Following most of the design conventions of the time, sofa table began to appear around the seventeen hundreds. Sofas and settees were known for featuring a high, decorative back. As the design of the sofa changed and the back was lowered, the availability of space intrigued furniture designers and spawned changes in how the average living was laid out. A common piece of accent furniture, the sofa table was once thought of as a necessity. The precursor of the modern coffee table, the development of the sofa table was tied to other significant changes in furniture design.
A number of different tables were once considered sofa tables and were loosely defined as any table used near the sofa. The sofa table as we know it is found in the back of the sofa. Usually quite long and narrow in width, the modern sofa table serves as more of a decorative piece. Sofa tables come in many styles, from the contemporary to the baroque.
The hearth or fireplace was often the center and focus of a common room. Chairs and sofas were typically located very near the hearth. The purpose of course was to take advantage of the warmth of the fire and the light created. Contrary to what most of us do today, the sofa or settee was not placed up against a wall. Instead, the sofa piece was located in the center of the room or near the hearth.
The design of the sofa table was very intentional and was thought to originate during the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds. Prior to that period, the settee was the standard. The upholstered sofa that we are familiar with today did not appear until the seventeen hundreds. Characterized by an ornate wood frame, a settee would have upholstered seat and back, leaving the rest of the frame exposed. I have no doubt that the availability of cloth drove the trend towards the minimal use of upholstered surfaces.
As the Industrial Revolution begin to pick up speed, fabrics weaving changed dramatically. Starting in the late eighteenth century, fabric weaving moved quickly from a cottage industry to mass production. As the cost for fabric dropped, new uses for it grew. It was during this period that the fully upholstered couch began to replace the settee. It is thought that the sofa table was designed specifically as an accompaniment to the upholstered sofa.
Many table designs that we use today had their genesis in the Pembroke style, and the Pembroke table best epitomizes the early history of the sofa table. A drop leaf section was a characteristic of the Pembroke style and could be a single leaf or two. Another important feature distinguishes a Pembroke from other table designs. A Pembroke is known to feature a drawer and often will have two drawers. With the leaves in the down position, the table top takes on a rectangular shape. With the leaves in the up position, a Pembroke table top will be more or less a square.
Serving as a very practical piece of furniture, the Pembroke was far from being merely a decorative table. The leaf design was combined with a center pedestal configuration which facilitated a comfortable seating position. The Pembroke could be stored against a wall, but the decorative look of the table often had it in the center of the room, or behind a sofa. Locating the table behind the sofa provided a location for a lamp or just somewhere to set your teacup.
Many modern sofa tables feature some aspect of the Pembroke including drawers and leaves. The leaves on a sofa table are usually found in the table ends, and do not run the length of the table. On major design difference between the average sofa table and a Pembroke is the supports or legs. Most modern sofa tables have a legged support configuration, while many Pembroke tables feature a center pedestal with legs. You can find quite a few sofa tables that have a shelf spanning the four legs, close to the bottom of the legs.
If you are in the market for an antique sofa table or a Pembroke, take care when making your selection. Most sofa tables and Pembroke tables were crafted using standard dovetail joints for the drawers. The presence of a dado slot or wire brads may indicate that the piece is nothing more than a reproduction. Also, be on the lookout for any signs of refinishing. Refinishing is not necessarily a bad thing if it has been done by a knowledgeable professional. A poorly done restoration will greatly reduce the value the piece may have as an antique.