If you love books and vintage style, antique library tables can offer a practical and stylish option for your home. Once a staple in public and private libraries and living rooms, these tables can double as desks, consoles, or work surfaces in many rooms. Learning how to identify and evaluate these tables can help you make sure you get a great deal on this piece of history.
What Makes a Library Table Unique?
Library tables were made for writing and studying, so they tend to be standard desk height - generally between 28 and 30 inches tall. Most have a rectangular or oval shape and substantial feel. They are usually made of wood, often oak or mahogany, and sometimes feature a leather writing top. Some included veneer.
However, a traditional library table is a little different than another kind of desk or antique table, and knowing these features can help you identify one when you see it.
Shorter Knee Height
Although they have a similar height to other tables, the "knee height," or space for your knees under the table, may be shorter than other options. They usually have a wide apron and sometimes integrated drawers below the table surface. This gives them a substantial feel and offers room for gorgeous carvings and decorations, but it can make crossing your legs under the table a challenge.
While most desks are designed with a working side and side that goes against the wall or faces out into the room, a library table is made with two working sides. In a library, people would sit on either side of the table to study or write. They often have a cross bar or narrow shelf extending the length of table below the surface. This served to divide the space so two people could use it.
Identifying and Dating of Your Table
According to Kovels.com, there were many manufacturers of standard library tables, including the Wolverine Manufacturing Co., which claimed to be the largest until it went out of business in 1919. Others include the Engle Furniture Company, Mersman Brothers, and more. There were so many manufacturers that 31 of them actually got together to form an organization in 1920, at the height of the library table's popularity.
Look for a Label or Mark
Not every piece of antique furniture is marked, but it's a good idea to examine your library table for manufacturer's marks. You'll find that many furniture companies pasted labels or added a mark on their furniture, usually in an unobtrusive spot. Look at the underside of the table's surface, the backs and bottoms of drawers, or the inside surface of the table's apron. If you don't find a mark, it may make more sense to focus on date instead of manufacturer.
Determine the Table's Era From Its Style
Desks similar to library tables have been around for centuries, but these designs became very popular as furniture manufacturing processes were streamlined during the industrial revolution. Often, you can date your table using clues from its style:
- Victorian - Victorian era furniture, which hails from about 1850 to 1900, tends to have ornate details, such as carvings and elaborate hardware - although there were some exceptions to this rule. Library tables from this time may feature carved legs, scrolling designs on the table apron, and ornate drawer pulls.
- Arts and Crafts - From about 1900 to 1920, at the end of the Victorian period, many manufacturers began creating designs that featured strong, straight lines, solid joinery, and simple details. Known as Craftsman or Mission-style furniture, the substantial feel of these pieces is a classic element of library tables.
- Art Deco - During the 1920s and 1930s, the Art Deco era took over furniture design. These tables have a modern feel with simple, almost futuristic lines and repeating geometric details. Furniture hardware will feature geometric elements and be very simple.
Values of Antique Library Tables
Kovels.com reports that tables by standard manufacturers tend to sell for about $300 to $500, based on their value as a useful item in today's home. A few unique examples may sell for more. The best way to assign value to your table is to have it appraised, but you can also look at established values and sale prices to get an idea of what it's worth:
- Elaborate carvings or designs can add value. A very ornately carved library table with an unusual marble top sold on eBay for $2,000.
- Condition can affect value, but it may not be the biggest factor. Beautiful wood, such as this rosewood example assessed by Miller's Antiques and Collectibles in 2005 for 450 to 550 pounds, can trump chips and discoloration.
- Size is also a factor. Smaller models, such as this 40-inch-long oak library table that sold in a live eBay auction for $50, sometimes fetch less than larger examples.
Enduring Value and Functionality
Part of what gives library tables enduring value is their functionality. They look just as nice in today's living room or office as they did in the homes of more than a century ago.