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Dressers are 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.

 In 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 area, many 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 20th century.

 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.


More details regarding this and other furniture types can be found in Welsh Furniture 1250-1950 by Richard Bebb



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