The Grand Rapids Historical Commission claims that in the early 1900s, F. Stuart Foote, president of The Imperial Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan gave it the name. His wife was having a party and needed a place for drinks. Being a good sport, he went to work. “He trimmed the legs of a dining table and named it the ‘coffee table’.”
If true, Stuart was surely not the first one to shorten the legs on a table.
The Chinese and Japanese, for thousands of years, served wine and tea at tables where guests sat on the floor. Indeed, in China and Japan, a house or a room was set aside for tea with nothing else but a mat. That and a low lying table on which to put the teapot. Likewise, for hundreds of years across the Middle East, sultans, like Suleiman the Magnificent, brewed and served Kashmiri tea in polished Samovars set on low slung tables.
Believe It or Not
Believe it or not, tea was not first. The Ottomans also had coffee beans they got from Arabia. The Ottomans roasted the beans over a fire, then finely ground them and gently boiled them in water. They called the drink “kahve”.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. About this time, the president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, A Conger Goodyear, asked the famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi to design a table for coffee for his Long Island weekender. The base was solid walnut, the top was glass. Again, being honest, it was called Modernist and the Naguchi table, and didn’t go into production until 1947.
Coffee comes to England
Let’s back up.
Great Britain was introduced to coffee in 1637. That is when an unnamed Ottoman Turk brought the drink to Oxford’s colleges. It quickly became popular among students and teachers who established the “Oxford Coffee Club”. It wasn’t too long til it made it to London and the coffee shop.
Tea followed coffee and found its way into England’s coffee shops as a novelty. And because the East India Company was importing it, it became all the rage.
Why not a tea table?
Tea was served in the Queen’s Palace, she was after all, the Empress of India. It was served in high society where tall tables were rolled into a room and set next to a chair. But the ceremony began with the British working man. Beginning in the mid 1700s as an afternoon meal served between 3 and 4 o’clock, taken standing or sitting on tall stools, thus ‘high‘.
Meanwhile in England’s coffee shops, the ones where William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, for the price of a penny, gathered to talk, stools became chairs. So too, in the posh Gentlemens’ clubs of London, they sat on Chesterfield sofas, and that is where I’d put my money on the naming of the table as the “coffee table.”
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We’ve covered a lot, which only leaves the question of what did they call the coffee table before it became the coffee table?
It seems that after dinner when men and women had dined, it was time for the men to talk business, to drink port or brandy, and smoke. Women politely withdrew, and they did to the parlor or living room for coffee and cake.
And coffee was served on a table called the “Withdraw table.” I think.