The kitchen dresser has many names: Welsh dresser, china hutch or even simply cabinet. Just to be clear, we’re talking about the tall dresser with display shelves at the top and drawers at the bottom. Some of them are open and some have glass doors to protect the displayed items from dust. Know what I’m talking about?
The kitchen dresser: A history
The kitchen dresser was first meant as a space to dress and prepare food; finished dishes would be set on a sideboard. Different regions of Europe had different versions of the dresser to suit their local needs: Scotland developed a special porridge cooling drawer, for example.
As time went by, the dresser became not so much a space to prepare food as one meant to display a home’s best china and keep the cutlery and kitchen linens. Again, local culture prevailed here as well: North Wales developed strong traditions about the proper display of chinaware in a kitchen dresser.
This piece of furniture was mostly used in England and in the United States, especially in the original British colonies. It has a definite formal British character, and today is used in formal dining rooms to display formal china and store silverware.
The kitchen dresser: A cultural view
The use of the kitchen dresser as a decorative and formal item of the dining room developed in middle-class homes, where dining room decorum and the display of wealth became paramount. The kitchen dresser is a sign of a family’s place on the class ladder: lower middle-class family would display their most cherished china, often their only set, while wealthier homes would have luxurious fine china lined with gold. The quality of your china was a sign of the quality of your position in society.
These days, kitchen dressers are still used in formal dining rooms. Those who have the space and wealth to display fine china often do so. To young people used to small apartments and light living, they often seem a bit old school and formal. They definitely have a place of honor in traditional and country-style dining rooms. However, you can find many modern-style kitchen dressers that would suit today’s more modern, minimal kitchens and dining rooms.
China isn’t the only thing that you can display in kitchen dressers. Modern ones can display everything from books to sculptures to decorative vases, often using smart lighting from inside the dresser. But no matter what you show, owning a kitchen dresser is still a sign of some financial ease and of a traditional mindset.
The kitchen dresser: A personal view
I remember the kitchen dresser at the back of the dining room in one of my father’s many homes throughout my childhood. This heavy piece of dark wood followed us everywhere. We never ate with the china that was displayed there, except maybe at Christmas. When the children played treasure hunt, we would often hide objects with the silverware or under the kitchen linen kept in the drawers. It was a fascinating piece full of memories and secrets, but it was also somewhat out of bounds, only to be touched and opened on special occasions.
There is no place more suitable for heirloom china than the kitchen dresser. Where there is no such thing, a couple’s wedding china will often take its place. Many family memories linked to food and the dinner table will also have links to the dresser. When the formal china comes out, the family knows it’s a special occasion. Formal family dinners, holiday celebrations, weddings, funerals and baptisms all require the use of formal china (or at least should for more traditional families).
The kitchen dresser is often our only link to familial and cultural traditions. A family’s quality is often inscribed in its china and cutlery, displaying in no uncertain terms that good families stay attached to their past and traditions. Who wouldn’t boast of owning the china that grandma or the great-grandmother received as a wedding gift?
Ultimately, the kitchen dresser is a source of pride. Is this your case? What is in your dresser? Share your dresser memories with us in the comments!