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Article by Jennie Buist Brown | 12th July 2019

Dress to impress

Although known as “Welsh” dressers, these rustic pieces of furniture were not just Welsh in origin – and today there are wonderful new examples to be found.

There was a time when every country kitchen or dining room had one, then when they became popular again in the late 20th century, many reproductions were made in pine and a variety of other woods for people who wanted to recreate the country look. Today there are wonderful new examples to be found painted in beautiful chalk colours to match modern kitchens. I am, of course, talking about Welsh dressers.

The very first dressers date back to the 1600’s, and most were originally made from oak. The typical dresser comprises a sideboard-type bottom with cupboards and drawers topped with open shelving. Old inventories show that the better off farmers of the time were buying more furniture as well as pewter and Delftware – and the Welsh dresser grew out of a desire to showcase these new items.

Although known as “Welsh” dressers, these rustic pieces of furniture were not just Welsh in origin. Irish dressers were also common and dressers from different geographic areas were adapted to local needs. The Scottish Highland dresser, for example, had a porridge drawer – a tin-lined drawer into which hot porridge was poured and left to set. When cold, slices could be cut and taken out by crofters working out on the land.

Adapting to needs

While the first dresser was utilitarian, designed for storing food, and for food preparation on its sizeable work surface, by the mid 18th century they had begun to appear in more humble homes. By contrast to the dressers found in small farmhouses and cottages, which combined both practical and decorative functions and were often family heirlooms, those found in mansions or large town houses were far more utilitarian pieces of furniture kept below stairs to hold utensils, and would have been considered far too utilitarian to be displayed upstairs.

Although the style of dressers changed little for nearly 300 years, and generally reflected the style of the local area, by the end of the 19th century there were Arts and Crafts dressers, Gothic revival styles and dressers influenced by the Art Nouveau movement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, during the Edwardian period, there was a preference for sideboards, which were finer looking and designed to display china but also have drawers for cutlery and cupboards for the larger bowls. These can still be readily found – they are large pieces of furniture that can often be too big for many modern homes and frequently end up in auction rooms.

In demand

So if you’d prefer to own an original antique dresser, what should you look out for? Dressers from the Georgian period are usually more rustic, with pegged construction, old clout nails and plate racks for storing pots and pans. Welsh antique dresser bases are often sought-after as they are useful with a working surface and lots of storage space, and are now highly collectable and often very expensive – one example I looked at recently had an eye-wateringly expensive price tag of £28,000! The best examples come with the original aged character that has been lovingly waxed over 100s of years or in the original paint finish. Today the dresser is a much-desired item of furniture, with many originals selling for the aforementioned thousands of pounds. Reproductions are still popular and much more affordable.

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