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Antique Bookcases

There is nothing quite like relaxing with a good read and an antique bookcase will only complement this age old past time. American literary critic Anatole Broyard once said: “the contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait.” What better way to showcase your book collection than in a beautiful antique bookcase; a unique storage solution for your literary favourites.


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History of the Bookcase

Writing in the traditional sense began with the Egyptians, in the form of scrolls and tablets; there is archaeological evidence of an ordering system during this period of time. The story of books however begins 4th Century BC when increasing numbers of these scrolls and papyrus papers were stored on shelves, by the 1st Century the Romans had created square shaped ‘codex’; these books were stitched together and were the first forms of books.

The bookcase first appeared in private libraries in ancient Rome, where scrolls were displayed in bookcases or ‘armaria’ made from citrus wood and lined with ivory; these bookcases ran from the floor to the ceiling. Prior to bookcases when books were not mass produced and written by hand, they were usually kept in boxes or chests. Predominately the wealthy and upper classes were the owners of books, before the advent of the printing press when demand and mass production came hand in hand. 

The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century was as crucial as the development of literacy in society when it came to books, previous to this, information sharing relied on verbal interactions. Originally the purpose of writing was to state religious beliefs and laws and books were predominately only used for religious purposes, it was the job of the monks to bind them. These earlier books were often adorned with jewels and decorated by goldsmiths. They were heavy and required storage space that could withstand their weight.

As literacy spread so did the want for books across society and therefore the domestic requirement for bookcases. Originally there were only a few types of bookcases; the aforementioned floor to celling shelving which was very much associated with the wealthy, the revolving bookcase, which has been depicted in Chinese script dating between the 8th and 9th Centuries, and freestanding bookcases. These freestanding pieces of furniture increased in popularity after the 1700’s.

The bookcase evolved over time and smaller bookcases were designed with the idea they were kept in a sitting room, with just enough storage for your most treasured books. In the 18th Century the secretaire and the bookcase desks were developed and during the 19th Century, bookcases rapidly became available.


Antique Bookcases Designs and Artists

The French designer Charles Andre Boulle (1642-1732) is said to have designed the low bookcase, with marble tops, doors and silk curtains. But it is still unknown as to who designed the taller designed bookcase, however, a carpenter employed by Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is thought to have been one of the first makers of this design.

Designers of note include the most coveted cabinetmakers of their day Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton. Sheraton bookcase designs often featured open fronts with adjustable shelves; his satinwood bookcases were considered divine and some believe they are yet to be equalled. Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) designed sophisticated and stylish bookcases, his designs had elements of neoclassicism, as well as French Rococo and gothic inspiration; many of Chippendale designs became popular again in the mid and late 1800s.

Other Antique bookcase makers of note include Gillows, John Cobb, Samuel Bennett, William Ince, George Hepplewhite, John Mayhew and George Seddon. Gillows made furniture from 1731 onwards and the company continued until the early 1900s, a solid oak Gillows bookcase is a perfect stand-alone piece. John Cobb and William Vile produced some classic English furniture, including very impressive George III Mahogany Breakfront Library Bookcases.

In the early 18th Century Samuel Bennett made some impressive cabinets, including bookcases, as did William Kent (1686-1748), whose furniture was heavy in appearance, and George Seddon. During the later part of the 18th Century William Ince and John Mayhew produced bookcases in the Chippendale design style, these are a desirable item of antique furniture.

Styles of Antique Bookcases

There are many styles of antique bookcases, some have doors with glass panels, and may also be fixed to walls. Antique bookcases have at least two shelves and are made of hardwoods such as oak, walnut, mahogany and rosewood.  They are generally very heavy and durable. Woods of lesser value were also used, such as maple, spruce, pine and elm, although because these woods are less rigid they are not considered as such of a good investment piece as hardwoods.

Georgian Antique Bookcases

Made between 1714 and 1837 the Georgian secretarire bookcase typically had glazed as well as interior doors, and secretaire drawers. During this period the breakfront bookcase was popular, traditionally used to store books, china and trophies, and usually featuring four opening doors. Queen Anne bookcases were also very popular in the early 18th C with their graceful and elegant curves; their designs were simple and often featured cabriole legs. Later in the 18th C bookcase designs became more elaborate.

Victorian Antique Bookcases

The addition of glass fronts and short legs was typical of Victorian antique bookcases.  They were often used to display china during this period. Victorian bookcases were heavy and grand, often with a dark finish and ornate carvings. A noteworthy antique is the Victorian library bookcase, usually made from mahogany with three adjustable shelves.

Edwardian Antique Bookcases

Later Edwardian bookcases were mainly made from walnut and there are some lovely examples on the market. A nice piece from this period is the Edwardian revolving bookcase, often made from mahogany. The best quality revolving bookcases were made with cast iron bases so they would not tip.


Over the 20th C materials used to make antique bookcases developed to include laminate, metal as well as the corner bookcase-simpler arts and crafts design became more prevalent over time. Distinct details can often be found on antique bookcases to identify the cabinet-makers; notable antique bookcase manufacturers include Gillons, Thomas Sheraton, George Hepplewhite and George Seddon. They differ in appearance to the more modern open-fronted bookcases and are the perfect addition to a room.  With so many varieties it is easy to choose a design that suites your preference - whether it be a heavy statement piece or a delicate vintage bookcase.

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