The storage chest is generally acknowledged to be one of the first pieces of true furniture and was surely the definitive article of furniture throughout Medieval Europe. During this period, European society was remarkably unsettled, with even the nobility regularly moving from manor to manor. Anything that was movable and unattended was quickly stolen, so all the family’s possessions – often even the windows and doors – would be packed up and carted along. It is not surprising that wealthier families owned hundreds of chests.
As the Middle Ages came to a close and life moved toward the more settled society of the Renaissance, the chest evolved from what was primarily a traveling container to a storage container with secondary display function. Domed tops, excellent for shedding rain, flattened. Feet, which were easily broken during travel, served to raise the chest’s contents above the dirt and damp.
By the 14th century, a single drawer had been added to the chest. Was this an adaptation of the storage boxes which had long been used to protect delicate or valuable articles within a chest? In the 15th century, dovetail joinery appeared as an improved method of attaching ends to sides, and within 100 years, we find all-drawer chests (thus the name “chest of drawers”). The earlier examples retain carrying handles and rest in separate bases, easily removed for transport.
It was the nobility and the wealthy urban merchants who drove the development of case furniture, and in the 17th century domestic woods like walnut, oak, and pine were joined by exotics such as mahogany and rosewood. By the 18th century, Swedish and Danish country folk were acquiring chests of drawers as prestige pieces, placed in the farm’s “best room” or sometimes between two beds in the “sitting room” on larger farms.
In the mid-18th century, the typical Scandinavian chest of drawers was of oak construction with the curved front or apron and cabriole legs of the baroque period. Painted decoration featured flowers, birds, and rocaille (shell and rock) motifs. Brass key plates and handles were curved and often asymmetrical.
By the end of the century, the neoclassical style had been imported from France, and many of these baroque pieces were painted over in Gustavian blue, yellow or grey-white. The typical Gustavian chest of drawers of 1790-1810 had 3 drawers over tapering square legs, chamfered sides, and a marble or marbleized top. These were often found set between two windows with a pier glass hanging above. In Denmark in the same period, neoclassical chests of drawers featured dentil moldings, quarter round columns at the corners, and perhaps recessed lower drawers.