The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study

Moira Vincentelli

  The Dresser in Wales


The particular significance of the dresser in Welsh culture is consolidated at the end of the nineteenth century, precisely the time when Welsh culture was loosing its distinctive characteristics, children were punished for speaking Welsh in schools and it was widely believed that the language would disappear quite quickly. Wales could be said to be a colonised country and, with the spread of education, was imbibing negative views of its own culture and values in relation to the dominant culture.8 But as James Clifford has argued these processes are both destructive and creative:

much has simultaneously been invented and revived in complex, oppositional contexts. If the victims of progress and empire are weak, they are seldom passive.9

It is the response to these processes of change that I want to examine focusing around the actuality and the concept of the Welsh dresser.

Although some social historians have recognised the social relationships enshrined in the objects displayed on the dresser it is usually written about and recorded as an item of fine furniture.10 Furniture historians are most interested in early examples, from the eighteenth century, for example, a time when the dresser was a piece of furniture of the gentry. In the nineteenth century it became the prerogative of farmers and artisans in Wales. Originally dressers were made from local materials, in particular oak, but less expensive ones were made of pine which was increasingly used by the end of the century. By this time the design had been adapted and the open shelving of the upper part was divided up with glass-fronted side cupboards, more appropriate for the display of delicate china. The categorisation of artefacts in design history and furniture history has meant that dressers are invariably discussed, and even photographed independently of the display, a major factor in their visual impact.

Furniture production is normally assumed to be a male activity, although there are exceptions. Ceramic display, as far as I have found, is largely the province of women. The apparently ephemeral nature of display makes it difficult to record and categorise which, of course, is the way that creative practices gain recognition. Hence the female practice is overlooked in favour of the male practice.11 The furniture making has more recognition than the ceramic display. The ceramic display is largely formed of material manufactured outside Wales although some of it produced for a Welsh market. But in general, taken individually, these items are neither rare nor finely crafted and consequently not very highly valued as antiques. The whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of the parts.

There is a vocabulary of display based on symmetrical arrangements sometimes around a centrepiece such as a clock on the broadest surface with plates standing up on the narrow shelves, the biggest platters on the top. Jugs hang on hooks along the front of the shelves. The contrast of blue and white china and lustre jugs is the most typical combination. There are distinct regional variations on this pattern and within that individuals make modifications for their own needs and purposes whether these are of a social or a sentimental nature or for aesthetic ends.

I have argued that Welsh dressers took on a particular meaning round the turn of the century when they became strongly associated with a Welsh identity in response to the threat to Welsh culture and language. This was a period when Welsh people were becoming both more anglicised and more middle class. Dressers are by no means exclusive to Wales but popular parlance often uses the term 'Welsh' dresser even if there is no necessary connection with Wales.12 Welsh identity became more symbolic and dressers became part of the new mythology.

During the 1990s I conducted a number of interviews with women and some men about their Welsh dresser but in this paper I want to examine one case study based on an interview with a woman from Fishguard in southwest Wales.13 I hope to tease out from this particular case issues of gender and Welsh identity and elaborate on some of the points that I have suggested in my more general preamble.

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8. For a full discussion of this concept see Jane Aaron, 'Finding a Voice in Two Tongues: Gender and Colonization', in J.Aaron, S.Betts, T.Rees, M.Vincentelli, Our Sister's Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1994, 183-198. Carol Trosset also argues that the Welsh have an egalitarian notion of society in which they mistrust people who want to 'move above their station' and 'powerlessness and resignation feature prominently in many collective self-characterizations'. C. Trosset, Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society, London and Tuscon, University of Arizona Press, 1993, 124. back to article

9. J. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1988,16. back to article

10. See A. Davies, and E.Rees, (eds) Welsh Rural Communities, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1960,150. Glassie offers an evocative and detailed discussion of dressers and interiors in Ireland which has many useful observations that are also applicable in Wales. H.Glassie, Passing the Time in Balleymenone: Folklore and History of an Ulster Community, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. back to article

11. Judy Attfield suggests that a feminist critique of design history may question how design is defined, what counts as a designed object, who is called a designer and what values are given priority. All of these potentially affect how we consider the Welsh dresser. See J. Attfield, 'FORM/female FOLLOWS FUNCTION/male: Feminist Critiques of Design' in J. Walker, Design History and the History of Design, London, Pluto, 1989, 199-225. back to article

12. I have found this to be the case but see also L.Twiston -Davies, Welsh Furniture, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1950, 28. back to article

13. I would like to thank my interviewee who has so generously given of her time to talk to me and allowed me to photograph her home and to other members of the family. All the quotations are taken from a transcription of an interview made in 1994. back to article

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Women and Welsh identity

The Dresser in Wales

Dresser and Seld

The Wedding presents

Objects and Stories

Tradition and Innovation in Display



Appendix 1


The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study • Issue 1