The Amazing Artistry & Ingenuity of the Furniture Enjoyed by 18th Century Aristocrats

What­ev­er did peo­ple do with them­selves all day before social media and stream­ing video? Before TV, film, and radio? If you were most peo­ple in Europe, before var­i­ous rev­o­lu­tions, you worked from dawn to dusk and col­lapsed in bed, with rare hol­i­days to break up the monot­o­ny.

But if you were an aris­to­crat, you not only had the plea­sures of juicy gos­sip, live­ly cor­re­spon­dence, and bawdy nov­els to look for­ward to, but you might also—just as mil­lions do now—encounter such plea­sures while gam­ing.

The gam­ing tech­nol­o­gy of the time was all hand­craft­ed, and said aris­to­crats might find them­selves trad­ing wicked barbs while seat­ed around the height of tech above, a table that unfolds a series of leaves to reveal a felt sur­face for card games, a board for chess or check­ers, and a leather writ­ing sur­face that offers the option of a bookrest, for prop­ping up a scan­dalous book of verse.

If you think that’s impres­sive, the table hasn’t fin­ished yet. It fur­ther opens into a backgam­mon board, with slid­ing lids reveal­ing com­part­ments for game pieces. Then, the whole thing folds back to its size as a small side table, with detach­able legs that can be stored inside it for easy portage.

The ani­mat­ed video of the ulti­mate 18th cen­tu­ry gam­ing sys­tem at the top comes to us from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, demon­strat­ing a piece in their col­lec­tion designed by Ger­man cab­i­net­mak­er David Roent­gen that “once graced the inti­mate inte­ri­or of an aris­to­crat­ic Euro­pean home.” Not to be out­done, the Get­ty Muse­um brings us the 3D ani­ma­tion above of an 18th-cen­tu­ry French mechan­i­cal table, with intri­cate work­ings designed by Jean-François Oeben.

“An afflu­ent lady might spend hours at a fash­ion­able table, engaged in leisure or work,” notes a com­pan­ion video above. It illus­trates the point with a pair of ghost­ly ani­mat­ed hands com­pos­ing a let­ter on the table’s silk writ­ing sur­face.

One can imag­ine these hands spilling the ink while open­ing juniper-scent­ed draw­ers, and prop­ping up the book stand; los­ing their place in a book while search­ing through com­part­ments, ear­ly forms of scrolling or open­ing mul­ti­ple tabs.

We may now car­ry mechan­i­cal tables in our pock­ets and right­ly think of gam­ing sys­tems as por­tals to oth­er worlds, but there’s no deny­ing that these bespoke ances­tors of our devices offered plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty for pleas­ant dis­trac­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ladies & Gen­tle­men Got Dressed in the 18th Cen­tu­ry: It Was a Pret­ty Involved Process

The Sights & Sounds of 18th Cen­tu­ry Paris Get Recre­at­ed with 3D Audio and Ani­ma­tion

Restora­tion and 18th Cen­tu­ry Poet­ry: From Dry­den to Wordsworth (Free Course) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Crispinus says:

    “If you were most peo­ple in Europe, before var­i­ous rev­o­lu­tions, you worked from dawn to dusk and col­lapsed in bed, with rare hol­i­days to break up the monot­o­ny.”

    This is a nice back­drop to dis­cuss the expan­sive leisure of the aris­toc­ra­cy, but per­haps is a bit mis­lead­ing. Most of the peo­ple described were for­bid­den by (pro­tect­ed by?) Sab­bath laws that pro­scribed nor­mal work on one day in sev­en. [Even many enslaved blacks were exempt­ed from many of their nor­mal duties under colo­nial slave codes.] Fur­ther, days vary in length depend­ing upon the time of year. So win­ter was a time of rel­a­tive leisure even amongst many peas­ants. And sum­mer days, being hot and long, were bro­ken up dur­ing the peak of the heat by what has become the Euro­pean “sies­ta”. Final­ly, schol­ar­ly sur­veys of eccle­si­as­ti­cal feast days range from around fif­teen annu­al hol­i­days to as many as two dozen “days off” in some Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries and colonies.

    Admit­ted­ly, though, con­tem­po­rary social com­men­taries of the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies high­light the large tracts of time spent in “diver­sions” amongst those wealthy enough to not work…remarkably sim­i­lar to our own day. Appar­ent­ly there is noth­ing new under the sun.

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