The Dresser by Any Other Name

Thank you everyone for your encouraging words since my birthday. Not just the birthday wishes but all that you said to launch me onto my new year. Sometimes we don’t see so much the purpose for our lives until we are older, but our reaching so many of you around the world has been an amazing reward, not just for me but everyone that has brought this vision for training to pass. Yes, even on my  birthday we filmed. You see every day counts and for me, filming on my birthday was the icing on the birthday cake. It’s the filming is the latest project I’ve mentioned in making the prototype from pine, which of course is the dresser. Once again thank you everyone.

It was interesting to see the take-up on my using the name dresser to describe the chest of drawers though. The Welsh might make or stake their claim as to its origin, and that’s doubtful, it being an English word and not Welsh, but then so too the Irish, the Scots and then regions of England too. Even counties had their versions making the term vernacular and so I am not sure if it really matters. Look up Lancashire dresser here to see what I mean. Or perhaps Pembrokeshire dresser here. These are counties not towns and each county had its version. I understand the confusion because whatever its shape and size, a dresser was what was used to dress whatever needed dressing. The terms kitchen dresser, hall dresser determine more the location of a piece than its function, shape, style or size, but in the hall of a house it would indeed be used for dressing before leaving the house and so house family outdoor  clothing. In the kitchen it would be the original kitchen cabinet or perhaps the sideboard or simply cupboard. You would not find a Welsh dresser in the bedroom of a house in the original use of the piece and in the American use of the term you would not find a dresser in the kitchens of today except as an accent or conversation piece. Looking at the English dresser it can be seen that a dresser could be a long table with drawers, a cabinet with drawers or indeed a Welsh-dresser type with an upper level displaying and holding plates and such.

It is a strange thing the ownership of titles. I look at some dressers from regions of Britain like Wales, compare them to say an English or Irish dresser and see little if any differences in some cases. Is it that where it was made gave it its name or is it that a Welshman or Irishman made it? Was it the style itself? Look through books on vernacular furniture and I am sure you will find all kinds of incontrovertible evidence to support your theories, but at the end of the day, culture is changed by the absorption and release of external influences that once internalised and integrated into a culture define who or what it is. Because I lived and worked in the USA for half of my working life I learned to understand the term dresser differently than if I had remained in England. When a customer came and asked me for a dresser I needed to rethink the image conjured up by my mind. Customers were not looking for a large plate rack stacked onto a sideboard with two or three drawers and meant for use in a dining room but a neat chest of drawers. Neither were they looking for a dressing table either. So I learned to flex and bend, to absorb and create differently. My customers liked my “cute” Englishisms but more importantly they liked the drawings that told them what I was preparing to build for them because they could see they were getting what they wanted and of course that we were all on the same page.
So the exchange of dialogue over my last article using the term dresser has been interesting and of course stimulating to the point of being provocative. I love the versatility of my craft. I also like the fact that what qualifies your view of something, almost anything, can be quite different to say someone else’s, depending on experiences influenced by culture. There can be no doubt that American Windsor chairs are very much more graceful than the English Windsors, but mostly in both camps they carry the same names such as sack-back Windsor, continuous arm Windsor, comb-back Windsor and so on. So here we see that nomenclature depicts shape and style and not country of origin, though in its origin, no matter what, Windsor will always remain a region of England.

13 comments on “The Dresser by Any Other Name

  1. Furniture names – made me laugh! When I was studying Irish, I came across a sentence – I knew the meaning of all the words except the last word: He put the book in the (cofrá). So I looked up cofrá. Cofrá = ‘press’ ‘He put the book in the press.’ The ‘press’? What the heck is a press and why would you put a book in it? (Probably should mention here that I’m from New Jeresey.) So now I had to translate the (English) word ‘press’ – After searching around some more and some cross referencing, I found out a ‘press’ is a cupboard. I know what a cupboard is, but I would say ‘cabinet’, not cupboard. So a ”cabinet’ is a ‘cupboard’ is a ‘press’ is a cofrá. Found that when translating, Irish English is sometimes different that British English, and different still than American English. – What a wonderful, interesting, colorful world.

    • Many moons ago when I was doing Basic Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, USA I was confused by some of the lyrics to our marching and running cadence calls. A few made reference to troops being put in the “Linen Press”. I knew a press was a cupboard and I wondered why the hell soldiers would be put in a cabinet with the sheets and towels.

      I think I’d been in the army for a year or more before I realized I was supposed to be chanting “Lean and Rest”, a position for doing push ups!

      Thank you for your story Lee. I hadn’t thought of that in a long time.

  2. Even here in the States, the name changes with location and purpose. I would call a dresser that holds fixings and silverware in a dining room a bureau, not a dresser. In fact, if it isn’t used to carry closes, I would call it a bureau. Customs? Upbringing? Thankfully, everyone will get one’s meaning accompanied by the context used. To the point, I think the history behind the names and labels gives life to meaning and their purpose.

  3. Here in North Carolina, USA I occaisionally see a “Chest of Drawes” advertised on craigslist. This is the phonetic version of “Chest of Drawers” when spoken in the local accent. People grew up hearing it this way without ever connecting “drawes” to “drawers” so now we have a new piece of furniture here in Down East North Carolina.

  4. Interesting. As an American who grew up in the mid-Atlantic states, I never considered “dresser” to be anything other than a chest of drawers to be kept in a bedroom for clothes.

  5. When I read Lee Arthur’s ‘He put the book in the press.’ the first image I had was a mechanical device to compress and flatten the book. An old friend did book binding and had such a press for his work. Another meaning referring to books could be as a press for printing or publishing the book. I’m sure most living in New Zealand/ Australia would see the word “press” the same as I described.

    As has been said above, same word, different place, different meaning.

  6. Hello Paul. In relation to furniture names, the name of this in spanish has nothing to do with “dressing”. Its name in spanish is “aparador”, was normally in the living rooms, and it was hardly used to keep clothes. It’s been a long time that I see one of these in a house, but they were very common when I was a boy.

    • Growing up, there absolutely was an “aparador” in our family dining room to keep nicer silverware and dishes…. and a “comoda” (comfortable one) was used to keep clothes in the bedrooms. I suspect aparador has to do with “parar” (stand) as in stand the dishes to display them but I am speculating on the etymology of the word here.

  7. Currently trying to build a 5 drawer chest of drawers for The Dungeon Shop. Have a lot of boxed items to stash out of the way, along with a few tools sets. Would this be called a Shop Dresser?

    Resawing down a bunch of 4×4 and 2×4 pine to make the 4/4 parts for the case’s sides…frame and panel, no less. Nothing fancy, just stowage…

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