The Table: A Brief History

It may be a simple inanimate object, but we would be lost without the humble table. It has been serving many purposes since the times of ancient Rome and Egypt and comes in a multitude of designs, shapes and sizes.

Four-legged tables were first documented in ancient Egypt. They were mainly used for dining and for playing games. Usually low and made of wood, they were also made of metal or stone. Some tables had three legs, or even just one thick leg in the centre.


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Egyptian tables

The Egyptian gaming tables were used to play a board game called Senet using a board fashioned out of stone. There was also a game called Mehen (alias “game of the snake”), played on a table with a surface carved into the shape of a snake. Although these games are known to have existed, historians are unsure of the exact rules, since there is little documented evidence of how they were played.

Other small tables held plates of food. They were often made of stone and could be ornately carved. Some of these tables were found in ancient tombs and shrines. They were known as “offering tables” and provided food for the afterlife.


Greek and Roman tables

In ancient Greece and Rome, four-legged tables were also used, as were slab-sided tables, which were commonly used as altars. The tables in ancient Rome were very low, as they were used by people seated on couches.

Over the centuries, table heights have risen to coincide with changes in seating. The more recent tables are higher to reflect being used with dining chairs.

In ancient Greece, tables were quite similar to those in Rome, with one central leg, three legs or four legs. They often had a circular top and were used mainly for dining. In historic drawings depicting banquets, some showed diners having a single small table each, rather than collectively using a large table.

In Greece, tables were smaller because it was customary to push them under the bed after use. The Greeks invented a design similar to the modern-day guéridon: the small, highly decorative and circular-topped table. Supported by one or more columns, or human and mythological sculpted figures, they were made of metal (typically silver or bronze), marble or wood, with richly ornate legs.

The Greeks also made large, rectangular tables, while the Romans crafted a semi-circular table called the mensa lunata. This became popular across Italy.


Western tables

In the Western world, the earliest tables were very simple, consisting of wooden boards supported by trestles, dating from the Medieval era. They were erected at meal times and stored away to save space when not in use. They were the predecessor of the modern trestle table.

The long, narrow, trestle tables used for group dining in places such as monasteries were known as refectory tables. Another long Medieval dining table, catering for many people, comprised a number of four-legged tables joined at their feet by sturdy fasteners. These were called “joined tables”. They were huge and often had collapsible drop-leaves to increase their capacity further.

By the 16th century, in Tudor times, dining table legs had become much more ornate and were often crafted with large, bulbous turnings. Over time, single and double pedestal tables evolved. At the same time, tables designed to stand against a wall, rather than in the centre of the room, also appeared. They were made with wall brackets and had only two legs. They were known as console tables.

Similar types of table in the same “family” were pier tables created to occupy the wall space between windows, hall tables and side tables.


Specialist designs

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a table known as a “loo table” was created to play the popular card game of lanterloo, nicknamed “loo”. It had a round or oval top and was also used as a candle-stand, tea table, or small dining table. It typically had a tilting mechanism, so it could be stored when not in use.

The Pembroke table was launched in the 18th century and remained popular throughout the 19th century. It had an oval or rectangular top. Most had at least one drawer and they were designed so they could be moved easily or stored. They were mainly used for serving tea, dining, writing and for other occasional uses.

The worktable was designed in the 18th century to hold sewing implements and materials, providing a convenient place for women who sewed to store everything in one place.

Sewing was something upper-class young ladies were expected to learn as an accomplishment, while it was a way of earning money and repairing the family’s clothing for ordinary working class people. The tables commonly had a rectangular top, folding leaves, and drawers fitted with partitions.

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