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What is Highboy Furniture? - Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What did colonial America look like? One way to answer this is by looking at its furniture. In this lesson, we'll explore one of the popular furniture items in colonial America, and learn how to identify it by style.

Highboy

When the designers of the La-Z-Boy recliner named their chair, they were being helpfully descriptive. This was a chair to be lazy in. Every now and then, furniture is exactly what it claims to be.

In colonial America, this same could be said of the highboy, called because it was really tall. In fact, this chest of drawers was so high you often had to use a step stool to access the top compartments.

The ''boy'' in the name is actually a derivation of boi, the French word for wood. So, it's a tall item made of wood. It was a distinct piece of colonial American furniture, with a very appropriate name.

General Appearance

So, what makes a highboy a highboy? This furniture item is a very tall chest of drawers, sometimes reaching over seven feet tall. However, there's more to this item than just its height. Highboys are actually two separate furniture items, made separately and combined together.

A highboy in the William and Mary style
highboy

The base of the highboy is an average chest of drawers, resting hip-to-chest high above the ground. That's the first piece. Then, a second, narrower chest of drawers is added on top of that. Because of this, the highboy is also knows as the chest-on-chest.

This makes it different from the similarly tall tallboy, a piece of furniture that contains a chest of drawers on the bottom, but a wardrobe on the top.

Style Over the Eras

The highboy was a piece of furniture that was found almost exclusively in colonial America, where British interior fashions mixed with a uniquely American sense of space and design. There are three colonial styles that we primarily associate with the highboy.

The William and Mary Style

The most common style to find a highboy in is the William and Mary, named after the late 17th century co-monarchs of England. William was from the Netherlands, brought to England to marry Mary, daughter of the English king who was forced off the throne. He brought with him Dutch furniture designs, which blended with the baroque furniture styles of England.

William and Mary furniture was popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It was elegant and graceful, and was the first English furniture style to really catch on in the American colonies. Several new furniture items were developed in the William and Mary style, and one of them was the highboy.

American William and Mary highboys tend to have 5-6 scroll or trumpet-shaped legs, a lower section with 1-3 drawers, and an upper section with a flat, overhanging top. The lower section genuinely had a skirt as well, which was a carved attachment set on the underside of the drawers in between the front legs of the highboy.

Overall, the William and Mary highboy was simple, elegant, and good for providing lots of storage space.

The Queen Anne Style

William and Mary died childless, and the throne went to Mary's sister Anne, who turned England and Scotland into Great Britain and ruled from 1702-1714. She introduced a new furniture style to the realm, known as the Queen Anne style, which brought some of the ornate and lavish French Rococo influences into England.

Queen Anne American highboy
queen anne highboy

American colonial highboys in this era (which overlapped with William and Mary furniture styles in the colonies) became more ornately designed. A curved bonnet top replaced the flat top, carved finials accented the upper corners, and curved cabriole legs defined this more lavish style.

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