Discover Mid-America April 2012
The Leaf Problem – Where to Put it?
Extension dining tables were a great invention. Going from slabs of boards laid across trestles to a fixed table that could be expanded at will was a giant step in human gastronomic history. But it also created a number of problems/opportunities for future diners. One of the problems is centered on the very thing that makes the table so convenient, the moveable/removable section of the table called the leaf.
I have always had a problem with even the name of that piece. Why name it after a piece of tree? After all the decisions to be made about the piece is whether to leave it in or leave it out, leave it down or leave it up. Seems like it should be called a "leave."
One of the earliest extension tables solved the problem quite neatly. The leaves were stored under the main tabletop. The top could be lifted slightly on its frame and the leaves pulled out on each end. This was called a "draw leaf" table and was quite the modern thing in Elizabethan England. Of course the leaves were still attached to the table with their long runners that allowed them to be drawn out and even though they could be stored out of sight they were still there, adding dead weight to an already ponderous table.
That form of extension table was popular for more than 100 years and then faded away more or less, only to be resurrected during the Depression era as a Jacobean Colonial Revival style table for 1920s and 1930s dining room sets. The style was called Jacobean named for King James I of the early 17th century. The Latin term for James is Jacob. The style is readily identifiable by the large bulb turnings on the legs. It was also popular in the American colonies in the late 17th and early 18th century.
Another style of extension table was created about the same time in the form of the drop leaf table. In this case the leaves simply dropped to the side of the table, supported by hinges. The real creativity came in how to support the leaf when it was up. One enterprising solution used a form of swinging gate to meet the need. A hollow square or rectangle suspended below the table surface could swing out like a gate from under the top to support the drop leaf. That was fine except for the people who had to sit on the side where the gate was in use. They had no place to put their legs or feet.
That brought along the next improvement – the swing leg support. That involved making one leg on each side mobile, attached to the frame by a wooden hinge. That allowed the leg to swing out for leaf support while still leaving legroom below. While this still did allow for four legs to support the entire top plus leaves, it was not always the most solid arrangement.
An alternative solution to the swing leg was introduced during the William and Mary period of the late 17th century. That was the "butterfly" support. This innovative approach allowed the entire table frame to remain intact and stable. The support, shaped like its namesake, a butterfly, was attached to the frame on the bottom rail and the top rail. The device swung out like a gate leg but was tapered at the bottom to allow more creature comforts below. But even this arrangement still had the leaves attached to the table body.
The epiphany of the loose leaf dawned in the late 18th century when Georgian pedestal tables were designed to accept the insertion of a free-standing leaf between two pedestal ends. The two ends were separate pieces and were joined in the middle by the use of "U" shaped brass table forks. These same devices were used to secure the newly inserted loose leaves. At last a free standing table without the additional bulk or weight of attached leaves!
By the early 19th century a variety of imaginative ideas was in place to accommodate the loose leaves including an accordion looking structure under the table that allowed the table to open up as well as providing support for the inserted leaves. Now we were getting somewhere. Soon after, around mid century the concept of the sliding rails took over from the delicate and fitful accordion device. And that was that for about 50 years.
Around the turn of the 20th century manufacturers realized that the slender table slides were not substantial enough to support the addition of the multiple leaves required to expand a four-foot diameter table to a twelve-foot family table. That's when the fifth leg came into play. The fifth leg was attached to the middle runners of a set of table slides. This allowed the leg to remain in the center of the table even when expanded to maximum length. This provided the additional support for the weight of multiple leaves. In some case the fifth leg was concealed in a split pedestal. In others the leg simply folded up when not in use or the leg was converted to a decorative trestle and allowed to remain in sight.
Problem solved? Not quite. What to do with the loose leaves? One innovative idea from the Depression era had one leaf folding in half and disappearing under the table through the opening in the middle; clever but confining since it only allowed one leaf. Other table designs provided storage space under the table on a series of racks or shelves but now you are back to the original problem of weight.
So we are back to being stuck with loose leaves. One of the best ideas is to store them in a custom made case that came with many early 20th century tables. But in lieu of that the place to store the leaves is in a closet, right? Wrong! If you lean the leaves against a wall they will eventually warp. The best location and method is to wrap the leaves in cotton sheets and lay them flat under the bed – out of the way and warp free.
And you can just leave them there.
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