Dressers may seem a little twee and old fashioned to us today, but for well over a hundred years were the only concession to decoration in an otherwise sparse and functional Irish cottage interior. This article explores the Irish dresser in the nineteenth century cottage.
The interior of the Irish cottage discussed in this blog, basic and functional as it may seem to the contemporary reader was one which had an important decorative focal point: the dresser. This piece of furniture was a point of pride for the Irish housewife, and even in the poorest of homes people would have some sort of a decorative shelf on which to show their ‘good’ crockery.
Dressers may have originally been used in one room open plan cabins to partition space. As Irish cottage interiors evolved to the central kitchen flanked by bedrooms layout, dressers were usually placed on an outer wall. As one of the first key pieces of furniture to be installed in the cottage (along with the settle) dressers were usually as old as the house itself.
Style: Many dressers started out as simple open base cupboards used for storage, then had extras added to them over time. The elemental design of the Irish dresser is usually of two full length side panels with a cupboard below and open shelves above. Gradually glass doors may have been added to pieces as the family’s fortunes improved. These would have prevented dust and carved glazing bars would have added further decoration. Some decorative features are common to Irish dressers such as carved fluting, the fan motif and open fretwork. Holes in the dresser shelves are left for the display of teaspoons.
Paint and materials: As discussed elsewhere on this blog, timber was historically in short supply in Ireland, and craftsmen had to use cheap sheeted pine to make pieces like dressers. To make such timber appear more expensive paint effects were applied. Using two paint colours and the ‘scumble’ technique might make a convincing faux mahogany and it was fashionable to do so in the early nineteenth century. Dressers were painted brightly to counteract the dark cottage interior. They were often repainted for special occasions and overpainted (never stripped back) and the many layers of paint had the effect of preserving the timber for years. Claudia Kinmonth has pointed out that Irish dressers often had ‘sledge’ feet; replaceable timber feet that prevented damp (from earth floors) travelling upwards through dressers.
Contents: Irish dressers were linked to the status of the household as well as being decorative and functional. They stored most of the utensils of the house but only the ‘good’ crockery was put of ‘display’. By the mid nineteenth century this was commonly a type of mass produced china known as ‘spongeware’. This was a bulky and more robust, crude form of fine china. Today spongeware is produced by craft potters and has the association of cottage rusticity, and I hope to devote an entire blogpost to Irish spongeware in the future. Everyday items in the included wooden noggins and pewter vessels, and the spongeware was only used on special occasions.
Other functions: Although the dresser was primarily a decorative piece, it did not escape being given other functions, such as nesting areas for ‘clocking’ hens. These are called chicken coop dressers and enabled hens to be kept safely at night, a consistent supply of eggs for the household and to discourage them from roosting in the thatched roof. The National Museum of Ireland (Castlebar) has some very good examples on display).
Further recommended reading:
Kinmonth, C. (1993) Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950. Yale University Press.
Visit the National Musuem of Ireland (Castlebar) to see examples of Irish vernacular furniture, for more see: