Being a design historian I have always been interested in the origin of some of the rather obscure nomenclature associated with antique furniture. I am sure other fields have the same issue. Words have been handed down so long that people use them without thinking of their original meaning.
We are all familiar with the wardrobe, the term originating from a ward or room for robes, the term armoire originally was a closet or chest for arms or tools, the Davenport a complex small writing desk that was allegedly first designed for Lord Davenport. All these terms can be found quite easily but the Chiffonier is a rather moveable feast.
The first known use is recorded in 1765 where it describes a tall and narrow many drawered chest to keep ‘chiffons’, small pieces of fabric or off-cuts used in sewing, dress and quilt-making, much like a Wellington chest without the locking mechanism (another aristocrat who had a piece of furniture named after him).
Even though the meaning is in the word chiffonier, often translated as ‘rag-gatherer’, I had not thought of it. It is certainly obvious why the world adopted the French term rather than the English translation. I would not want to mention that I just acquired a beautiful ‘rag gatherer’ for my wife, whereas I would throw the word chiffonier into any polite conversation.
So as time progressed the word chiffonier was acquired into the English language and became to mean something entirely different. Chiffoniers in the Regency period are what I always believed a chiffonier was and I never questioned it – a side cabinet with two drawers above two pleated silk paneled or brass trellis decorated doors with shelves inside. On top you would find a shelf or two in what we unromantically call a superstructure in the trade but I like to think of as the ‘penthouse’ (see below).
Confusingly, there are several other varieties which sprung up in America, namely the chifferobe (an armoire married with the tall narrow chiffonier in the original meaning) and the chifferette, a smaller linen press (which, in its later meaning is a cabinet above a chest of drawers). Taking the whole thing back to France one would probably call my concept of the chiffonier a Meuble d’Appui, making the reader entirely confused.
So it seems the more one knows, the less one is sure in furniture terminology – but personally I shall stick with my British concept and imagine that it was indeed the very British Mr. Sheraton who coined the very French term for this baffling but elegant example of cabinetry.