What on Earth is a highboy?

“What on Earth is a highboy? Aren’t you concerned people will think your blog is about weed?” (Thank you, well-meaning friends) Unfortunately if you’re looking for thoughts on marijuana, you are in the wrong place. If you’re interested in antique furniture and decorative arts, however…

A highboy is a relatively modern term for what the 18th century consumer would have called a high chest. Essentially, this piece of case furniture is a chest of drawers raised off the ground on legs. At the peak of American highboy design, these chests achieved a vertical energy unparalleled by anything else in the world, then or since.

Early examples of the form appeared in what is now called the William-and-Mary design period. These chests stood on six legs connected by stretchers, giving a beautiful but powerful elevation to what was likely the tallest piece of furniture the owner had ever possessed. Graduated drawer heights, with the tallest on the bottom and the shortest on the top, created a type of forced perspective that enhanced the sense of height.

MFA_william and mary highboy

William and Mary highboy at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This verticality was taken to a whole new level in the next design period, called Queen Anne. By switching out the six sturdy turned legs and stretchers in favor of four gently curved cabriole legs, the highboy achieved an airy grace that was entirely new to the world of furniture design. In fact, the graceful elevation achieved by cabriole legs was pretty much the signature move of Queen Anne furniture—you see it in chairs, dressing tables, candlestands, tea tables, etc.—but the effect is most dramatic on a highboy. Raised up on the delicate curve of cabriole legs, the chest seems to float weightlessly in the air. Of course, if you’ve ever tried to move a full-sized highboy, you know that “weightless” is not in any way an accurate way to describe one. The delicate appearance of the cabriole leg belies its true strength.

Highboy_drawing

The Queen Anne highboy is paradoxically both massive and weightless.

Finally, the pediment top was added later in the Queen Anne period, providing not only additional height to the form, but a visually pleasing curvature up top that balanced and complimented the curve of the cabriole legs below. The full-height, pediment-topped highboy is considered the apotheosis of the form, and I can definitely appreciate that position. However, my personal favorite is the early Queen Anne flat-topped variety. I prefer the simplicity of the flat top compared to the pediment, and I also like the look of displaying objects on top of the chest—maybe a couple of pretty wooden boxes and a vase?

MFA_queen anne newport highboy

The addition of the pediment top is the last major design change in the evolution of the highboy.

Want More?

  1. My cursory overview of the highboy as a furniture form is just an introduction. For more details, including how the evolution of the highboy fits into a larger story of changing furniture design in 18th century America, I highly recommend Jeffrey Greene’s book American Furniture of the 18th Century. Part One provides a really nice historical overview of the furniture design periods. Later in the book, he goes on to discuss structure and construction methods that are quite useful for the collector looking to find authentic pieces.
  2. Variations seen in highboy design and decoration are too numerous to discuss or picture in one blog post. Check out this Pinterest board I started to see many more examples!

MFA_william and mary highboy with plates

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