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19th Century Furniture & Sculpture

Storage Wars

NEW YORK – Many of us have expectations when it comes to what we look for in a 21st-century city apartment. Air conditioning? Yes. Dishwasher? Sure. Oven? Not necessary. Big closet? Non-negotiable.

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A NORTH ITALIAN NEOCLASSICAL TULIPWOOD, AMARANTH, FRUITWOOD AND MARQUETRY COMMODE, LATE 18TH CENTURY. TO BE SOLD IN COLLECTIONS: EUROPEAN FURNITURE ON 27 OCTOBER IN NEW YORK.  

Closets are a relatively new phenomenon in architectural history. During the Middle Ages, nobles had a real bed, but their “bedroom,” which was called the great chamber, was also used for eating and entertaining. If you were not a noble, you probably slept on a floor pallet and possibly shared it with another person outside the great chamber or in the hall. A closet, or a storage area for clothes, was never part of the bedroom or grand chamber. Instead, wealthy individuals stored their clothes in chests, as can be seen in the famous Venus of Urbino by Titian. Lower-class people, such as farmers, yeomen and craftsmen, had few clothing options, as cloth was quite expensive. With only one or two outfits, there was no need for any elaborate storage areas.

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VENUS OF URBINO. AFTER TIZIANO VECELLIO, CALLED TITIAN.

A room called the closet did develop during the medieval period; however, this small room was connected to the great chamber and was used for prayer, contemplation or study. Some closets overlooked a household chapel, so that the family could be elevated above the staff during mass. These medieval closets might have stored some precious treasures and important collections of art and objects, but they were not repositories for shoes and clothes.

In the 18th century, when individuals could afford more clothing options, they would secure them in a highboy, chest-on-chest or commode with locks on every drawer; clothing and linens were still expensive and therefore were protected from the hands of an enterprising servant.

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A SCOTTISH GEORGE III BOXWOOD AND EBONY CHEQUER-BANDED MAHOGANY CHEST ON CHEST ATTRIBUTED TO YOUNG & TROTTER OF EDINBURGH, CIRCA 1770.

The first built-in closet did not develop until the mid-19th-century in America, as Europeans continued to use wardrobes, armoires and chests of drawers to hold their clothing. Closets and their widespread popularity relied on another invention: an early iteration of the hanger. O.A. North of Connecticut developed a hanger-like hook attached to the wall for hanging clothes wrinkled by folding in 1869. The modern hanger was only invented in 1903. Once the basic elements were in place, closets began to expand and become ever more detailed with storage systems and closet units.

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A LARGE EUROPEAN LACQUER CUPBOARD, PROBABLY GENOA, CIRCA 1730.

With a rise in the popularity of Marie Kondo’s tidying methods, organization and de-cluttering are now more popular than ever before. Your choices for storage furniture on today’s market are varied and exciting since they range from mass-produced systems available via two-day delivery to original 18th century “closets” that are available at auction. It’s a rarity to get a closet large enough to fit all of your clothes, and if you don’t have a walk-in, you couldn’t do better than an 18th-century wardrobe that has lasted for almost three hundred years.

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