- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Picture the beautiful heroine from an old black-and-white movie brushing her long hair while seated at her vanity. The table is filled with mirrors, brushes, hairpins and makeup.

Today, the vanity table has practically vanished from most contemporary homes, says James Kelly, director of museums for the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

“If you look at any movie in the 1930s, you’ll see any female movie star in a bedroom with a dressing table, often with a lace skirt on it and mirrored,” Mr. Kelly says. “It was a place where you sat and did your makeup and nails. Now women just tend to do that in the bathroom. Vanity tables or dressing tables aren’t very commonplace nowadays.”

With changes in lifestyle and technology, the items used in the home have changed and adapted. Some things even have become obsolete.

“Wardrobes are a form of furniture that you very seldom see today,” Mr. Kelly says. “It was a piece of furniture that was used instead of a closet, like in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’ People kept a lot of clothes in the furniture. Ceilings are not as high in houses today. It’s difficult to navigate them up the stairs.”

In the dining room, Empire sideboards, rather grand pieces of furniture, held serving dishes during a meal, Mr. Kelly says. The sideboards were a way to show wealth and display silver and fancy dishes. Today, most food is served from a counter or is in serving dishes on the table.

The square grand piano also seems to have gone by the wayside, Mr. Kelly says. The kidney-shaped grand piano has come into fashion, most likely because of technological changes.

“A square grand piano is not what we think of as an upright piano,” Mr. Kelly says. “The whole piece was big and heavy.”

Candle stands may still be used today, but not for the same reasons they were used decades ago, says Joanna Church, collections manager at the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville.

In generations past, a candle stand was a small, round table used for displaying candles. Even though candles are no longer needed as the main source of light, a candle stand could just as easily hold a teacup or other objects, making reproductions of candle stands still popular with certain customers.

“No one goes into a store anymore and says, ‘I need a candle stand,’ ” Ms. Church says. “It would be more like, ‘I need a coffee table to put my magazines on it.’ They would ask for a functional piece of furniture, unless they are trying to achieve a look.”

Decades ago, pier tables, narrow tables designed to stand between windows against the wall, also were popular, she says. Some pier tables had mirrors under the tabletop against the wall, designed to reflect light into the room.

“This was before we had nice, bright 75-watt bulbs,” Ms. Church says. “You really don’t need mirrors under the tables anymore.”

The pie safe, a closed cupboard with doors formed from hand-pierced pieces of tin, is another example of furniture that isn’t needed because of changes in technology, she says. The cupboards were used to keep bugs away from food but still allow airflow. Today, pie safes sometimes are used in kitchens for decorative purposes.

Similarly, canopy beds are still used, but not to protect people from bugs in the summer or cold air in the winter, she says.

“Furniture follows people stylistic changes,” Ms. Church says. “Furniture can be made more efficiently with technology.”

With the improvement of air conditioning and electric fans, fan chairs aren’t needed anymore, says Carol Borchert Cadou, the Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

In his study, Washington had a Windsor chair fitted with an apparatus that blew cooling breezes on the person in the chair. A foot pedal operated the device.

“He wanted to have a room where he could retreat from it all,” Ms. Cadou says. “He was able to have some quiet moments in the study without needing anyone to provide his cooling.”

The Argand lamp, a type of oil lamp, was on the cutting edge in Washington’s day but is a collector’s item today. In addition, fire buckets have been replaced with fire engines, and dishwashers have replaced wine rinsers. Each home once had a fire bucket that would be used to help put out neighborhood fires, and wine rinsers held wineglasses so they could be rinsed between courses of a meal.

With the advancement of modern bathrooms, the close stool or commode chair also is no longer necessary, says Tara Gleason Chicirda, associate curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg.

“It was an armchair or easy chair where you lift up the seat cushion, and underneath there is a potty or commode,” Ms. Chicirda says. “They didn’t have bathrooms in the house.”

Because fireplaces were the main source of heat in the 18th century, fire screens were commonplace. A fire screen is a rectangular textile on a frame or wooden panel, mounted on a pole with a tripod base, she says.

“If you are sitting close to the fire, you don’t want direct heat on your face,” Ms. Chicirda says. “The fire screen would block the extreme heat from your face while you’re sitting by the fire. It could also be used for drafts in the same way.”

In addition, changes in technology have allowed changes outside the home. Without lawn mowers, people would still be cutting the lawn with a large sickle, says Laura Viancour, coordinator of garden programs at Colonial Williamsburg.

“A lawn was a symbol of wealth in the 1700s,” Ms. Viancour says. “You had to have the resources to maintain the turf. Once the lawn mower was invented, lawns became something more people could have. You didn’t need a large labor pool to keep it maintained.”

Drinking from a personal cup was considered a symbol of wealth at the beginning of the 18th century, says Janine Skerry, curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg.

For the most part, communal dining was standard. The multihandled cup or communal cup had three or more handles, designed for passing from hand to hand. Having each person use an individual cup did not become widespread until the second quarter of the 18th century.

“Household items tell us so much about ourselves,” Ms. Skerry says. “It’s the everyday activities of life that reveal so much about people, even today. An act as simple as eating will reveal so much about a person.”

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