Artifact of Change: The Antique Sewing Table

The history of the antique sewing table is the history of shifting gender roles. Across classes and societies, women gained empowerment in their own spheres of influence in the 18th century, thereby transforming hobbies into work, side projects into industries.

We saw a glimpse of 19th century social change in last week’s blog post. Our exploration of Josef Ulrich Danhauser and his sophisticated interpretation of Biedermeier style is inherently connected to the social changes of the 18th and 19th century. In today’s blog, we want to focus specifically on how new tendencies in furniture making reflected a change in gender norms.

The History of Sewing

The weaving of cloth and fibers originated in the Middle East around 6000 years ago. It became a foundational practice in societies around the world over the subsequent millennia. As early as the Middle Ages, wealthy Europeans were known to hire seamstresses and tailors to mend and create rich garments.

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Diagram of a treadle sewing machine

As a middle class began to emerge around Europe, the sewing of clothes transformed from an aristocratic luxury into an everyday requirement. In the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began to shift sewing away from individual artisans and towards mills.

The British inventor Thomas Saint created the first version of an industrial sewing machine in 1790. Treadle sewing machines, operated by foot paddle, soon became commonplace in the textile mills of Britain and North America.

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Portrait of Isaac Merritt Singer, the American Inventor of the modern sewing machine

Subsequently, in 1851, the American inventor Isaac Merritt Singer patented the first recognizably modern sewing machine. It was the first machine that could sew faster than an experienced seamstress. The antique Singer sewing machine provides the foundation for contemporary sewing machines.

But the story of the antique sewing table starts long before Singer patented and mass-produced sewing machines as consumer goods. In fact, the role of the sewing table in redeveloping sewing into a domestic skill cannot be overstated.

From Side Table to Antique Sewing Machine Table

While aristocratic women had been practicing sewing as a womanly hobby for centuries, people in the lower classes seldom had the time or space for such indulgences. But they had already begun using the skill as part of the growing industrial workforce. Indeed, women made up a majority of workers in textile mills as early as the late 17th century.

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“Sewing Fisherman’s Wife”, by Danish painter Anna Ancher, 1890

The changing rules of employment that started taking shape in the 18th and early 19th centuries enabled many families to carve out a new kind of wealth for themselves. As a result, middle classes emerged around the world hand-in-hand with industrialization.

All of a sudden, families could afford better clothing and women had the space and means to establish a craft station in their own homes. The demand for sewing tables was universal throughout the burgeoning middle class. And they were the perfect place to keep a home sewing machine when those became available as consumer products.

The antique sewing table was an emblem of both status and skilled labor. As a result, it is unique amongst antique furnishings, as a piece of historical, sentimental, and social value.

Sewing Machine Tables and Biedermeier

It should come as no surprise that most antique sewing tables from our catalogue are in the Biedermeier style. As we have previously learned, Biedermeier first and foremost arose out of the functional furnishing needs of an emerging middle class.

The beauty of the Antique Sewing Table is in its flexibility. Many sewing tables come with a drop leaf top flap, for convenient storage, for instance. While they may not be your natural choice for a coffee table because of their height, they make for an excellent side table, or even a table at which to practice your own sewing crafts.

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A Biedermeier sewing table – available now on Styylish

This South German Biedermeier Sewing Table with cherry veneer is a classic example of the kind of functional neutrality and gorgeous simplicity an antique sewing table can offer to your home.

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A Biedermeier Working Table – available now on Styylish

This Biedermeier Working Table is a walnut sewing table, of sorts. The walnut veneer certainly makes it an extremely compatible piece of interior décor. But sewing is only one of the ways in which this piece could play a functional role. With its convenient drawer and smooth surface, it makes an ideal station for letter writing, or a stunning nightstand.

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A stunning mahogany sewing table – available now on Styylish

Our favorite sewing table available on Styylish right now is this Mahogany Sewing Table. Though also a Biedermeier table, mahogany elevates the rustic design to a new height of elegance.

The mahogany table is not just in good condition, but gorgeously decorative, centering the antique wood without ornamental distractions. That alone makes it a real find for fans of decorative Biedermeier. Be sure to take a closer look at the nested compartments hidden under the liftable lid.

Pieces of History

Antique sewing tables, perhaps more so than any other 19th century furnishings, lend a sense of historical significance to the space they occupy. Not just decorative but actively functional, they are foundational examples of the way the industrial middle class felt and lived.

To recreate the sense of wonder you might find discovering a piece of history at an antique store, look no further than the Styylish catalogue. Bring an artifact of change into your home today!

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