Today we have a mahogany tea table from the late 18th century. That covers the material and its function; to expand the description, it is a tripod tilt-top birdcage table, in the Chippendale style, with a single-board top, wrythen-turned vase-shaped stem, cabriole legs, acanthus-leaf knees, and ball-and-claw feet. (It is not, however, a piecrust or dishtop table, as the tabletop has a plain edge.) It measures 27” tall, with a 35” diameter top; though it has no maker’s mark or other identifying features, it was likely American-made. If you’ve toured the Beall-Dawson House at any time since 1970, you’ve seen our table in the Parlor.
This particular form of table was developed in the late 18th century, part of a general move in the western world toward specialty-function furniture to suit leisure activities such as taking tea. Earlier examples are in the Queen Anne style, with later pieces veering into Chippendale. (More examples, and a better explanation, of both styles can be found on the Metropolitan Museum’s website.) Higher-end examples, like ours, boast a tilting top that made it easier to shift furniture out of the way when you needed floor space (this is still a useful feature; you may have spotted our table in flipped-up position during events and holiday displays, for example); even fancier is the addition of a “birdcage” mechanism which, when the wedge is removed, allows the top to rotate.
A bit of backstory before going into the particulars of this table’s history: The Bealls and Dawsons, two families related by marriage, lived in the Beall-Dawson House from its construction circa 1815 until the late 1930s. After the family left, the House was rented out to various tenants until the Dawson heirs sold the House to the Davis family in 1946. Mrs. Davis sold the House to the City of Rockville in 1965, and the Historical Society moved in shortly thereafter.
Depending on which 1960s catalog information one reads, our tea table was either found by the Davises in the Beall-Dawson House basement, or found by MCHS on the second floor of the Davis-built garage. (Personally, I’m inclined to combine those stories: it seems likely that the Davises found it in the basement, then moved it to the garage storage where we found it in our turn.) Though both of those stories place the table in the House prior to our own tenure, it could easily have been acquired by one resident or another in the 20th century. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say it’s not an original Beall family piece, so we have long assumed/hoped that it was probably owned by Upton Beall and/or his wife Jane (who outlived him). It’s certainly old enough; in fact it predates the House, and could have come from a parental estate, or perhaps was bought used by Upton or his wife. (Buying things from your neighbors at estate sales was as much a part of Montgomery County culture in the early 19th century as it is today.)
So, with the caution that we don’t really know that this was Upton’s tea table, I’ll tell you that Upton Beall’s estate inventory, taken after his death in 1827, includes “1 [undescribed] tea table.” Nothing on later inventories is specifically called a “tea table,” but there are plenty of “tables” to choose from – or perhaps it had already been relegated to uninventoried storage as too old-fashioned or broken for use. Based on the amount of stuff on those inventories, neither the Bealls nor the Dawsons were the get-rid-of-excess-furniture type; the final inventory, in 1937, mentions (but does not list the contents of) a “storage room” of furniture. It seems perfectly plausible that an old table, in bad condition, could have been stashed away somewhere in the House and then forgotten.
Look again at the photos included throughout this post, and you can see that the table top is not really a flat plane; the top is a noticeably different color than the base; and the underside of the table top is kind of a hot mess. Both versions of the old-catalog stories note that the table was in sad shape when it was discovered, with a “cracked and warped top,” and that we “had the top refinished, but left the base alone.” What I’ve not been able to pin down is what was actually done to the table, other than what can be seen now with the naked eye: The top was stripped of its original patina . . . I’ll pause here for gasps of dismay from televised-antique-appraisal aficionados, who know better . . . and, at the end of the process, thoroughly coated with a modern varnish. (If the top of the table looked anything like the underside, which is a peculiar matte black, I can sympathize with the desire to make it shiny again.) The cracks were filled in with some kind of adhesive or putty which, as you can see from the photo directly above, is starting to fail after 40 years of valiant effort. The braces on the underside were removed and reattached in a different direction, and two additional braces were added, likely to help reverse the warping of the top; the shadows of the original brace location and orientation of the square block, plus the old screw holes, are visible. The new braces and (what I hope is the) original brass latching mechanism were reattached with shiny new screws. And, yes, all of this is possibly horrifying to a modern-day furniture conservator, but was likely top of the line in the late 1960s.
As for the base, it does look essentially untouched, if that’s any consolation. The feet, in particular, show chips in the old varnish and the wood itself, but that’s to be expected of a 200+ year old table. And though in everyday lighting the base appears quite dark – particularly in comparison to the (perhaps overly) shiny top – when viewed closer, the mahogany color is still there under the old varnishes and oils.
If you like this table, there are lots of others to be enjoyed, both online and in your friendly neighborhood museums. A good tea table is practically a staple of the Georgian/Federal-era house museum (I can say that because we have one). Check out large art museums as well; a few tables are in the new(ish) furniture galleries at the National Gallery of Art, and here’s an online listing of tea tables at the Met. Auction houses, antique galleries, and collectors also feature a variety of Queen Anne and Chippendale tea tables on their websites. Happy viewing!