Relevant categories: Cabinets and Chests
What Exactly Are French Commodes?
(Above photo - French Chest of Drawers - Antique Kingwood Bombe Commode )
At the mention of the word “commode,” some people mistakenly think you are talking about a toilet. That’s far from the truth. While the term may translate into English as “toilet,” French commodes are antique chests of drawers. So, you wouldn’t know about it unless you are an antique furniture enthusiast. In this write-up, we provide a historical background that led to the word “commode,” having two meanings.
Language Changes That Led To Different Meanings
(Above photo - Empire Commode in Rosewood French Chest of Drawers )
Over the years, the word “commode” has evolved through what linguists call “semantic drift.” It describes a phenomenon in which the meaning of a particular word changes until people start using it in different contexts. In the early 1700s, the French word “commode” meant a cabinet or a chest of drawers where people stored personal items. It is derived from the French word for “suitable” or “convenient.”
In succeeding years, people began using the word “commode” for a cabinet used to hold chamber pots. Soon, it denoted a wooden chair-like piece of furniture for holding the chamber pot. Finally, “commode” became the porcelain plumbing fitting installed in place of the chamber pot. That’s how it became synonymous with the toilet.
So What Are French Commodes?
(Above photo - Antique French Commode Chest of Drawers )
The French commode is a cabinet or chest of drawers introduced into the country in the early 18th century. They were great in terms of beauty and function. Today, the antique market is full of pieces of furniture from that period. French commodes were low cabinets or chests of drawers featuring elaborate decorations and standing on short feet or cabriole legs. The earliest commodes had a convex or bombe shape. Its back was flat and meant to stand against the wall. Later, it took on a more rectilinear form with straight legs.
(Above photo - French Bombe Commodes )
Commodes had a design with larger widths than the heights. They stood against the wall to provide convenient storage for personal items. The top of the cabinet was commonly a marble slab. In most homes, commodes took a prominent position. It was not uncommon to find a single chest or a pair of matching cabinets. They were used in rooms such as the bedroom and combined with a mirror.
In the early 18th century, the commode could mainly be found in aristocratic and royal houses. With time, people noticed how useful and indispensable the cabinet had become. When it found itself in humble dwellings, it became everyone’s piece of furniture. From that time, it was clear the commode would be a must-have piece of furniture available in any house.
(Above photo - Pair Empire Commodes - Ormolu Cherub Linke Chest Drawers )
By the end of the 1800s, the commode was less elegant than it had been. Instead of emphasizing on excellent qualities, designers concentrated on making it more functional. As it made its way into England and the rest of Europe, it took on a new name – a chest of drawers.
If you are a collector, buying an antique French commode can be the right place to start. Its other-worldly qualities can make it the perfect centrepiece for any home. Luckily, there are many antique stores in which you can find what you want.
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