The tea table came into homes in the early 18th century, and the coffee table 200 years later. What is the difference? Over thecenturies, differences have developed in the way we enjoy our favorite hot beverage, be it tea or coffee. Most modern coffee and tea drinkers head to their nearest name brand hot beverage shop to enjoy a cup or mug of their favorite caffeinated or non-caffeinated beverage; but centuries ago, “modern” families were just beginning to enjoy the exotic flavors of the Far East.
Tables, dishes, and pots were designed for imbibing these new culturally fashionable drinks, not to mention new silverware pieces. Manufactures were all too happy to deliver something new to homeowners who needed to show their neighbors and friends that they had “arrived” and were up-to-date with the latest and greatest. Apparently, not much has changed since the 1720s.
While tea tables were typically something you pulled a chair up to while dining on small sandwiches and sweets, they needed to be tall enough for ladies and gentlemen to sit with their knees neatly tucked beneath the table. Remember ladies were wearing full skirts with bustles, no less; and gentlemen had buckles on their shoes; if the buckles were not properly shined, they were discreetly hidden under a tea table.
Skip ahead a couple of centuries, and you have the modern coffee table, following the importation of coffee from Latin America. The practice of sitting around a tea table or now coffee table as a form of entertaining in the home was more relaxed in the 20th century. The coffee table sat low and was found in living rooms or other leisure spaces in the home. This lower table was to encourage a more relaxed atmosphere and casual living. In fact, by the 1950s, the coffee table was a staple in most homes and was used for displaying the family’s extensive magazine collection. I know in my house, those magazines were fanned out on the coffee table that sat in front of the sofa. Teen and Seventeen Magazine were not considered suitable for display; Look, Life, Sunset and The Ladies Home Journal were magazines of choice in our home.
Today, we still see and use both of these tables, sometimes even to hold a cup of tea or coffee. Often, the taller tea table finds itself at the end of a sofa or chair holding a lamp, with space for a cup of tea or coffee or cocktail. Both tables continue to be of service and can be fashionably fun as well as useful, with coffee tables often being a favorite spot to rest feet while watching TV.
I have an artist client who loves color and whimsey. She asked me to paint a tea table, and a small coffee table to add some color to her predominantly black and white living room. Each piece I painted for her, had a particular detail that I thought I could enhance with some gold or silver leaf; she chose gold leaf, and the added touch brought the pieces up a notch in the interest factor. Her home is such a fun place to visit, with such interesting pieces, and she is fearless when it comes to accepting decorating advise. I think her only regret to her downsizing, is now she does not have the room for all the things she loves to collect. But, color is her signature.
As with most wood furniture that may seem outdated in its look, a fun paint color can bring more years of enjoyment; especially if you were just going to kick it to the curb and buy something new.