As houses grew in size and rooms in number, the functional serving table became a symbol of the wealth of its owner. Most were made of mahogany, inlaid with satinwood and brass, and designed with drawers and later with cabinets that stored silver, crystal, and linens. In addition, with space to set up a buffet, the sideboard became the do-it-all server that made dining an experience.
There is some disagreement about who designed the first sideboard. When English architect Robert Adam was designing furniture for the houses he created in the 1760s, he incorporated the imagery he had discovered in the excavations of classical ruins in Rome and Pompeii. His earliest sideboards were large and fairly opulent with pedestals at either end topped by urns that held silverware in one and dispensed hot water for cleaning dishes in the other. The brass rails rising from the top of many sideboards had sheer fabric hanging from them to shield expensive walls and wallcoverings from the potential splatter of a soup or sauce.
Working just a few years after Adam, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite both created design books that have inspired sideboards ever since. Six tall legs created a serving height of 34 to 38 inches, and large drawers were lined with felt for silver or with lead for ice to chill wine. The ornate inlay and highly reflective mahogany wood of these 18th-century sideboard designs inspired cabinetmakers in England and the young United States. Sheraton’s and Hepplewhite’s designs are in fact associated with the American Federal period, an interpretation of English Georgian and neoclassical styles that yielded sober, impressive serving tables. Competitors at the time, these two designers influenced one another but also had some unique differences in style. For example, “Hepplewhite and Adam made square, tapered legs. Sheraton’s were often turned and rounded,” says Lindquist.