found in peasant cultures throughout Europe, where they typically
take pride of place in the main living room, but in Wales the quality
and variety produced, as well as the sheer quantity, has led to the
epithet "Welsh dresser" being adopted by the international
furniture trade for over a century.
Those who interest themselves in the academic
study of such articles tend to regard country-made furniture as somehow
derivative of urban and gentry products. This is not my view, and the
dresser stands witness to another viewpoint: outside of
"fashionable" contexts, furniture developed organically
according to the practical requirements and cultural values of
customers, and the skills and resources of local woodworkers. The
Welsh dresser, with its fine polished surface and colourful
display of pottery, is a specifically non-metropolitan type of furniture.
The antique dressers found in mansions and
large town houses were utilitarian structures in painted softwood
kept below stairs, required merely to hold utensils. By contrast, in
farmhouses and cottages the dresser was in the principal living room
(the cegin which served as a kitchen and often a bedroom as well) on
view to family, neighbours and visitors. It combined practical and
decorative functions, had often been acquired at marriage or was a
valued heirloom, and projected the pride the owners felt in their home.
The origins of the dresser as we know it today
started in the mid-17th century, when inventories show that the
better-off farmers in each district were acquiring more furniture and
had access to prestigious and decorative pewterware and delftware.
The forerunners were plain cupboards and side tables, wall-hanging
shelves and even slatted food crates which hung from the ceiling. As
a type, it emerged in various regions of Wales in different forms.
Snowdonia it took on a cupboard-like appearance and was a close
relative of the cwpwrdd tridarn (three-part cupboard), whereas in
most of mid and south Wales it resembled a wide side table with a
plate rack fixed to the top.
Once established, the dresser developed in
different ways in various parts of the country and distinct local
types are readily discernible by the mid-18th century. In the
south-west, for example, the bases had a cupboard either side of an
open space (sometimes called the "dog-kennel"). In the same
dressers were built to fit into corners - the true ancestor of the
modern fitted kitchen.
This was a golden age in the production of
Welsh furniture, with larger homes containing a greater variety of
pieces. The increased demand was not fulfilled by urban workshops, as
it was in most of England, even though market towns such as
Carmarthen contained successful cabinet-making firms. The furniture
makers were primarily local village joiners who used native timber
and were neighbours if not relatives of their customers. As with
their other products, the dressers were in essence functional pieces
but they were intended to be on public display and often included
decorative flourishes such as shaped friezes at the top and shaped
aprons below the drawers. The better ones had rows of additional
'spice' drawers (for
medicinal herbs), elaborate fretwork and occasionally flowing inlaid patterns.
By the early years of the 19th century,
even the cottages of smallholders and farm labourers had a dresser,
often of a plainer type and sometimes in the less expensive deal
(grained to simulate oak), but always covered in gaily-coloured
copper lusterware and blue-and-white jugs and dishes. The dresser
survived the coming of industrialization and the availability of
cheap manufactured articles; alongside the chiffoniers and
mirrored-back sideboards produced for parlours, many industrial homes
in the valleys continued to require a dresser in their living room.
Newer styles with glazed racks over enclosed bases, often with a
dog-kennel to hold a sewing machine, continued to evolve into the
In many households the earlier dressers
remained important to their owners and were often moved into front
parlours or dining rooms. The displays were changed and augmented,
with each generation adding keepsakes and souvenirs as well as family
photos. From the early years of the 20th century, as their local
production was coming to an end, they became sought-after by
middle-class urban home owners who recognized their intrinsic values
of honest workmanship and also perhaps their evocation of a more
tranquil rural past, with which many identified. These same ideas
continue to influence many people, particularly if they feel a strong
association with a specific locality or with Welsh heritage in general.
The perpetual demand for these pieces
over such a long period does, however, merit a caution. The National
Museum of Wales noted in 1918 that even at that date certain
sought-after styles were being "made-up" and in the ensuing
years this became something of a minor industry. Such fakes and
"marriages" abound in the market, some now obviously having
acquired signs of age in their own right.
details regarding this and other furniture types can be found in Welsh
Furniture 1250-1950 by Richard Bebb