Small tables, made to be placed against a wall, were an important part of the High Victorian style of cluttered interior decoration.
Few Victorian rooms were without a side table, made to be placed against a wall and carry lamps, clocks, potted plants, vases,
ornaments and other knick-knacks. They could be distinguished from other small tables by the way one of the long sides was left free of drawers and was not overhung by the top, so the table could be pushed flush against the wall.
Side tables have their origins in the 15th century, but particularly attracted 18th-century cabinetmakers, who saw in them an opportunity to exercise their decorative skills.
The tables began therefore to be made more for display than for use. The legs were carved or turned according to the prevailing fashion of the day, while the top, frieze and drawer fronts boasted highly figured veneers, marquetry, penwork and so on.
Victorian versions took this exuberant decoration to sometimes vulgar extremes, although the 19th-century fashion for covering every surface with heavy drapes meant that the Victorians also produced some much neater, plainer versions.
One special form of 'three-sided' table was not made to be placed against the wall. The sofa table was intended to be pushed against the high back of a sofa, and first appeared around 1780. The main distinguishing feature is the drop-leaf flap on each short side.
Sofa tables generally have two drawer fronts on each long side. Some have dummies on the back, but others had one drawer and one dummy on each side.
Early sofa tables were on two 'cheval' supports - uprights dividing into splayed legs joined by a high stretcher. Later ones tended to be supported on a central pillar. Sofa tables went out of fashion towards the middle of the 19th century and were rarely made after that, except as self-conscious reproductions.
These days the sofa table may often be used as a side table, standing against a wall, since the average home does not have enough space available to put a table behind the sofa.
The sofa table is often confused with the Pembroke table or breakfast table, from which it developed, but the sofa table is generally slightly larger than the Pembroke, and has a stretcher as opposed to four freestanding legs.
Side tables and sofa tables of the Georgian and Regency periods are collector's pieces, and are unlikely to be found offered for sale except by specialist dealers or at auction. You are much more likely to find mid- and late Victorian examples. The quality of these is extremely varied.
The majority of side tables from the 18th or 19th centuries were made for halls and drawing rooms and were veneered in mahogany. Cheaper pine side tables were made to stand in kitchens, where they served a purpose more practical than decorative.
Like all furniture intended for the servants' quarters, they lacked any sort of ornament, except, perhaps, for turned legs.
Look closely at the flaps on a sofa table. Those with a rule joint are more valuable. A rule joint is one where the raised moulding on the edge of the fixed top is matched by an identical but concave moulding on the flap, so that when the flap is raised the two fit snugly together.
Another way that you can recognize inferior, factory-made sofa tables, which date from around 1815 onwards, is by their coarsely turned stretchers and thin, often poorly applied veneers. Also, their drawers tended to be lined with inexpensive strips of machine cut pine rather than the traditional oak.