The Pembroke table

Handy as the pocket on a shirt, as I drift in to Fresno farming idiom to describe the indispensable piece of household furniture commonly known as the Pembroke table.

One assumes the name derives from its original design and use in a household of the Earls of Pembroke. Offhand, I can’t recall any particular prominence given to Pembroke tables at Wilton, the Palladian-inspired Pembroke manse in Wiltshire. Chippendale’s Director…makes no mention of Pembroke or Wilton, but does provide us with a design remarkably similar to the table illustrated. The design is designated ‘Breakfast table’ and it is presumed, at least in the middle of the 18th century, that is the primary use to which the table was put. Of smallish size, it could either be carried, or more likely, shoved against the wall with leaves dropped, plate no LIII from Chippendale’s Directorinconspicuous when not in use. That castors were a ubiquitous feature of Pembroke tables makes the latter seem likely. Our example pictured above has leather-wheeled castors that would not either scratch a wood floor or tarnish a carpet or floor cloth in the way a metal wheel might.

Smallish in size, but then, its original function was for the service of breakfast in a small room, or closet, adjacent to a larger bedroom. A fair amount of activity took place in rooms known then as closets but we would more likely think of today as a dressing room. That a room was small made it easier to heat and to stay that way, and when one is dressing from the skin out, well, some of my gentle readers may be hardy souls who find frosty exposure in the buff bracing, but not me. As well, that breakfast might be served in the same (warm) room makes a considerable amount of sense, unless one wants to eat one’s eggs and bacon frigidly cold. The table’s frieze drawer was for the storage of napery, precisely in the same way an equivalent drawer would be used on a sideboard. That napkins and a small table cloth might be stored between uses might seem strange, but, frankly, the same soiled linens would be used and used again, and again. This may sound horrible in light of our modern fetish toward hygiene, but one must remember, the 18th century was doubtless a very dirty, smelly age. With cooking odors, smoke, and seldom washed bodies all contributing to the typical domestic pong, that there may have been a grease stain or two (or three or four) on one’s table linen would not have seemed amiss.

One assumes the Pembroke table would have been open for a time after breakfast was consumed. Note the elaborate and rather overstated flattened stretcher on our piece and on the design from Chippendale. Doubtless the tray upon which one had consumed one’s breakfast could then be placed upon the stretcher, to be cleared away later, with the then vacant flat surface functioning very well to support a book, writing implements, or anything that needed a flat surface as the gentleman made his postprandial preparations to meet the rest of the day.

The Pembroke table continues tomorrow.

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