The clothes press, a very solid piece of furniture designed to keep folded clothes clean and neat in a series
of shelves and drawers, was beautifully made and can still provide useful storage space today.
The clothes press, the forerunner of the modern-day wardrobe, was a very practical piece of furniture. It was developed
in the early 1600s when cloth was a relatively expensive and fragile commodity and clothes had to be very carefully stored.
Typically, the clothes press had an upright cupboard, with two doors enclosing shelves, mounted on a base containing drawers. The term
prese or 'pressour' was first used to describe it in the 17th century.
Presses at this time were generally of oak and were sturdily constructed with relatively little decoration.
By the middle of the 18th century, furniture makers were producing numerous designs for what Chippendale called a 'commode clothes press'.
These were made of mahogany and had shelves of fragrant cedar wood which was thought to repel the clothes moth.
Chippendale himself liked to use marbled paper to line the shelves of his presses. The exterior was often elaborately carved and this was increasingly the case in the 19th century.
The true clothes press, with drawer section and fitted cupboard, continued to be made alongside the wardrobe throughout the whole of the 19th century, but, like the wardrobe, it got ever larger.
In the Victorian period, hybrid pieces, with fitted shelves and compartments behind one door and hanging space behind the other door, were also made.
The larger presses were to cater for the increasing number of clothes that people wore.
By around 1830 a lady of even moderate fashion was wearing three changes of clothes every day; an informal morning dress, a smarter outfit for paying and receiving calls in the afternoon, and evening wear.
In addition, there had to be space to store voluminous quantities of warm winter clothing.
Whether or not a family used a hanging wardrobe or a press depended on their attitude to their clothes. Hanging clothes from a peg or hook for a long period distorted their
shape, at least until the clothes hanger was invented in the 1890s.
Clothes that were not needed for a time were generally stored folded.
The interior fittings of a press became ever more complex as the 19th century progressed, catering for the Victorians' taste for meticulous categorization.
As well as the sliding drawers, small compartments with their own doors and various other small refinements were added, on the principle of 'a place for everything and everything in its place'.
Both top clothes and underclothes were stored in the clothes press. All items were carefully folded and the Victorians usually kept their whites and colours apart, in neatly labelled compartments.
For most people this will be a one-off purchase, rather than the start of a growing collection.
It pays therefore to buy a good quality piece that you will be happy living with. Check it over carefully before buying, looking at the quality of workmanship.
Check hinges, locks, shelf-runners and handles.
Shelf runners have often been removed or are broken. Brass fittings, such as drawer handles, should all match.
Locks in the drawers and cupboard doors have often lost their keys.
Mahogany panels on older pieces, especially those subjected to the drying effect of central heating,
may be split. This is not necessarily serious but do check that they are not warped as this will cause doors and drawers to stick.
The Victorians were prone to add carving to oak furniture to improve it.
Original carving tends to be freer, with tool marks still showing. And early carvers were not always concerned with symmetry, so if a frieze ends in mid-lunette at the edge, it is usually original.
Pieces with inlaid marquetry panels are likely to be Edwardian alterations.
Original fittings add value; many were removed in the 19th century to keep presses up to date. A brass rail for clothes hangers is definitely out of place in any piece before 1890 (clothes hangers hadn't been invented).