Antiques Guide - WHATNOT

Item #579

Whatnots are one of my favorite pieces of furniture. Incredibly useful, whatnots provide a beautiful alternative for storage or display. Need a spot to show off your treasured collection or display your son’s latest Lego creation? Then a whatnot is a must have. Our home has three – a tall four shelf version, a wide three shelf version and a short two tier version that serves as a side table.

Fundamentally, whatnots are stands with open shelves. The term ‘whatnot’ has been around since the mid 16th century and was originally used to describe small objects. In the late 18th century cabinet makers constructed pieces of furniture to hold and display these small items or ‘whatnots’. The term quickly came to refer to the actual piece of furniture. However, this explanation of the original use of the whatnot is disputed by Tim Forrest (author of Know Your Antiques). He states the whatnot was “originally used to hold either music or books and only in Victorian times came to be used as a stand for ornaments.” (p. 146, Forrest).

The bulk of whatnots were constructed out of solid mahogany, although builders also employed rosewood and walnut. Most have three or four shelves, however you can find smaller two level versions or taller with five. The shelves are generally rectangular but can be square. They may have drawers under the bottom shelf, but on three shelf whatnots, the drawer is in the middle.

A majority of whatnots have casters for maneuverability. Earlier renditions sported vase-shaped turned spindles or supports, but during the Regency period (1800-1830) the straight barrel turned columns appeared. Around 1855, corner whatnots cropped up with rounded or shaped front edges. In Victorian times the turnings became more elaborate and pierced fretwork carving on the shelves entered the picture.

Related furniture

The French cousin of the whatnot is the etagere. The etagere also came into existence in the late 18th century. Still a basic open shelved stand, but with a little more French flair. Etageres were more likely to have graduated shelves, carved edges, and elaborate spindles or legs. Some boasted marble shelves, gilding or even mirrored backs. In addition, the etagere was typically wider and larger than the whatnot.

Another piece of furniture with open shelves or tiers is the dumb waiter. These have round shelves supported by a central column ending in three cabriole legs. Dumb waiters were used for serving food when the servants were dismissed. The dumb waiter is a wee bit older than the whatnot, beginning life in the mid 18th century as opposed to late 18th century.

Field Guide to Antique Furniture, Peter Philp & Gillian Walking
Know Your Antiques, Tim Forrest
Miller’s Antiques Checklist: Furniture, Richard Davidson
Miller’s Collecting Furniture, Christopher Payne