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Miss Marple/Carmelita Investigates

Posted by Lewis on January 09, 2004

In Reply to: A clue, perhaps... posted by Word Camel on January 08, 2004

: : : : : : : : : : This morning I heard a furniture store ad on the radio, and they were advertising "cocktail tables", among other items. It struck me as odd, because although in our house when I was growing up we always referred to the long, low table in front of the sofa as the "cocktail table", I've noticed that most people say "coffee table".

: : : : : : : : : : I wonder which is more common? Could one or the other be regional? I can't believe there's an actual difference (that they are distinct types of tables). I grew up in metropolitan New Jersey near New York City, from the early 1960's on...

: : : : : : : : : I always called it a cocktail table as well. I'm not sure which term is more popular, but they don't call it a "cocktail table book", do they? :)

: : : : : : : : Folks on White Oak Mountain (W.Va.) didn't drink cocktails. It was a "coffee table." I've never heard people refer to it as a cocktail table.

: : : : : : : New Joy-zee??
: : : : : : : A bit west of ya in New Yawk City we called it a coffee table.

: : : : : : :::: I've lived all over the states, and it's a coffee table in your home. Seems to me a cocktail table is that little round thing you sit at in Vegas, which holds two or four expensive drinks while you watch the stage show.

: : : : : M-W.com says they are the same thing. Coffee table dates from 1877, while cocktail table dates from 1939. "Coffee-table" as an adjective, as in "coffee-table book" dates from 1962.

: : : : : I'll say my gut feeling is that "cocktail table" was the trendy term back in the 1950's and into the 60's. Although my parents are anything but trendy... I'm gonna do some more research.

: : : : I can contribute one factlet -- cocktail parties were trendy in the 1920s. ("Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982)

: : : I googled "1950s interior design" "cocktail table" and got several hits, including:

: : : The Webtender: The History of the Cocktail Shaker

: : : "...By the end of the decade (1930s), shakers had become standard household objects, affordable to all. Every family had at least one shaker on the shelf. There were now cocktail shakers in the shape of bowling pins, dumbbells, town criers bells, and even in the shape of a lady's leg. The cocktail party had influenced fashion, furniture, and interior design. Coffee tables were now cocktail tables, and the little black dress, designed by Coco Chanel, went from fad to fashion, and is now an institution..."
: : : http://www.webtender.com/handbook/shaker.html

: : : That article mentions "The Thin Man," one of my favorite movies.

: :
: : I'm a bit bemused at such a late date for combining 'coffee' with 'table'. My knowledge of the history of furniture is rudimentary, but I recall low tables used in reception rooms/parlours back to the 1700s. I went round the chocolate museum in Brussels and they have a permanent exhibition on hot beverages. Coffee and cocao were being drunk in Europe well before 1880 and the silverware that I saw dated back to at least the 1700s. I'm not sure that the table upon which the sets were stood was always given a specific name - generically 'occasional' was the most popular, but it seems improbable that it took until 1887 for somebody to refer to it as a 'coffee' table.

: : Anybody know better?

: I am reading a history of the concept of Home by Witold Rybczynski. He was making the point that until relatively modern times, rooms served many different functions as did furniture. Anyone who has searched in vain for an antique coffee table will know that coffee tables as we know them, low to the ground, etc. are rare. The sofa and chair arrangements we know and love are also a relatively recent innovation. The French were the first (discounting the ancient Greeks) to design really comfortable upholstered sofas and chairs around the time of Louis XV and this is when tables began to be made for specific purposes. Interestingly, it's around this time that coffee houses spring up in places like London and become the precursors of institutions like Lloyds of London. (Sorry - I'm a bit all over the place here). Perhaps coffee and cocoa were seen as things consumed outside the home?

: Well, I hope you are happy - you've put a bee in my bonnet... I'm going off to research.

: Camelita
: Who doesn't have as much time on her hands as you migh thing from reading this

I was thinking that kind of period - low tables, beverage sets and French upholstery etc.
For some reason, coffee was 'the new ale' for a time - perhaps the caffeine had more impact than now or perhaps it was popular simply because it was companionable without intoxicating effect. Tea was too expensive for the hoi-poloi, so perhaps beans - which have more durability in transit than tea - were significantly cheaper and thus coffee (and cocoa) were affordable to the public at large?

I'll be interested in your discoveries.