In 1961, when Henry Francis du Pont, scion of that famously wealthy family, decided to donate to the fledgling American Museum in Bath, England, he sent a glorious example of American craftsmanship: a highboy.
Du Pont wasn’t just an avid collector of American decorative arts; he was an expert, founding one of the most important collections at Winterthur (his childhood home in Delaware and now one of the premier museums of American decorative art). Du Pont even advised Jackie Kennedy on the renovation of the White House. So if he saw the highboy as a piece “typically American in form and execution,” and important enough to send to the only museum dedicated to American decorative arts outside of the country, then it was.
The American spirit of reinvention touched everything from politics to architecture to the decorative arts, and the highboy was no exception. Originally a Georgian creation, the chest-on-stand offered two levels of storage: a wider set of drawers at shin-height mounted on turned legs, and a slightly narrower set resting on top. Drawers were a relatively new idea, a novel solution to a very modern-day problem: more stuff and smaller living areas. English colonists headed for the Americas still needed drawers in the New World, and about a decade later the American highboy was born.
Unlike their English counterparts, American craftsmen were not part of guilds; they were independent contractors, able to come up with their own designs and weren’t bound by regulations. The pieces became lighter and more vertical, often topped with elaborate finials and bonnets: “The great thing about American highboys is that they stretch… and they have this wonderful airy delicacy,” says Laura Beresford, curator for the American Museum, where the du Pont highboy still resides. They also became more ornate, even ostentatious. Where chest-on-stands had been the favorites of the English middle class, highboys were now popular with the increasingly wealthy American upper class, which saw the highboy as an aspirational showpiece.
After the American Revolution, there was a potent explosion in furniture craftsmanship in the 1780s and ’90s; the highboy was emblematic of that moment. But by the 1820s and ’30s, it had fallen out of fashion in favor of wardrobes and later, built-in closets. Still, the form was been periodically revived in the late Victorian era, the early 20th century, and even as a kitchen convenience aimed at the modern 1920s housewife. Sometimes it was reinvented in simpler lines, sometimes in a glorious revival of carved intricacy.
Even now, the piece that reached the height of its popularity at the birth of the nation still retains its cachet. Designers such as the late Albert Hadley and Bunny Williams have used them in their interiors. In Hadley’s case, he paired a Queen Anne highboy with a printed wallpaper and matching curtains to charming effect, while Williams anchored a living room of chalky neutrals with a towering example. Then, as now, it’s American design at its best.
Images via Country Living, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Cullman & Kravis