Colonial New York

Dutch Town Homes,
page 4 of 8

As Cowper says:

                                “Necessity invented stools,
                Convenience next suggested elbow-chairs,
                And Luxury the accomplished Sofa last.”

In this natural succession came the seats of the colonists. The leather chairs with double rows of nails — in Captain Kidd’s list were a very substantial and handsome piece of furniture.

Tables there were in all houses, and looking-glasses in all well-to-do homes. The stands of Captain Kidd were small tables. The carpets named after the tables were doubtless table-covers. The early use of the word was always a cover for a table.

A truly elegant piece of furniture — one in use by well-to-do folk in all the colonies — was a cupboard. Originally simply a table for the display of cups and other vessels, it came to have shelves and approach in form our sideboard. An inventory of a New York citizen of the year 1690 names a “Holland cupboard furnished with earthenware and purslin” worth fifteen pounds. Another owned a French nut-wood cupboard of about the same value. Cupboard-cloths usually accompanied them. A few of these cupboards still exist, usually their exact history forgotten, but still known as “Holland cupboards.” As long as the inventories of estates of deceased persons were made out and registered with much minuteness of detail, a single piece of furniture could be traced readily from heir to heir, but unfortunately only the older inventories display this minuteness.

One unusual word may be noted, which is found in New York inventories, boilsted, bilsted, or billsted — as “a boilsted bed,” “a boilsted bureau.” The “Century Dictionary” gives bilsted as the native name of the American sweet-gum tree, the liquidambar, but Mr. Watson says boilsted or bilsted meant maple, — hence these articles meant a bureau of maplewood, etc.

A very common form of bedstead in early days, both in town and farm houses, was the one built into the house, scarcely more than a bench to hold the bedding, usually set into an alcove or recess. In a contract for the “Ferry House,” built in Brooklyn in 1665 (the house in which the ferry-master lived), we read one clause thus: “to wainscot the east side the whole length of the house, and in the recess two bedsteads (betste) one in the front room and one in the inside room, with a pantry at the end of the bedstead.”


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