Sep
14
2010

Is a highboy different from a tallboy?

Antique American highboys

Highboys in Philadelphia Chippendale 1760s style with bonnet tops - chest on right is walnut. (Photos by John Benson and Jenny O'Donnell - CC-BY)

Tall chests of drawers, made in two pieces, with an upper chest fitting into the top of the lower, were popular in the 18th century. In Britain they are known as tallboys, while Americans call them highboys. The English master cabinet-maker Chippendale inspired some of the best designs on both sides of the Atlantic, including the much-prized Philadelphia highboys of around 1760.

Philadelphia highboys of that period come from a “golden age” of colonial American furniture design and craftsmanship, and yet they did not abandon key features of highboys made in the previous 40 years. The lower chest was typically two rows of drawers set on curved cabriole legs, with mouldings around the “join” where it met the upper, slightly narrower chest.  Characteristic American highboy designs of this type often have a scrolled, broken arch pediment, known as a bonnet top. They were made in colonial New England too: often from cherry, walnut, or  maple. Fine carving, finials, and decorative brass handles made an important contribution.

Although  the same influences and fashions created both British tallboys and American highboys, there are differences of emphasis. Mahogany and walnut were common woods for 18th century English chests. The bonnet top is less prevalent in UK tallboys, which may well finish with a straight cornice. British antiques enthusiasts often call mid-18th century pieces Georgian after the reigning kings, while Americans tend to call this particular style after the earlier Queen Anne. The name tallboy may simply suggest a plain chest-on-chest no-legs design in the UK, while the curves of the more ornate American highboys come to mind in the US. In England tallboy began to be used for other tall chests of drawers. The name lowboy for a low chest -  sometimes made as companion piece for a highboy – originated in the US and has had limited use in the UK.

The earliest tallboys appeared just before 1700, though they did not yet carry that name. They generally had a heavier, darker appearance than later designs, and sat upon six legs. English ones may be oak. This type is often called a William and Mary highboy or tallboy, even if made after their reign.

By the 19th century highboys and tallboys were no longer in vogue, especially for clothes storage. This is partly explained by a greater emphasis on hanging clothing inside wardrobes etc. High chests of drawers seemed old-fashioned in Victorian times, although they offered too much good storage space to vanish completely. Sometimes they were split, and feet added to the upper chest. Outside the world of antiques the names highboy and tallboy are now used for all sorts of storage furniture, but most often for tall pieces with at least five drawers.

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