Yikes, a naked table leg!
The idea that 19th-century Americans were such prudes they even covered the legs of their furniture with little skirts seems to have originated with Capt. Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America of 1839. Marryat, an Englishman, wrote a satire of his American tour. He wrote of the American propensity to use the word “limb” in place of “leg,” (although he says the English do it to, but not as scrupulously). Then he says he visited a boarding school for young ladies in New York state where he saw a “square piano-forte with four limbs . . . the mistress of the establishment . . . had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!”
Whether Marryat is exaggerating or not is subject to speculation–he is certainly poking fun at the Americans–but I can attest that, after having paged through a dozen books showing old, black-and-white photos of Victorian interiors, I saw not one example of a table, piano, or any other piece of furniture with skirts around its individual legs. (Please submit period photos if you know of any.) I did see floor-length skirts on round tables, like the one shown above in the left side of the room (click on the photo and it gets larger), but heck, I have a table like that in my own house. There may well have been some who decorated with little skirts on piano legs or table legs, but it seems not to have been common. Those who chose to decorate like that were indulging in the Victorian era love of fabrics, opulence, and excessive ornamentation, not covering up naked legs.
Lavish draperies and fabrics—fringe, tassels, lace, and such—were part of the conspicuous consumption of the Victorian era. The surfaces of pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or other textiles, as seen on the center table above. Sometimes the purpose was to disguise a plain table made of a lesser wood. As Catherine Beecher, the Martha Stewart of her day, and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended in their 1869 book, American Woman’s Home: Take a “cheap pine table, such as you may buy for four or five dollars any day,” cover it with a piece of green fabric trimmed with a handsome border, and “you will be astonished to see how handsome an object this table makes under its green drapery.” Nothing about hiding naked table legs.
Besides, what was the point of all those ornate tables with heavily carved legs if they were not meant to be seen and admired?
It is true that in everyday language, the word “leg” was considered coarse by some (not all). Marryat mentions this in his 1839 book. I remember my grandfather saying that, as a boy, his mother would gently correct him if he ever said “leg.” The polite word was “limb.” (This was in 1900 in Washington, D.C.) A contemporary turn-of-the-century story tells of a self-conscious young lady who refuses to step up into a streetcar because she sees a group of young men loitering on the corner, waiting to catch a glimpse of her ankle. Most women did not obsess about such things.