Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Case of Romantic Identity

QUESTION: My husband and I recently purchased what looks like a plain sideboard while traveling through South Carolina. It’s smaller than a regular one and has only four legs instead of the usual six, plus it’s about 10 inches taller. It looks to be made of a more common type of wood like pine or elm and has little decoration. Can you tell me about this piece of furniture?

ANSWER: It seems you bought what some people call a huntboard and what most Southerners call a slab. Whether it’s antique or not is dubious.

The word "huntboard" conjures up visions of dashing red-coated Southern sportsmen sipping mint juleps from frosted coin-silver cups while engaging in spirited conversation with soft-spoken young belles—all gathered around a high four-legged serving table, an inlaid mahogany demilune sideboard, circa 1800, often found in Southern dining rooms.

But more likely the huntboard turned up beneath a spreading oak tree, conveniently placed so that overheated horsemen could grab a refreshing drink without dismounting. And every Southerner worth his or her riding crop knows huntboards were built a good five to ten inches taller than sideboards because men in high hunting boots couldn't bend their knees and found it more comfortable to eat standing up. Another equally practical explanation for the huntboard's height was that it kept food out of reach of high jumping hound dogs.

Both scenarios are completely fictional, devised in 1925 in a romanticized account of Southern furniture, part of the romantic, if mostly incorrect, Colonial Revival Movement, perpetuated by the grey ghosts of the Civil War. Imagine a tall, gleaming, highly polished walnut four-legged serving piece set with coin silver and transfer-pattem earthenware, complete with a long rifle, and you can almost hear the thunder of the horses’ hoofs and the hunter’s horn sounding in the distance.

If the term had been part of aristocratic Southerners' vocabulary at all, it would have been their name for the piece of furniture out on the back porch or in the back hall of the "big house"—not in the dining room of the plantation home. In the Southern mansion the hunt-board was a basic piece made of native poplar or pine, not a glamorous item of walnut or mahogany. And when meal-time came around, the humble huntboard was set with pewter, crudely fashioned wooden bowls, and crockery, not the costly imported earthenware and handcrafted coin silver.

In other words, in the wealthy Southern plantation home, huntboards were just utilitarian pieces designed for the servants and slaves to eat around—a "board," as in "room and board." This variety of 19th-century huntboard comes closest to the original purpose of a sideboard—a simple stand-up serving table.

During the mid-19th century, the agrarian South—unlike the industrialized North—had few cities to support major cabinetmaking shops. Modest farmhouses and the occasional plantation sprawled throughout the region. This spread-out population—and the abundance of Southern forests—meant that it was more economical for furniture to be made "on site" by a traveling craftsman or even a handy family member than purchased from a faraway joiner's shop. During those months when the crops were planted, dinner—as they called the heavy noonday meal—had to be served efficiently. So slaves at the plantation main house set out biscuits, gravy, and other vittles on a quickly, even crudely, constructed sideboard called a “slab.”

The term "huntboard" was born at a time when a falsely romantic image of the South was at its peak. During that time, the demand for Southern huntboards far surpassed the supply. There had been little reason to keep the plain, crudely made slab once the servant and slave society disappeared. And many middle-class families that held on to the better walnut and cherry serving tables during the bleak postwar days quickly discarded their "old furniture" after the economy improved. As a result, furniture companies produced fake and reproduction huntboards by the truckload in the late1920s and '30s. Those authentic slabs that survived were often found in deserted country houses. Though "huntboard" sounds great, there’s no evidence that people actually used the word during antebellum days.

So the piece you purchased most likely dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s. Age and neglect probably made it appear much older. One way to tell if it’s authentic is to check the wooden pegs used to join it together. If it’s old, the pegs will be slightly elliptical and jut out of their holes a bit. If newer, they’ll be round and flush with the surface of the wood.

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