Hunt Boards: Colonial Myth and Colonial Revival Reality
At the beginning of Summer Institute, the first-year fellows were asked to choose from among thirty-odd objects in Winterthur’s collection for further study and description. Since my first visit to Winterthur a year ago, I have been fascinated by a simple piece of furniture which, luckily, was on this list. A Winterthur guide told me it was called a hunt board, but she did not know anything more about it. If I was interested, though, she would be happy to tell me all about the porcelain, silver, and glass objects on top of it!
Image: Wooden “Hunt Board” stands on square, tapering legs inside the Winterthur house. An arrangement of silver knives and knife boxes, glass cups and dishes, and a porcelain punch bowl rest on top. Object No. 1963.0687, “Hunt Board,” Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, Winterthur Museum.
Why could she tell me about the smaller objects but not about the hunt board? I have to admit, I thought about that hunt board often throughout the application process to Winterthur, and I was excited for the opportunity to work on it so early in my time with the program. It struck me as elegant, with its curved skirt and square tapered legs, but peculiar in its lack of any inlay, paint, or other evidence of decoration. I also thought it was the perfect height at 42 inches tall, lending it a graceful air. According to the catalog entry, it is thought to be from Virginia, made between 1775 and 1800. My curiosity piqued, I set out to find more information about this tall piece of furniture and the origin of its name.
As it turns out, the term “hunt board” originated in the early 20th century. It appears in the few documents and correspondence discussing Southern furniture from the 1920s onward, but nowhere before then. From my research I have found that these tall tables were likely called servers, sideboard tables, or slab tables in the Colonial period, but never hunt boards. So, my next question: why are they called hunt boards now?
One possible answer to this question is American collectors’ and dealers’ desire to redefine Colonial furniture and decorative objects within an alluring context. An article which appears in Magazine Antiques in 1932 relies entirely on the words of a man named Mr. Thomas from Athens, Georgia: “When the men were on a hunt the womenfolk of some one household would prepare refreshments and place them on the board, so that, at whatever hour the hunt ended, the tired horsemen found refreshment awaiting them.” Fox hunting appears to have been a popular Colonial pastime in the Piedmont regions of the South, particularly in Georgia, but the connection Mr. Thomas draws between hunt boards and the gentlemanly act of hunting in this period is tenuous at best. It seems to me that these tall serving tables which we now call hunt boards were likely used in rare instances where a sideboard or shorter server was either not available or not desired.
Image: Southern Sheraton Hunt Board, Brunk Auctions, September 16, 2017. Image courtesy of Brunkauctions.com.
Discovering where this particular hunt board originated has been challenging to say the least. It shares elements with many similar examples spanning the Piedmont region from Virginia all the way to Georgia, from its wooden pinned construction, to its simply carved front skirt, to its lovely height. One could also make a case that it is not from 1775-1800, but rather was made after the turn of the 19th century. While it inspires many stories, such as Mr. Thomas’s in 1932, it is difficult to distinguish the romanticized tales imposed upon the hunt board from the realities of its true use in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These questions may never be fully answered, but they are still worth asking: is this object from one particular part of the South? Should we continue to call it a hunt board even if the name is intended to inspire nostalgia in the modern collector?
What do you think?
Image: Black and white image of the Winterthur “Hunt Board” without any collection pieces on top. This photograph was taken shortly after this “hunt board” came into the collection. Object No. 1963.0687, Hunt Board, Winterthur Museum. Image courtesy of the Winterthur Museum.
 Mary Ralls Dockstader, “Huntboards from Georgia,” Magazine Antiques, September 1932, 107.
By Katie Fitzgerald, WPAMC Class of 2019