Friday, July 29, 2011

Shelf Space

Oh, those lovely dresses Marissa shows us! They make my little larcenous costumer’s heart go pitter-pat. I’m certain any number of nineteenth-century young ladies had a similar reaction when they saw the prints in their favorite women’s magazine. We’ve talked about some of the ways those dresses became reality. But once you had them, what did you do with them when you weren’t wearing them?

The closets we generally take for granted did not exist in the nineteenth century. Oh, there were rooms for storing things, and a wealthy lady might have a dressing room devoted to her gowns and accoutrements. But the hanger (wire or wooden) wasn’t in wide use until the twentieth century, and most closets were not designed to hold hanging clothing. Instead, you or your maid gently folded your gowns into a clothes press.

I must admit, I had these envisioned all wrong. Somehow I had in my mind what my family calls a hope chest—a large cedar box. I’d also thought they might look a bit like a wardrobe ala The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Thank goodness I’ve never written a scene with great detail on the things, because this week I discovered my error.

Here are some examples of clothes presses. This first one is of the low variety, made of mahogany, dating from the early nineteenth century. Inside the center panels are five sliding trays. You pull them out and lay on your dresses. The drawers are for your fripperies like fans, shawls, and gloves.

Then there’s the higher version, also from early in the century. This is also mahogany, with birds eye maple banding. Looks a bit like a wardrobe, doesn’t it?

However, instead of a space to hang things, you’ll find those pull out drawers again.

Some, however, were quite fanciful. Check out this one, inspired by Chinese influences.

Or this one, from 1840. The door panels are inlaid with ebony, and the drawers are lined with oak.

It also actually has places to hang clothes on either side, although they may have been added later, as they are separate pieces from the clothes press.

They are lovely pieces of furniture, but I can’t help wondering how many I would need. As I have confessed before, I am something of a clothes horse. Think my husband would mind building a dressing room to store all my clothes presses? Or maybe a small house?


Ladybrinx said...

Hmm...thanks for the pictures, I've often wondered why it was called a clothes press. I was also curious as to what they looked like inside and was not aware that they would not be hanging but folded. Very interesting.

Regina Scott said...

You're welcome, Ladybrinx! As I said in the post, this was news to me too. :-)

QNPoohBear said...

I know all about clothes presses thanks to Pleasant Company/American Girl. I drooled a lot over those catalogs and memorized every detail. I never got Felicity's clothes press when it was available. This post makes me wish I had.

I've seen three types in historic homes: highboys, lowboys and chest on chests. Newport, RI was a thriving furniture-making town in the late 18th century

Regina Scott said...

Thanks for the pictures, QNPoohBear! Marissa and I drove right past the Ball and Claw when we went to Newport. (Okay, we stopped in front of it because of a traffic light, and I said, "Do you think I could fit any of that in my suitcase?" and Marissa said, "Doubtful.")

DangAndBlast! said...

They use things like that in India - and my mother-in-law actually designed a built-in one for her new house (in Houston) - for saris, which are better flat than hanging. I fold mine into neat packets, but long shelves are ideal for as few creases as possible.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks! They really are lovely pieces of furniture, so I'm glad to know they're still being used.