Where did the Coffee Table Come From?

Written by Lori Thiessen

The coffee table seems a ubiquitous piece of furniture to contemporary eyes. However, the coffee table arrived fairly recently on the home furnishing scene. According to a website called The Origins and Development of the Coffee Table, the coffee table was a variation on something called the tea table, or a tripod style table with claw feet and a hinged table top.

But it wasn’t until the late Victorian age when the coffee table as we know it came into being. There was a craze during the 1870’s and 1880’s for all things Asian, particularly all things Japanese. Think of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

The low tables that typify Japanese furniture became Anglicized and it became the long low table that we are familiar with today.

The function of the tea table, sofa table (the high table that sits behind the sofa), end table and coffee table are all more or less the same. It’s a place to put your tea cup or coffee cup between sips and keep the coffee pot and other things like cream, sugar, spoons, or coffee cake within reach.

The living room or drawing room is a less formal place than a dining room to have a small meal like afternoon coffee or tea. Though those of you who have had afternoon tea know that it does have a formality all its own.

Having coffee in the comfort of a space like the living room, creates a space that invites conversation. I think that’s why places like Starbucks provides not only straight back chairs and regular café tables but also comfy club chair style seating with small low coffee tables.

In the last few years however, the coffee table seems to be an endangered species. There have been the large rectangular upholstered ottomans that have taken over from the more traditional style coffee tables. I have found that these new enlarged ottomans are not nearly as practical as the more table-like coffee tables, even if you use a large serving tray to provide a hard level surface.

I think that part of the reason why coffee tables were such a late innovation in home décor is because coffee and especially the coffeehouse, was considered the domain of men. The home was a feminine space and tea which was more refined was the hot beverage of choice. Tea tables were part of the domestic furniture scene since 1750 whereas coffee tables have only been in existence since the 1870’s.

Q: Do you have a coffee table as part of your home furniture? What do you use it for mainly?

Until Next Time,

May your coffee always be freshly brewed!

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