off the ground. Many tables in archaic times were constructed of marble, stone or metal and had mainly ceremonial functions rather than practical uses. The Chinese, some 600 years ago had developed tables for writing and painting.
The earliest antique tables that you are likely to encounter today will be those used for dining in the monastic ‘refectory’ or for great banquets given by Royalty and the nobility. These ‘refectory tables’ were constructed out of a simple plank supported on trestle ends or just tree stumps.
In the 15th century trestle end refectory tables were constructed by pegging the pieces together. This made them easy to dismantle for transportation. It was the custom of the wealthy to take their furniture, plate and tapestries with them on their travels.
Fashions gradually changed in the 16th century from communal dining at refectory tables into smaller more intimate groups. We see a great number of innovations at this time , such as:
Smaller dining tables.
Tables for serving and/or the display of wealth.
Library, writing and drum tables.
The 17th century saw the development of the gateleg table with an oval top, the ends of which folded down. These had the advantage of being easily stored and sometimes were fitted with a cutlery drawer.
From the mid 18th century we witness a huge selection of tables to suit every occasion. These were constructed in a vast choice of exotic and often costly woods imported by the sailing ships of the East India Company. These new arrivals included mahogany, rosewood, calamander, amboyna, satinwood. The domestic woods such as oak, elm, walnut, sycamore, mulberry and yew were also still readily available.
In the antiques trade the 18th Century would be most favoured by collectors of antique tables due to the abundant supply. Antique tables from the 17th Century also find favour with collectors but the choice becomes ever more limited.