When I was young, I wanted a whatnot. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, and was taken by her obvious delight in this “stylish and handsome” piece of furniture. Laura’s family placed their most precious possessions on it, and each time they moved, it became a centerpiece of their new home. I couldn’t have told you what it looked like, though, as Laura’s description of it was too complicated for 8-year-old me. This week I decided to find out once and for all what a whatnot is.
It turns out to be a tiered shelf that fits into a corner, meant to display decorative objects. The word whatnot was first used to indicate “various things besides,” as in “The junk drawer contained batteries, screwdrivers, glue, and whatnot,” then came to be applied to shelves that might hold such things. In the 19th century, whatnots were “all the rage in Iowa,” as Ma tells Pa, but nowadays we tend to use the French word étagère, which refers more broadly to decorative shelving.
I never got a whatnot growing up, but my family did have something my mother called the “commode,” which I understood vaguely as a fancy cabinet that I wasn’t supposed to touch. I thought I might as well finish clearing up my youthful furniture confusion by investigating this word too.
A commode is a low dresser or cabinet that is often curved and highly ornate, a style that originated in France in the 18th century. The word is French and means “suitable, convenient.” It was first used for the wire frame that supported women’s massive, towering, beribboned hairstyles in the late 17th century. (Some wits of the time speculated that the use was satirical, as such hair was the very opposite of convenient.) Victorians decided that these beautiful pieces – the cabinets, not the hair – were ideal hiding places for chamber pots, and would furnish their bedrooms with night commodes. In the 20th century, the word became more associated with the pot than the cabinet and began to refer to a combination chair-chamber pot used by an infirm person. Eventually it became slang for “toilet.” Perhaps that’s why my mother referred to ours as a “credenza.”
Credenzas are long, ornate dining-room sideboards used to store dishes and serve food. Modern versions have short legs and sliding doors, and are sometimes found in offices. Credenza means “belief” or “trust” in Italian – a rather portentous title for a piece of furniture. It apparently got its name because Italian aristocrats would lay out their food on such boards before they ate, so it could be tasted and checked for poison. When it appeared in England in the 16th century, it was first called a “credence,” so an “antique credence” is a beautiful old sideboard, not an argument that the sun revolves around the Earth.
If you’re young and confused about a whatnot, that’s OK. Just don’t make any mistakes about the commode.