The History of a Farmhouse Table
Forty-some years ago my father was walking through a farmer’s field in southeastern Pennsylvania when he happened upon a table sitting in the middle of the field. The table was covered with whitewash, a low-cost, lime-based paint that was historically used to cover the interior and exterior of rural structures like barns and outbuildings.
By the time my father spotted it, the table had been sitting in the field for weeks, maybe months, but the three or four coats of whitewash, no doubt, protected it from the eastern Pennsylvania elements. My father examined it top to bottom, scraped off some of the whitewash with his fingernail and recognized it as a well-constructed table that deserved a home. He walked over to the farmer’s house, knocked on the door and bought the table from the farmer for 25 dollars.
With the table secured in the trunk of his fire-engine red Cadillac DeVille, my father drove home and set it up in the garage, where my mother took over. She stripped off the whitewash, coated the table with an orange-tinted stain and after it dried, my mother and father moved the table into our kitchen.
My parents were antique collectors and inveterate home buyers. Furniture in our house was like changeable parts and we never stayed in one place too long, either. We moved house seven times over the course of my childhood and when we did settle, my parents were always buying and selling furniture. Very few pieces stayed in our house for long.
It wasn’t unusual for us to take weekend trips up and down the northeastern seaboard and deep into the interior of Pennsylvania and New York where my parents prowled around dusty antique shops and held interminable conversations with the proprietors about the authenticity of an American Federal dining suite or a Chippendale Pembroke side table. Inevitably we’d pile in the car on Sunday morning with a French provincial armchair, an early American blanket chest or a set of Quaker meeting house chairs crammed into the trunk or settled in place between my sister and me in the back seat.
Given all that trading of tables, beds, chairs and desks, it’s hard to say what it was about the farmhouse table that laid its claim on my parents, but over the course of the next 40 years, the table my father found in the farmer’s field served as the main dining table for three generations of our family.
The table was 28.5 inches tall 40 inches wide and 54 inches long. The tabletop was constructed of three pieces of rough cut, grainy one-inch pine board with a quarter-inch gap between the pine boards—large enough for a pencil to get lodged between the gap, or for crumbs, paper clips and chop sticks to fall through, onto the floor. Wooden hand pegs lock the tabletop to the base. If you removed two of the pegs from the same side, you could flip the table up and then it served as a bench. The technical term is a tilt-top table. The bench opened from the top and there was a storage area where we used to keep place mats and tablecloths.
I examined the table many times, studying the bottom of the table top and scrutinizing the underside of the bench for a sign, a message in a bottle, from the craftsman but I could find nothing to tell me who made it or when. When I failed to find the craftsman’s mark on the table, I turned to the Internet for answers. I looked on Ebay and other online vintage and antique marketplaces and found three nearly identical farmhouse tables that were on the market for anywhere between $500 and $1000. All of the advertisements identified the table as made somewhere in Pennsylvania, probably Lancaster, between 1900 and 1950.
Given that, the craftsman of the farmhouse table was very likely a member of one of the many generations of German-speaking immigrants who left west and southwestern Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and settled in southeastern and central Pennsylvania. These were Mennonites, Quakers, Anabaptists, Lutherans and Moravians fleeing religious and economic persecution in Europe. They established bustling towns like Germantown, just outside of Pennsylvania, mostly fought on the winning side of the American Revolution and successfully farmed the rich soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. The Mennonites, Anabaptists and Amish, in an effort to get away from the secular sway of the big cities, moved into central Pennsylvania where they eventually settled in and around Lancaster County.
The craftsman who made our farmhouse table fashioned a piece of furniture that survived a century and embodies a history of hand-crafted furniture that is rapidly passing away. Nowadays, furniture in most American homes is almost purely instrumental. If we think at all about that sofa in the living room where we collapse every evening or the coffee table in front of the sofa where we prop up our feet and pile our books, we think about those things in the context of their use value: Is the sofa comfortable? Is the coffee table big enough? Will our friends be impressed?
Furniture in most American homes, because it has been mass-produced in developing countries by underpaid and over-exploited hands, isn’t something that we tend (or wish) to think about at great length. Marx called this phenomenon commodity fetishism. Who wants to come home from a hard day of work and think through the archeology of the Ikea dining room chair or the loveseat from Target? The manufactured life of the wood, metal and upholstered items that we sit and lay on every day in our homes is, by and large, invisible to us and we are happy to keep it that way. Given the often grim set of global and economic circumstances that bring these things into our home, we don’t find time to concentrate on their histories before we drag and wheel them into our homes, spill coffee and wine on them, wear them threadbare and then toss them in the local garbage dump.
For as little as we think about how the objects in our home were fashioned, we think even less about the tools that fashioned the object. In the same way that the political and economic life of much of our furniture is invisible, so too is the reality of the machines that cut and fashioned the wood of our office desks, molded the metal that girds the sofa cushions and wove the fabric that covers our dining chair seats. Do you ever wonder about the industrial band saw that cut the tops of tables from Ikea or the computerized machine tools that fashioned the arms and legs of chairs you may have purchased at Pier One? If you close your eyes and think about that for a moment, you’ll probably see a football field’s length industrial building with a 1:100 human to machine ratio.
The craftsman of our farmhouse table probably used tools similar to the kinds of tools carpenters and craftsmen had been carrying around in their toolboxes since the seventeenth century: planes, augers, hand drills and saws, hammers and chisels. If the craftsman made our farmhouse table around 1925 it’s unlikely he would have had access to any electrical tools. Black and Decker didn’t manufacture the first portable drill that could be used by one person until 1917, and the circular saw, or sidewinder, you have on your home work bench wasn’t available until 1923.
What changed, probably during the lifetime of our craftsman, was the way those tools were made. He used hammers, chisels and saws that were passed down from his father and that were fashioned by a local blacksmith who heated iron or steel and then forged the tools with anvils and hammers, using a process that hadn’t changed too much since the ancient Greeks. The craftsman of our table likely purchased some of his tools from a general store or from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The ready-made tools the craftsman used—the metal hammerhead or the wooden handle of his hammer, for instance--would have been fashioned by enormous industrial-sized machines—hydraulic drill presses, gas powered lathes and other sorts of large- and small-scale machinery that emerged in the late nineteenth century and that churned out metal and wood parts that would be molded into smaller machines or into hand held tools.
Over the course of decades, as we piled food and memories onto the farmhouse table it has achieved its own history in our family. It moved from an object left to rot in a field, to a thing that talked back to us, that made us remember, reflect and meditate on our past and our future.
Many of our family photographs from when I was young are set around the farmhouse table. There’s a photo of my sixth birthday party. I’m standing on a chair, leaning across the table and blowing out the candles on the chocolate mayonnaise cake my mom made for the party. My grandmother stands to the side, my mother is next to me with her hand on my back to keep my from falling over and little friends who I can’t even identify anymore sit around the table, expectant and waiting for the last candle to be extinguished. There’s another photograph of me sitting at the table on a visit home from college. I am in my disaffected, Camus-reading phase. I am wearing a brown suede jacket over a blue work shirt. My elbow is on the table and my face is cradled in my hand. I am bored, annoyed and alienated.
Other scenes that transpired around the farmhouse table were captured in rebellious etchings. One evening when I was nine years old my mother made a dinner that consisted of some kind of a pea concoction that I found revolting. I refused to eat it and my mother, consequently, refused to allow me to leave the table until I finished the dish. I took up her challenge and engaged in a battle of wills that had me sitting at the table until it was time for bed. My mother cleaned up after dinner—everything except my plate. I looked out the window. The sky got darker. Lights turned on in the neighbor’s houses. My sister scampered around the house, happy to be free and eyeing me with silent wonder, but I just sat there, like a petulant Buddha. When I asked me mom about this incident many year later, she laughed and replied, “Yeah, you were sitting down but you were standing up on the inside.”
I never finished the peas. In secret defiance and as a way to mark what I considered an unjust and absurd punishment that had been meted out against me, I carved my name in upper case letters on the side of the table: E-R-I-C. It’s still there today and my mother, when she visits us in Denver, likes to point to my graffiti and retell the story.
Sometime after I finished college, my parents moved house and the first time I came to visit their new place I noticed a new table in the kitchen. “Where’s the kitchen table?” I asked my mom. “Oh, you know, I got tired of it so I put in the basement. You can have it when you get your first house.”
After I finished graduate school at Michigan State University, I took a job in an English department at a small liberal arts college in Dubuque, Iowa. Before I moved deeper into the Middle West and further from my roots in southeastern Pennsylvania, I went home to collect some furniture to take to my new house in Dubuque. My mom and I went through the basement where she stored furniture they were saving for my sister and me. I took a bed, a dresser, a couple chairs and old sofa and, of course, the farmhouse table.
If the farmhouse table could experience emotions, I’m sure it was, like me, sad and lonely in Dubuque. I ate most of my meals alone there and many times, I wouldn’t even bother to sit at the farmhouse table; I’d just eat my meals over the sink in true bachelor style.
After five years, I pulled up stakes and moved back to Michigan, farmhouse table in tow. Shortly after I moved into a dingy, all beige, one-bedroom apartment near the campus I met my wife. We began our life together there around the farmhouse table—first tentatively and them more intensely. When we moved from Michigan to Colorado we carefully loaded the table into the moving truck and set it up in the studio loft apartment we bought in downtown Denver. Our first child was born when we were in that house and he learned to eat, laugh and talk around that table. When our daughter was born three years later and we had outgrown the downtown house, we moved to a larger house a mile west and the farmhouse table came with us.
A few years ago, we found ourselves quietly complaining about the farmhouse table. It was too small. It squeaked too much. It slid across the floor when the children got up from their chairs to get another glass of milk. We talked in an offhand manner of looking for another kitchen table, but beyond the idle chatter, I don’t think we really imagined we’d ever replace the farmhouse table.
Some forty years after my father found the farmhouse table in the field, my wife and the kids and I are walking down a crowded street in the Balinese village of Ubud, an artisan village an hour inland from the capital city of Denpasar. We started casually looking at the suar and teak tables in the artisan shops and by the end of the day, we had purchased a beautiful suar wood table top with metal legs.
Six months after we returned from Bali, my wife got a call from the Port of Denver: the suar table had arrived. I pretty much forgot about it before my wife got the call. We borrowed a friend’s truck, had the guys at the port load into the bed and then brought our new dining room table home. At three inches thick, four feet wide and six fee long and weighing over 300 pounds the suar table is massive. We carefully slid it out of the truck and then waited for our friends to help us move it into the house.
I gently moved the farmhouse table out of the way and replaced it with the new suar table. The farmhouse table sat on the sideline of our dining room while we admired the sleek, sturdy new table. It was like a brand new Jaguar sitting next to a ’53 Chevy sedan that needed a little work. Foreign, upmarket and sleek against homespun, folksy and vintage.
Neither my wife nor I brought up the question of what to do with the farmhouse table. The prospect of getting rid of the table felt like a betrayal of our family history. Rescued from a farmer’s field, it served us well for over 40 years. How could we abandon it? But then again, we reasoned, it’s just a table—some pieces of wood that were assembled a long time ago and that we used for a very long time and now it was time to pass it on to someone else.
Or was it?
We talked about repurposing the table as a bench and placing it in the guest bedroom. We even talked about storing it until one of the kids had their first home. But, the farmhouse table was a dining table that three generations of our family ate our breakfast, lunch and dinner around. It's meant to be a dining table. It’s meant for people to gather around, eat and talk to each other. It’s meant as a place for kids to plop down their school books and do their homework at night and even refuse to eat food they find distasteful. Putting it somewhere else in the house, putting it to another use or, worse, storing it in a garage would be like using a flowerpot as a coffee mug.
We decided to look for a good home for the table. My wife posted some photos on Facebook with a ‘free to a good home’ message and within an hour a friend replied. She and her husband had just moved into a new home in Denver, they were decorating the home in a kind of retro, vintage fashion, the farmhouse table was exactly what they were looking for and they’d wanted the farmhouse table in their home.
Later that evening, the couple stopped by the house to pick up the farmhouse table. Before I dismantled it, we all stood around the table and I tried to tell them the story of my father pulling it out of a field, coated in whitewash, and how my mom fixed it up and how my sister and me and then my own children sat around this table and how it meant a lot to us and that we hoped it would give them as much joy as it had given us. But my voice was hollow and I had to steel it from catching. I gave up on the story halfway through.
I was looking for a ceremonial turnover, but, really, it was just a transaction. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. For this young couple, at the beginning of their lives together, the farmhouse table was just a cute, vintage table that will look good in their house. As the years go by, as the memories accumulate, as children spill milk on the surface and cram blueberries and banana peels into its crevices, and carve their own names into the tabletop, they, too, will acquire sentimental feelings for the table. At the end, we hedged just a bit: we asked them to never give it away or sell it and if they found they didn’t have a use for the farmhouse table, to give it back to us. It would always be welcome in our home.
About the Author: Eric Fretz is an Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. He has published numerous essays about community organizing, climate change, American literature and civic engagement and he edited and contributed chapters to a book of essays, Climate Change Across the Curriculum (Lexington Books, 2015). In 2016 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Timisoara, Romania where he taught in the American Studies department at the University of the West. He received his Ph.D. in English and American Studies from Michigan State University.