I think I prefer my brother’s definition. “A coffee table is a device invented so people can experience pain in the comfort of their own living room.” My brother is sure that the number of scars on his shins will provoke some future archaeologist to theorize that he was a Driver’s Ed instructor for tricycle riders.
However, the folks out there on the Interwebs, who are never wrong (just ask them), define a coffee table as “a low table designed to be placed in front of (or next to) a sofa or upholstered chairs for convenient support of beverages, remote controls, half-finished crossword puzzles, magazines, large books, decorative objects, cat toys, ashtrays, and small objects which can never be found when needed, as in the matter of those coasters for the selected beverages.”
People who research the history of furniture (there are such people) argue about the exact distinction between a coffee table and a tea table, and even an end table. For those of us who know primarily the modern coffee table of common construction, height is an important factor. Those tables in English coffee houses, where patrons could set their coffee down while they advanced the course of Western philosophy, were about three feet high. A REAL coffee table needs to be too low for a tall person to set anything on conveniently, but still high enough for an average person to bang those delicate shins against. (If it were too low, you would only stub your toe, which loses the coffee table points in its war against human legs.)
Some experts blame an eighteenth century fascination with the Turks, who drank sitting down or even reclining, while others derive the invention to the fad for Japanese furniture and artifacts prevalent in the late nineteenth century. The president of a furniture company, F. Stuart Foote, always claimed the idea sprang straight from his own mind. In 1920, his wife was throwing a party which would require a centerpiece in the living room, so he hacked a few inches off one of his company’s dining room tables and used that. Mr. Foote’s version is largely promoted by other furniture manufacturers who for some reason want to see the coffee table as an American invention. Other people get hot and heavy into a discussion of when tea gave way to coffee as America’s hot beverage of choice, as if somehow people who drink tea insist on taller tables.
Be that as it might, the coffee table was immediately adored by decorators, who loved to put together cozy little coffee nooks in living rooms. There were rules: a coffee table, it says here, should be two-thirds as long as your couch, and two inches lower than the couch cushions. This does make a certain amount of sense if you are a person with wonky knees and you fall down. You can pull yourself up onto the coffee table and move from there to the couch. (Be wary of glass-topped coffee tables. And don’t sit on the dog’s squeaky toy or you’ll all be in for a surprise.)
Why, you might ask if you’ve gotten this far and haven’t slipped out to the kitchen to see if there’s any rhubarb meringue pie left, is this of interest to a Book Fair manager? Well, that bit was in the definition above. Coffee tables have long been the home of coffee table books. Coffee table books are a concept most people accept, even if they don’t get it quite right. I have had people tell me they had lots of “coffee books”, or “cocktail table books” and there was even one delightful chap who offered me all his “cocktable books.”
A coffee table book, known around here as a BBWLP (Big Book With Lotsa Pictures), is practically a requirement, according to all these historians of furniture, whom I suspect of owning lots of big reference books with glass rings on them. The term was invented, according to some experts (one of whom sniffs that the term SHOULD simply be “illustrated book”) by David Brower, of The Sierra Club, when it brought out This is the American Earth, a Big Book With Lotsa Pictures by Ansel Adams. So now you know.
If this lockdown goes on much longer, I shall next track down this claim that the chrome-legged, glass-topped coffee table which has haunted so many shins, is actually a Chicago invention, introduced by “a department store” here in 1934. But that will come after I track down the inventor of the “Newberry Bookcase”, marketed with a nod but not a nickel to the Newberry Library. You wouldn’t have liked it: too tall to be a coffee table but too short for coffee table books to fit on the shelves.