The furniture that surrounds us everywhere–at home, at work, when we’re out–is more than bits of wood and metal serving a practical purpose. We sit on them, eat on them, sleep on them, store our things in them. Furniture is part of our lives–and very much part of our cultural and psychological lives.
In this new series (I hope you’ll find it interesting!) I’ll be looking at our ordinary pieces of furniture from a different angle: that of history, culture and psychology. Would you like to know what’s hidden behind the objects that furnish your everyday life? Then stick with me throughout this series!
I will begin this series with the most ubiquitous of furniture: the table. No more complicated than a flat surface (of rectangular, circular or oval shape) on enough legs to keep it stable, the table has been at the center of many of the most important moments of our history… and of our own lives.
The table–A history
The earliest tables were simple slabs of stone set on the floor to keep things off the ground. Tables were not always used for seating, or even eating; for example, the Chinese used early tables for practicing the art of calligraphy and painting.
The Greeks and Romans used tables for eating. Greeks saved space by pushing their tables under a bed after using them, but Romans developed more permanent, semi-circular tables to seat guests and eat.
In the Middle Ages, the peoples of Western Europe made use of trestle-type tables, which were easy to make and easy to transport. These could be small, for a single family, or enormous, like in aristocratic dining halls.
The 17th century saw the advancement from the trestle table to the refectory table, and the basic shapes and techniques for building tables have little changed since. The Roman form of a flat surface on pillars is still a table we would recognize today.
The table–A cultural view
Would the Knights of the Round Table be the same if the table had been rectangular? Would diplomatic relations be different if we met at the negotiating couch rather than at the negotiating table? Culturally, the table is a sign of unity and equality. It is where decisions are made, things of major import are discussed, and where our leaders meet. The table is where people sit down to talk and negotiate.
The circular table has particular significance, since it has been shown by sociologists that sitting around a circular table increases the impression of equality and fairness among those sitting. The circular table (and sitting in circles in general) is an almost universal symbol of cultural unity, openness and fairness, as well as the starting point for many religious and spiritual rituals.
The table–A psychological view
On the personal, psychological level, tables have very rich meanings. The kitchen table is the center of the family home, where children do their homework under a parent’s watchful eye. The table is where the family sits for a daily meal and discuss together. The table is where children try their first recipes, draw pictures and make messes.
Studies have shown that families who sit together at the table at least once a day have fewer eating disorders, are healthier and happier. Sitting around the table develops communication, trust and intimacy. However, this can have a dark side: any strict policy around food can turn a happy family moment into years of struggling with eating disorders. Many people have developed issues with food from an unhealthy relationship with the dinner table.
Make the most of your table
To gain the most personal benefits from your table, make sure that you spend at least one meal with your family, eating at the table. This time should be one of sharing and openness. Sharing food at a table is one of humanity’s most pervasive and important social ritual–make sure you partake it in often.
What do you do at your table? What are your memories of family meal time? Share your personal meaning of the kitchen table with us!