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.
Good article. Helps illuminate some of what we heard about the previous generations. My only problem was that the parlor depicted was enormous, whereas in Victorain houses they were rather small and formal and generally a bit crowded, intended to be used only for important visitors. I have seen a great many, all of which would only be a fraction as large as the one pictured.
My grandmother, a native of Rochester, New York, and born about 1892, referred to legs as limbs, but only on humans. Her handsome furniture never sported coverings on their limbs for modesty.
[…] abandoned the traditional shape and now bake it in rounds or loaves. I assume that they, like the storied Victorians who were embarrassed at the sight of table legs, have grown uncomfortable with an Easter celebration of the phallus. Either that or they […]
My father’s mother had little doily things around the bottoms of the legs on her most prized furniture. She may have made them herself, as each had a hole in the center just large enough to slip the leg of that particular peiece of furniture through (there was enough tension around the leg to hold them up of their own accord). Each came up from the ground to about 4″.
Grandma told us the story of how these were used in Victorian times as related in your myth, but I suspect her reason for using them was to protect the bottoms of the legs from getting dinged or scuffed. One of Grandpa’s least favorite chores was lifting the furniture to take the doilies off for washing, then again to put them back.
My Grandparents were Victorian (born in 1870(s) and they had a huge long dining table. I can ASSURE everybody that at the points where the eight table legs connected with the table top that there was a small cloth skirt on each leg (about 10 inch long skirts and each skirt had baubles hanging off them to make sure that they stayed in place should the wind catch them if the door was opened)
The reason I remember them on the table was that in the early 1950″s when I was a youngster I sometimes used to sit on the floor and wonder what the weighted baubles where for,. When I was about 5 years old I asked my mother what they where for and she explained to me that the Victorians liked to put skirts on tables in this fashion fo r” m0ralities sake”.
I love this story!
Further to my Post of earlier today about the skirts I saw on my Grandmothers large Dinner Table. Those skirts as I noticed in my Granparents house and other older peoples houses were only fitted to large tables and only where the legs of the table were the round bodied type ( ie. legs turned out on a spinning lathe) I never saw them on smaller tables and dressing tables etc etc or on tables etc with square cross section type legs..My Grandmother bought thiat particular table in approx 1910 so it was not only in the Victorian era (but slightly later) wen this practice still persisted. In fact she kept the skirts on the table till she passed away in the late 1960″s
Brits today still have a silly propensity for labelling Americans puritanical and prudish, but I didn’t realize they had started this nonsense so very long ago. After looking at old photos of Victorian rooms, some of which are so overblown and fabric rich that they must have been a fire hazard, I’ve never seen any table legs covered with fabric. They loved fabric, but they also loved carvings and turnings on all areas of their furniture, so I can’t imagine them covering such things out of a sense of modesty.
I happened to come across an anniversary book for the First Methodist Church of Trenton, New Jersey. There was a large Sunday School room with chambers off the central space. The idea was that there would be an opening service after which the various age groups would retire to one of the smaller rooms. A concert grand piano was provided for the music and this was fitted with a floor-length skirt all around it except under the keys. I suspect what was not to be seen were a woman’s legs if she were playing.