Research on Antiques & Collectibles


Contributed by:

Slab tables were an important piece of domestic furniture in America, as in England, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, but as a specialized type they have so far received little attention. The classification includes tables of various kinds in which slabs of slate or marble form the tops. Slate slabs preceded marble, but as they were more destructible, few slate-topped tables have survived and they are rarely seen outside of museums today.

Slab tables were used in the Colonies in the seventeenth century in the more pretentious houses of the large centers, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. A Boston inventory of 1699 mentions "in the lower room a slate table 1:10:0." In the same year the inventory of Captain Christopher Goffe lists "a slate table in the hall" (the hall in early days was often the principal living room of the family). In 1703 a "table with a stone in the middle" belonged to Captain Zechariah Long of Boston. These tables are also mentioned as an accompaniment to the tall chest of drawers, like that of Captain John Ventiman's of Boston in 1724 which is listed as "a chest of drawers and table thereto belonging."

Structurally, the earliest type of American slab table was composed of a four-legged frame of walnut, cedar, and later mahogany, topped with a slate or marble slab set into a frame which sometimes had a wide overhanging border decorated with carving or marquetry. The slate slabs were imported, possibly from Switzerland. The question often raised as to whether ‘slate-topped’ tables were intended for use or were merely a whim of fashion seems to be answered by a table at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was presented in 1847 by John Preston of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, with its history from the time it was given to his ancestor the Reverend Nehemiah Walter, who graduated from Harvard in 1682. Its marquetry border and worn stretchers testify to years of actual use. Although the slate top was very practical for a dressing table, or for a serving table on which to place a hot teakettle or brazier or warming dishes of silver, the wooden border around the slab was easily injured, and few are found today in good condition.

As slate slabs were thin and very brittle, marble slabs soon took their place. Designated at first as "marble table and frame," they were eventually distinguished as side, sideboard, pier, and console tables and were used in various rooms of the house. The side or sideboard tables were finished on only three sides as they were designed to stand against the wall; pier tables were placed below mirrors, and console tables had but two legs and were attached to the wall at the rear. Center tables were finished on four sides.

In 1740 the inventory of William Griffith, a merchant of Boston, records "In the Chamber a Marble Table and Frame 10." That of William Clark, also of Boston, lists "In the Hall a fine Marble Table 70." Nathaniel Cunningham. a Boston merchant, in 1748 had his marble table "in the Great Parlor," and Charles Apthorp kept his "in Dining Room upstairs." The marble-slab tables differed from the slate-tops: they were generally of larger size, had no border of wood on the top, and were used chiefly in the dining room, as sideboards. The frames were made by local cabinetmakers, but the slabs were expected to be procured by the customer, either through the services of an agent or a friendly ship captain, from Italy or Greece or, as Luke Vincent Lockwood suggests in his ‘Colonial furniture in America’, from Holland, where delft tiles were similarly used on tea tables.

When Job Townsend, Jr., of Newport made a slab table in 1763 for Benjamin Hicks at a cost of 75, recording it as "A Mahogany Frame for a Marble Slab," he undoubtedly supplied the slab, as the cost was far greater than for the one he made for James Potter and noted in his ledger:

1757 March 2 James Potter Dr. To making a Mahogany Table 3 feet – he found the top 35:0:0

The comparative value of the slate and marble slabs is shown in an inventory of 1727 in South Carolina when a slate-topped table was valued at 1, while a marble-topped one in a cedar frame was listed at 15. In order to save expense, common white marble was often stained in imitation of the more costly varieties, a process discovered in 1657 by William Bird, a stonecutter of Oxford, England, who presented a specimen of his work to the king. Although in America the marble slabs were often imported, quarries were worked in New England and New York, and as early as 1748 various kinds of marble were found in Pennsylvania. One which was particularly popular, a "white with pale gray, bluish spots," mentioned in the ‘Travels of Peter Kalm’, is the "King of Prussia marble" used on Pennsylvania tables.

Some mahogany side tables are outstanding examples of Philadelphia work. Their highly polished marble slabs, the absence of drawers, and in some cases the small size, suggest that they were made for the drawing room rather than the dining room. Comparatively few houses in America before the Revolution were pretentious enough to have such pieces of furniture as these.

A Chippendale side table with drawer was probably intended for dining-room use. Its frame is somewhat similar in the long sweeping curves of the front to the Queen Anne table made for Captain Low in 1755 by John Goddard. The receipt for the Goddard table acknowledging payment of thirty pounds for the "table frame" makes no mention of the stone top which crowns the piece. That was apparently to be procured by the Captain himself.

Slab tables were not confined to the Colonies of the North. In the South they were particularly popular as serving tables, for in many houses the kitchen was a separate unit and food had to be kept warm in the dining room. As early as 1696 in South Carolina Thomas Osborne had a "sideboard table" and a slate table valued at 1. In 1755 Thomas Riche shipped "on venture" from Philadelphia "a Marble Table & Frame," and wrote to Serevin Seebert, a merchant of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, "as for the Marble table I expected to have it done but for want of 10 hours work am obliged to keep it till the next vessel which you may depend on't". In 1770 the inventory of the Governor's Palace at Williamsburg, Virginia, listed in the dining room "1 Side Board with Marble Slab."

Many entries in the ledger of Thomas Fife, cabinet-maker of Charleston, South Carolina, attest to the popularity of this furniture form:

  • Aug. 1772 John Gaillard - for Slab Table
  • Dec. 1772 Chovin Alexander - a Sideboard Table
  • June 1773 Steward John - a Mahogany Slab Frame & Top
  • Dec. 1773 Bonnetheau Peter - a Slab Table
  • May 1775 Black James - a Slab Table
  • May 1775 Hopton John - a Slab Table

In the Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles the marble top is less common than in Chippendale, perhaps because the general trend was toward a lighter type of furniture. They mostly had inset marble slabs and show a refinement of design in conformity with the neo-classic Greek taste.