Though essentially a practical piece of furniture, a chest of drawers can also be a very handsome one, a showpiece of the decorative techniques popular at the time it was made.
In the Middle Ages and later, clothes were kept in plain box chests. Some, known as dower chests, had a drawer in the base. By the middle of the 17th century, tall, narrow, oak-panelled chests of four drawers had appeared. Basic, four-square and solid, such chests continued to be made as 'country' furniture well into the 19th century.
Top 18th-century cabinetmakers saw the chest as an opportunity to flex their decorative muscles. The drawer fronts provided a wonderful field for marquetry and decorative inlay, while the introduction of the wavy serpentine front in 1730 and the elegantly swelling bow front around 1760 helped make the chest of drawers a drawing-room piece.
Walnut and, later, mahogany veneers were used over a base of pine, though the drawer linings continued to be made of oak, and the brass handles were fitted with hand-made screws. At the beginning of the century chests of drawers were put on stands, and later they
stood on bun feet, bracket feet or a plinth.
The typical 18th-century chest was made with four flights of single drawers, while from the Regency period on, they tended to have two drawers in the top flight. Five flights is a Victorian fashion. The Regency period also saw the re-emergence of flat-fronted chests, though bow-fronted examples continued to be made through the 19th century.
The best 19th-century chests were veneered in highly-figured San Domingo or Cuban mahogany over a plainer mahogany carcase, though other decorative finishes, such as satinwood and rosewood, were also applied. As the population grew in wealth and numbers, so did the demand for cheaper pieces. This demand was met by pine chests that were covered with thin veneers, painted or stained. Pine was also used for the drawer linings.
Even a relatively plain, well-proportioned chest of drawers can be an elegant and useful piece of furniture, providing both storage space and a handy top surface.
Chests made before about 1800 are rare and, especially in the case of extravagantly shaped and decorated Georgian examples, can be extremely expensive. Victorian chests made in pastiches of 18th century and earlier styles are much more readily available and affordable, and can be found at large and small auctions, antiques and second-hand furniture dealers and in house sales.
Look for well-veneered pieces in good condition, preferably with their original handles, which will usually be stamped brass drops or wooden
knobs. Look at the inside of the drawers to find holes where one handle has been removed and another fitted. All but the cheapest examples will have had cock-beading, a thin half-round moulding, applied all around the edges of the drawer fronts.
Many oak chests were made in the 19th century, their frames constructed from genuine old oak wall panels and carved timbers from discarded furniture, particularly old beds. Beware of any supposedly
17th century furniture that is screwed together, or fixed with machine-made nails, rather than dowels and dovetails.
Even Victorian pieces will have been altered by subsequent generations. Large, imposing Victorian bow fronts were cut down to imitate Sheraton styles, while many cheaper Victorian chests have recently lost their veneers because of the craze for stripped pine.