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About Welsh Dressers
Over the course of the past three hundred years the Welsh dresser has played a central role in Welsh village life before being reinvented in the 20th century as an antique and classic emblem of Welsh culture. In the meantime it has made a name for Welsh craftsmen, making the traditional wood carving of Wales known around the world.
Nowadays, antique Welsh dressers are highly prized at auction and frequently attract bids of hundreds, even thousands of pounds per piece. More importantly, though, tracing the origins of what has latterly become a symbol of Welsh culture has helped re-emphasize importance of both regional crafts and womens’ domestic labour in Welsh culture.
History of the Welsh Dresser
Early Origins – The Middle Ages
The history of the dresser begins in the royal courts and noble halls of the Middle Ages. In a medieval nobleman’s house the largest and most central room was the hall. It was here that food would be served, guests received, and formal occasions celebrated. At the same time, all of the activities of the hall would have been centred around the dresser.
Its main purpose was to hold and proudly display the nobleman’s most valuable plate and as such it was a mark of prestige from the days of its early origins. The dresser was treated with particular respect and only certain servants, those specially authorised to handle the plate, were allowed to approach it. In some halls the dresser was even hidden behind a low wall to prevent thieves from easily guessing the value of its contents.
Its situation in the area where food was prepare before serving it to the table also contributed to its significance as a focal point and the word “dresser” itself comes from Norman French and ultimately means “to prepare [food]“. Whilst in this period the word “dresser” could refer specifically to the plate rack, this rack was almost always situated directly above a sideboard known as a “court cupboard” where the food would be set out for serving. A court cupboard consisted of three wooden boards joined by uprights of turned wood. It is from this arrangement that the dresser as we know it was to develop when the court cupboard and plate rack “dresser” were amalgamated in later centuries.
The Farmhouse Dresser – 17th Century Onwards
As was often the case in many other respects the fashions of the court eventually trickled down to the wealthier farm owners of England and Wales and by the 17th Century occupied a central place in many of their larger farmhouses. The function of the dresser here remained much the same – to display to guests the expensive cups and plates that the family had accumulated on the upper half and to store and prepare food in the lower half.
These heavy pieces of hand crafted oak furniture represented a significant investment and therefore could only be purchased on rare occasions, sometimes as part of a marriage gift. Those pieces that survive from this period are especially prized as they are often the result of exceptional craftsmanship and having been made to exacting specifications with the intention that they would remain in use for centuries. It was in this period (mid 17th Century) that the plate rack and the side table/cupboard were finally united after following each other around for several centuries.
This is generally held to have been as a result of the change in fashions that occurred during the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. King Charles II brought back to England a sort of furniture that had been popular in France during the time of his exile and the new two-piece dresser was modeled on this, combining the influence of more traditional furniture with contemporary styles.
It is also in this period that the dresser became the Welsh dresser as those that were made in Wales became known for their superior quality, variety and beauty of design. The material record bears this out as far more dressers of Welsh origin have survived than from other areas both in Wales and general, testifying to the lasting popularity of this type of Welsh carpentry at home and abroad.
The relative isolation of Wales in relation to the rest of Britain during this period, both culturally and geographically, led to this item of furniture remaining in production there for far longer. This in turn led to a more thorough exploration of the possibilities and the emergence of a wider variety of styles than might have otherwise existed.
Another aspect of this variation was its regionalism. There are many who have claimed that a dresser’s village or town of origin can be determined by an analysis of its features. Certainly, a firm distinction between dressers found in the North and South of Wales can be made.
Centrepiece of Everyday Life – 19th and Early 20th Centuries
If the dressers of the 17th and 18th Centuries are prized for their ornate craftsmanship, those of the 19th and early 20th Centuries are more severe by dint of being more practical. In this period many of the poorer folk of Wales, those who were village artisans or who occupied small holdings, had finally gained the means to purchase large items of furniture. Consequently, it was in this period that their place at the centre of everyday Welsh life was cemented and its position in Welsh domestic culture confirmed.
It was in this period, as ceramic plates and cups became more widely available, that the Welsh dresser came into its own as a means of showcasing these pieces in the home. As class distinctions began to emerge after the destruction of feudal society the desire to display these differences in material wealth increased and the Welsh dresser was the chief way in which relatively poor families could afford to do so. They were still seen as investment pieces, however, and often formed part of a marriage dowry.
Specific styles of earthenware and ceramics emerged to cater to the Welsh market including “Gaudy Welsh” and “Swansea Cottage”. These were known for their use of bright colours perhaps forming a natural contrast with the grey Welsh weather and stone cottages. Also popular were Willow Pattern and Staffordshire Dogs. The association of Welsh women with the proud display of their ceramics would grow until the image of the “Welsh Tea Party” became a national stereotype found in photographs, pictures and even ceramics of the late 19th Century.
Strong local traditions surrounding the proper care and display of items on the dresser arose in various, usually rural, parts of Wales and some of these are maintained to this day. The significance of the dresser as the heart of family life, the Welsh woman’s primary jurisdiction, and later by extension a symbol of Welsh culture itself.
As the 19th Century drew to a close and the popularity of traditional craftsmanship began to wane, regional differences in dressers began to be eroded and less traditional soft woods took the place of Welsh oak. It was at this stage, in the early 20th Century, that old-fashioned Welsh dressers went from being an ordinary part of life to a valuable antique. For instance, it has been reported that the value of an antique dresser jumped from £100 to £1000 in the 1960′s having gone through an evolution from prestige object to old-fashioned cast off to back again.
Types of Welsh Dresser
The North Wales Dresser
As a rule, dresser’s from north Wales having shelves that are backed with wood. The base cupboard is closed off and has drawers.
The South Wales Dresser
By contrast, the South Wales dresser has no back to its shelves – the upper ridge of the plates rests against the wall behind. The bottom cupboard is rarely enclosed and instead forms an open “pot board.”
The Crooked Dresser
Many dressers from Mid-Wales were made “crooked” to fit the corners of particular, tiny cottages. One early 20th century Welsh language versifier from Ceredigion named Llwyd Llundain wrote of this type as follows:
“Gyda Mam ‘roedd leinpres dderi
Nhad a’r cwpwrdd cornel teidi
Dresel gam I ffitio’r gongol
Dyna ran o gelfi’r gwaddol”
“My mother owned an oak linen press,
My father a fine corner cupboard
A crooked dresser to fit the corner
They were part of the furniture of the dowry.”